White South Africans greet 'black threat' gun in hand

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The Independent Online
A MONTH AGO the Rev Clive Okill and his wife Mary did what many South Africans talk of doing, and took up their option as British passport-holders to begin a new life in England. They were driven by the perception commonplace among white South Africans that the political violence in the country - 700 deaths since 1 June - promised a future of even greater chaos.

Last week, Mr Okill returned to the church in Cape Town where he was ordained to bury his 17- year-old son Richard, one of the 11 people who died after black gunmen opened fire on a packed congregation last Sunday. A further 56 of the 1,000 mostly white worshippers were wounded. Police said yesterday that they had arrested a man in connection with the massacre.

Mr Okill felt 'a massive sense of loss', he told a local newspaper, but also a fervent desire that his son's death should not lead to even greater bloodshed. In striking against St James's Church, he said, the attackers wanted 'to terrorise people into thinking, as I did, that it was better to go off and live in England'. Now, he said, he was considering playing his part in healing the country's wounds.

'If my son's death could be a turning point, then I'll thank God for it. If I could make a plea it would be this - for someone to put down their firearms and walk away, and for others to follow.'

Few, if any, are heeding his call. A thousand miles north, in Transvaal, three white men opened fire with shotguns from a vehicle on Thursday on a group of black women at a taxi rank, killing one. And General Constand Viljoen, former chief of the South African Defence Force, reborn as spiritual leader of the far right, told a rally in Cape Town on Monday that the church killings had made it more urgent for whites to defend themselves, gun in hand.

After Richard Okill's funeral, a huddle of mourners outside St James's Church admitted that they had some sympathy with this point of view. After the gunmen had opened fire and hurled their two hand grenades, a man in the congregation pulled out a gun and fired back. 'They ran as soon as he shot,' said one woman. 'I've always believed it's wrong to carry a gun in church, but now I'm not sure. If he hadn't opened fire, many more might have died.'

Many residents of the normally tranquil suburb of Kenilworth are in a state of shock. Tranquillisers and counselling have been in heavy demand. 'Everyone here imagines they see an AK47 when a black man walks down the street,' said one middle-aged man.

The view among Cape Town's religious and political leaders is that this is precisely the reaction the killers sought. Archbishop Desmond Tutu told a peace rally in the city centre on Thursday that the aim had been to divide the city's multi-coloured communities, 'the rainbow people', to undermine progress towards democratic elections.

His entreaty for all to stand together against violence drew a standing ovation, Tutu having captured perfectly the self-image of Capetonians. Often accused of snootiness by other South Africans, they take pride in a city whose beauty and easy-going atmosphere is as far removed from Johannesburg as San Francisco is from Detroit.

In the whites-only referendum last year, when President F W de Klerk sought to test support for his reforms, 85 per cent of the Cape Town population voted yes - the highest national figure. If a similar poll were held today would the yes vote be lower? Probably.

Robin Carlisle, the Democratic Party MP for Kenilworth, said that there was a growing belief among whites that black liberation organisations were committed to some form of genocide. The conventional wisdom, he said, was that the church killers belonged to the far-left Azanian People's Liberation Army, which has denied responsibility for this incident, but it has accepted it after previous attacks on whites. In a country whose white population is largely unaware of the nuances of black politics, the tendency exists to tar all black political groups with the same brush.

That was why the ANC went out of its way last week to dramatise its outrage at the massacre. On Friday the Cape Times carried a full-page advertisement highlighting the message: 'Murderers can't kill our hopes for peace and democracy.'