Township where the war has no end: After dusk in Katlehong, only madmen, murderers and self-appointed vigilantes are out on the streets

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The Independent Online
KATLEHONG, where half a million people live, might have been a ghost town. It was 10pm and it was raining. The streets were empty and the township's little Monopoly houses, identical rows and rows of them, betrayed no sign of life. The entire population had sought refuge indoors, not from the rain, but from the night.

Katlehong is at war. Over the past nine months, when night has fallen the residents have locked themselves in their houses, put out the lights and prayed that they will live to see the dawn.

Here, and in neighbouring Thokoza and Vosloorus, 1,800 people have been killed since May last year. Thousands more have been forced to abandon their homes. Soweto, South Africa's biggest township, has been quiet for the past 12 months. So, for the most part, has Alexandra. Of the 10 black townships within Johannesburg's outer perimeter, it is only here, in the East Rand, that a state of war persists.

The African National Congress has declared the East Rand a national disaster area, and it is questionable whether elections will be possible here on 27 April.

Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk have held two meetings in the past two weeks to try to come up with a solution. Plans are afoot to send in the army, because all three warring parties here - the township Self-Defence Units (SDUs), Inkatha and the Internal Stability Unit (ISU) of the police - are perceived to have gone crazy.

'The East Rand is key because what happens there will decide whether South Africa is on the road to peace,' a senior ANC official said last week.

The roads of Katlehong were muddy, the potholes treacherous. At 10 at night the only people out driving were madmen and murderers. Not a soul stirred, but in one little house a light shone through curtained windows. Inside seven young men prepared to go out on patrol. They were members of the neighbourhood SDU, one of dozens operating in the East Rand.

The furniture and decor in the front room, where 'Judge' - the leader - held court, betrayed no hint that the house was a paramilitary base. There was a television set, stereo, three-piece suite, pin-up calendar, two Nelson Mandela stickers and a picture of the Last Supper. It was in a back room that they kept the AK-47s.

Judge, a Zulu of 29, was an ANC member who never finished school. He was unemployed and lived off the earnings of his mother, but he had a presence that commanded respect, and when he spoke no one interrupted.

The SDU had been set up last May in neighbouring 'Sarajevo Section'. They had been forced to retreat there ater a big Inkatha attack.

He had travelled to 'other countries' - he would not say which - and had bought guns with money provided by the community, he said. They received no help from the ANC, developing their own guerrilla tactics. They had mounted a counter-attack and they had been successful.

'We started with hit-and- run operations, but soon we destroyed their bases and drove them (into) the hostel. We used to defend rather than offend. But now they are becoming powerless.

'They are stupid. They fire shots in the air before they attack, so we are always ready when they come. In all the battles, we win. Now we have them pinned down, under siege, in the hostel. That has been our strategy. So things are better. For a month they don't attack.'

So why were they still bothering with their 24-hour patrols? 'The problem now is the ISU, who have a sort of alliance with Inkatha. When Inkatha attacked, the casspirs (armoured cars) came first, shooting. We learnt that when the casspirs came, we must go to our posts. Now that Inkatha does not have the capacity to attack us, it is the ISU that is the enemy.'

Were 'the enemy' all bad? 'No. Some of the hostel-dwellers are innocent victims. They are our brothers but they are confused. They live a terrible life in there. And then the ISU - I don't want to sound racist, but usually we don't shoot at the black police. They don't provoke us. We know by the casspir registration numbers which are good and which bad. The bad ones just shoot at people at random, and they are usually white.'

The perception had been building up in recent weeks, not least among some East Rand residents, that the SDUs had become just as bad as everybody else. White South Africans, goaded by voluble government spokesmen, have come to see them as the incarnation of their worst nightmare. Was it true, as even the ANC admitted, that some of the SDUs had been running amok?

Judge admitted that the SDU in neighbouring Sarajevo had gone haywire. Gangsters had infiltrated the SDU, and on 31 December they had killed their own commander. But the other SDUs had got together, confronted the gangsters, disarmed them and, he said, chased them away.

Had there been any problems in his own SDU? Judge took a long time to answer. 'There was an old man, our commander-in-chief in this section . . . Unfortunately, he passed away.' The old man, called Sam Mbongane, had been in his sixties. Members of the SDU, Judge said, had shot him dead on Christmas Eve.

Why? Judge looked pained. As he spoke he rocked back and forth in his chair, clutching his knees. The old man had been brave. They had fought side by side. But military justice had demanded he be executed.

'He stole a weapon, an AK- 47, from a youngster. He was harassing the people, pointing guns and threatening. He jeopardised the community. He became a social scum.

'When we heard he had stolen the weapon, we were not sure if it was true, so we went to Pretoria and consulted six witchdoctors. They all confirmed he had done this. We proved it. So the comrades ambushed him, shot him, then set alight his body and his house. They were right to do this.'

As if acknowledging that perhaps he was not entirely convinced by his own words, Judge said he was involved in a project developed only this month to teach a code of conduct to the East Rand SDUs. Order, he said, had been restored. But would it last? With so many guns around and so little formal discipline in evidence, even among the police, what would bring peace to Katlehong?

Judge had no trust in the army, even if Mr Mandela - 'the old chap lives in the suburbs and he doesn't know what is really happening' - apparently did.

He saw 'rotten elements', right-wing agendas, everywhere. 'The answer, in the end, lies with good black policemen. The first priority is community policing.

'The Katlehong police must police Katlehong. If we get security from the police for all of us, Inkatha too, then there will be no need for the SDUs. Then we will disband. Then everyone will vote in the election, and then maybe, after the elections, we can rest.'

(Photographs and Table omitted)