Dispute of taxi companies in S. African squatter camp kills 4 Witnesses say police failed to halt attack


IVORY PARK, South Africa -- Four people died and seven were wounded yesterday in this fast-growing squatter camp, apparent victims of South Africa's latest "taxi war."

Witnesses said the victims were shot by a gang of men who attacked in the hours before dawn and burned several shanties before fleeing under cover of darkness. Several witnesses reported seeing police vans shining their headlights as the attack was under way. They said police did not try to stop the attack but shot tear gas at a group of residents who tried to investigate the sound of gunshots.

Police insisted there were no official vehicles in the squatter camp during the hours of the attack.

The details sounded similar to other recent episodes of killing in this country, where life is cheap in black communities and disputes often are settled with guns and spears.

But this time the dispute was not political, according to local residents. Instead it appeared to be part of a Mafia-style battle over lucrative minibus routes -- a war between taxi companies over which would serve this sprawling new community.

"They are fighting for our money," said a woman who would give her name only as Audrey. "And now they are killing us for our money."

The incident followed another attack in Ivory Park on Monday, when three people were gunned down by a passing car as they stood waiting for taxis. That was the first shooting linked to the taxi dispute, which began early this year as an argument over whose jurisdiction the squatter camp fell under -- the Tembisa Taxi Association or the Alexandra Taxi Association.

Ivory Park, a tin-shack settlement of more than 50,000 residents, has been in existence for only two years. It started when the nearby black township of Tembisa could no longer accommodate its fast-growing population. It is a sprawling community northeast of Johannesburg with no lights, no running water and only outdoor toilets.

"People went to Ivory Park because of the housing shortage," said Patrick Twala, local leader of the African National Congress. "But there is no infrastructure there."

There is no bus service either, but that gap was filled by privately-owned "black taxis," minibuses that seat up to 20 people.

The Tembisa Taxi Association served the squatter camp until March, when a dispute with the Alexandra Taxi Association led them both to suspend service.

That meant residents had to walk miles into Tembisa to catch minibuses to work in the cities.

A series of meetings between squatter-camp leaders and taxi associations failed to end the dispute, but residents "got sick and tired of walking" and asked the Tembisa association to resume service, said Mr. Twala.

That was Aug. 6, he said. The shootings started four days later.

After the first shooting, groups of residents formed night patrols to keep watch in case of further trouble. Members of the patrol said they witnessed yesterday morning's attack.

"This morning at 3:10 we heard a big bang," said a patrol member who gave his name only as Samson. "All of a sudden people scattered all over the field," he said, describing the flight of residents from their shacks as the shooting started.

He said he saw one police vehicle as he hid behind a shack, and "tear gas canisters were fired at the local patrols."

He could not see the attackers clearly, he said, but he was certain they were a group of 40 to 50 men who swept into the squatter camp, firing gunshots and setting about five shacks on fire.

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