JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Millions of black South Africans stayed home from work yesterday in a massive nationwide protest described by black activists as an "unmistakable" demand for democracy and peace here.
Authorities reported 12 people killed across the country, a typical daily death toll for South Africa's violent black townships. Two journalists, including a Washington Post reporter, were shot and wounded near the township of Sebokeng.
The strike was being monitored by a team of United Nations observers, who fanned out across the country, visiting more than a dozen black communities. The U.N. team was invited to monitor the strike because of widespread fears that violence might erupt between supporters and opponents of the strike or between strikers and police.
The widespread violence that some had anticipated did not materialize as an estimated 4 million workers stayed home. Many business centers around the country looked like ghost towns, and the streets of black townships were virtually deserted. The South African Rail Commuter Corp. said that not a single passenger boarded trains in one province, the Orange Free State.
"The disenfranchised have unmistakably voted with their feet for democracy and peace now," said Cyril Ramaphosa, a top leader of the African National Congress, which called the two-day strike to pressure the government of President F. W. de Klerk into full power-sharing with the country's majority-black population.
"The vast majority of South Africans today pronounced their unmistakable 'no' to the attempts by de Klerk and his colleagues to delay the birth of a democratic South Africa," he said.
Negotiations on a new democratic government, in which blacks finally would get a vote in the nation's affairs, broke down over the government's insistence on special protections for the white minority in a new constitution.
The problems were further aggravated by the massacre of more than 40 people in the ANC stronghold of Boipatong, where many residents believe police were involved in the attack on their homes. The ANC has demanded that the government meet a list of demands before negotiations can resume, including reforms in the nation's scandal-plagued police department.
"The general strike that began today gives voice to the deep-seated anger of millions about the de Klerk government's refusal to negotiate in good faith and take the necessary action to end the violence that has already cost so many thousands of lives," said Mr. Ramaphosa.
More than 6,000 people died in the past two years in township violence. The ANC blames the government for failing to protect black citizens, while the government attributes the deaths to friction between black political rivals. Officials frequently blame the ANC and its supporters for trouble in the townships. It is a pattern that has continued since the days when the ANC was a banned organization and the government regularly labeled its supporters as terrorists because they opposed the policies of apartheid.
Government and police officials charged yesterday that many black workers had been intimidated by hooligans in the ranks of the anti-apartheid movement.
"People do not stay away from work because they want to," said Col. Shaka Tshabalala, police commander in the tense township of Daveyton, east of here. "But if you go to work today, tomorrow your house will be burned down."
Mr. de Klerk's National Party issued a statement on the first day of the strike, saying the ANC paid "cynical lip service" to the idea of peaceful protest while its supporters "wreak havoc on the streets and innocent people are brutally murdered and shamelessly intimidated."
Law and Order Minister Hernus Kriel said there had been countless reports of intimidation, stone-throwing and barricading of entrances to the townships.
The ANC disputed this claim, saying the strike was conducted in a "disciplined and peaceful manner." In general, that seemed to be an accurate assessment.
But independent political analysts said it was difficult to say how many workers stayed home because they supported the positions of the ANC and its allies, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Black political groups that did not support the action, including the ANC's chief rival, the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, charged that their members had been threatened with physical harm if they went to work.
There were few incidents of violence in which people were actually harmed, but two reporters, including Paul Taylor of the Washington Post, were injured.
Mr. Taylor, 43, was traveling with a prominent South African journalist, Phillip van Niekerk, and a black newspaper intern when their car was forced off the road by four black men in the township of Evaton, near Sebokeng. It is one of the country's most volatile and violence-torn areas.
Mr. Taylor was shot in the shoulder and Mr. van Niekerk was shot in the face by the assailants, who hijacked their car. Both the injured men were in stable condition at hospitals in Johannesburg.
The ANC said it condemned "all instances of violence" and would take disciplinary steps against any ANC members found to have been involved in violence.
The organization said the next move was up to the government, now that millions of blacks had demonstrated their "ardent desire for democracy." Mr. de Klerk is expected to present new proposals in the near future in an attempt to get negotiations back on track, but not before the ANC's week of protest is over.