Violent Soweto aims for the goal of peace: John Carlin in Mzimhlophe finds Sowetans ready to trade the bullet for the football boot as a still fragile peace takes the place of political violence

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A FOOTBALL match on Christmas Eve between Inkatha hostel- dwellers and youths from neighbouring Mzimhlophe, a township re-enactment of the encounter between German and British soldiers in the First World War, turned sour when a red car pulled up and a gunman let off a burst of automatic fire at the players.

No one was hurt but all fixtures have been suspended until further notice.

That the two factions in the two-year Mzimhlophe community war should have decided the time had come to trade bullets for boots was in itself a minor miracle - but a miracle that has been the pattern in Soweto in recent months. Political violence is on the decline here, even if in other parts of the country the killings continue. Sowetans remain wary but no longer do they go to bed at night fearing they will never again see the sun rise.

Weston Shabangu, who described himself as 'the number one man on the Inkatha hit-list', warned at the start of an interview yesterday that there was not much of a story in Soweto these days. 'To be honest, there's nothing to write home about.'

What Mr Shabangu did not realise was that it was the killing routine - reports of yet another incident of blacks killing blacks - that no longer made the headlines. Peace, however fragile, qualifies more as news.

Mr Shabangu, a Zulu with a reputation as a hard man, is a loyalist of the African National Congress (ANC) appointed in 1990 to the Soweto Civic Association's 'defence' portfolio. Which means that he meets constantly with police and army generals, under the terms of the National Peace Accord, and when necessary dispatches his 'boys' to take action against Inkatha 'troublemakers'.

'All this 'black-on-black violence' business is nonsense. So's the tribal stuff - 'Zulus against Xhosas'. Ridiculous] The problem here is a simple one: it's the state against the people. What's happening now - the reason why things are peaceful for the moment - is that the police and army agents know that when they hit us they're doing so at their own risk. They no longer have the full protection of the state.'

He cited the case of Themba Khoza, a senior Inkatha leader in the Transvaal alleged to be on the Military Intelligence payroll, who was acquitted by a magistrate after being found in possession of AK-47 rifles near the scene of a massacre of ANC supporters.

'Now neither the courts nor the ordinary police nor anyone in the state is as comfortable protecting the killers as before.'

The reasons for the change were obvious, he said. President F W de Klerk's decision in December to sack senior military officers engaged in dirty tricks; the exposures of Justice Richard Goldstone's official commission of inquiry into violence; the international pressure, expressed through the presence of United Nations, Commonwealth and European Community observers; the continuing media revelations . . . 'All this means that now, if they get caught, they have a problem.'

Angelina Dhlomo, secretary of the Inkatha branch at Mzimhlophe hostel, is less keen on the 'third force' analysis - not least as the prevailing wisdom in the townships is that it is Inkatha factions who have been doing the security forces' dirty work. But she does agree that there have been some 'puzzling' incidents. She also agrees that such incidents have diminished and that the violence, of late, has been confined to criminal activity - bag-snatching, assaults and the like.

'Look, for the whole of last year, from March, our children here were not going to school. It's been too dangerous. This year some have started to go.'

She is not taking any chances, however. An elegant woman, fashionably turned out, she lives in a small 'leadership' compound surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence within the greater hostel complex, which is also fenced.

'The main thing that has happened is that the people have got together at grassroots level and we've organised a self-monitoring scheme. People in 'squad cars' from both the hostel and the residents' association keep watch outside the hostel around the clock. This way our people are not attacked on their way in and out.'

Mr Shabangu agreed that this also had proved effective as a method of deterrence, but he saw it more as a method to prevent the hostel-dwellers from launching attacks on the community. Either way, the fact is that, as Mrs Dhlomo noted, people from the civic association - ANC members included - are now coming into the hostel itself for meetings.

'Violence, I think, is so unnecessary. Look, there are people in Inkatha who respond aggressively to situations, who want to go out and fight. Just as there are such people in the ANC. So you never know when another spark will start off another round of killings.'

The incident of the mystery gunman in the red car offered a case in point. 'If someone had been killed the sound of guns would have been back again here, every night. It's too dreadful to think about.'

A group of armed youths forced their way into a hospital in Soweto in an attempt to free a patient held under armed police guard, only to find him too ill to be freed, AFP reports.

The hospital patient was recovering from wounds sustained while being arrested for illegal posession of a firearm. Police guards arrested two of the youths, but the rest escaped.