IN a neighbourhood called Russia in a shanty town known as Bambayi, the talk yesterday was of a civil war erupting in the South African province of Natal.
'The breakout of civil war is the thing I worry most about,' said Bongani Mdala, a 39-year-old activist of the African National Congress. 'It could be a civil war because of the differences between the two parties.' The two parties he referred to were Nelson Mandela's ANC, which is widely expected to win South Africa's first all-race general elections on 26-28 April, and the Inkatha Freedom Party of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who has decided to boycott the polls.
It was relatively calm in Natal - four people were reported killed - on the first day of the state of emergency declared on Thursday by President F W de Klerk to stem the violence in which up to 15,000 people have been killed in the past four years, including 270 last month alone.
The emergency has given the security forces wide-ranging powers, including detention without trial for up to 30 days. It banned paramilitary training, such as the 'self- defence' units being formed by Chief Buthelezi's KwaZulu 'homeland' government and organised by a former intelligence officer, Philip Powell, as well the carrying of weapons such as spears and rifles.
Under the measures, organisers of any march should obtain written magisterial permission for the procession, stipulating the exact route, time and venue. Organisers of public gatherings must also obtain magisterial permission.
But in the townships around Durban there was little sign yesterday of the South African Defence Force (SADF), which under the new emergency effectively controls Natal and the KwaZulu 'homeland' Chief Buthelezi runs as Chief Minister. Most of the troops were expected to be deployed next week, although at least 500 paratroops began entering the province yesterday.
In the provincial capital, Durban, white men in shorts with surfboards tucked under their arms headed for the beach. But in shanty towns such as Bambayi, 20 miles north of Durban, where Mahatma Gandhi set up a peaceful rural commune before the First World War, young black men armed with spears and machetes walked in small groups to patrol the maze of houses, shacks and dirt tracks.
At Russia, women were washing clothes in a pool of water, a remarkable sight, regular visitors said, in an area where at least 200 people have been killed in the past year. But in Bambayi, appearances can deceive.
'We are prepared to fight,' said Mbongeni Mtchale, a 29-year-old warrior on patrol. 'There is no other way to defend ourselves but to fight back.'
The ANC warriors, distinctive by the red ribbons they put on their spears in contrast to the Inkatha warriors' green, said they were hoping the SADF would arrive soon. Mr Mtchale said he wanted to return home to help look after his two children. But until the SADF does arrive, Mr Mtchale and his young comrades will continue their patrols against what they see as an unholy anti-ANC alliance comprising the South African police's paramilitary Internal Stability Unit (ISU), Inkatha, and the police controlled by Chief Buthelezi's 'homeland' government.
Mr Mdala and other residents of Russia said three ISU members, coming from Inkatha-controlled neighbourhoods, had shot two young men on Wednesday night and had wounded an old woman. Some residents feared that the shootings would provoke another round of violence. Few residents seemed to know that a state of emergency had been declared, but most welcomed the news that the SADF, which has maintained limited patrols in Bambayi, would be arriving in force.
Shortly after Mr de Klerk announced the state of emergency on Thursday, Chief Buthelezi said he regarded the SADF deployment as an invasion. His party's deputy chairman in the Transvaal, Humphrey Ndlovu, said the move heralded full-scale civil war.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies