KATLEHONG, South Africa -- "They say there is violence here," said Jeff Sibiya. "This isn't violence. This is war."
The soft-spoken 27-year-old member of the Inkatha Freedom Party was talking as he escorted a truck filled with 1,500 packages of food and supplies, a relief shipment for one of the hostels in this troubled black township near Johannesburg.
Newspapers here dutifully report the daily deaths in the townships of the East Rand as if they were the scores of rugby matches. Big cities in the United States are horrified when the murder rate tops one a day, but these townships of a few hundred thousand regularly see four or five deaths on a weekday, with 20 or more not uncommon over a weekend. The police roam the streets every morning, picking up the bodies.
Even as negotiators put the finishing touches on an interim constitution for a post-apartheid South Africa, violence continues unabated, often flaring up apparently in response to developments at the talks. Most think it will only increase before the country's first nonracial election, set for April 27. What will happen after that is anybody's guess.
Little left to destroy
Not that there's much left to destroy. Basically, Katlehong resembles an American inner-city neighborhood that has been totally taken over by gangs.
But it's as if the gangs were named the Republicans and Democrats and come complete with resonance on the national political stage. The gangs in Katlehong and neighboring Tokoza claim allegiance either to the African National Congress (ANC) or the Inkatha Freedom Party.
As with gangs everywhere, members display the appropriate colors, sometimes in the form of a membership card that must be produced on demand. Get caught on the turf of the rival gang and you can easily wind up a statistic in tomorrow's newspaper.
As an Inkatha representative on the local Peace Committee, Mr. Sibiya avoids the finger-pointing as much as possible as he tries to help defuse the crises that arise.
Inkatha is a Zulu-based organization whose leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, is boycotting the constitutional negotiations, joining right-wing whites in holding out for more local autonomy. Mr. Buthelezi has said that an election in April would lead to civil war.
The ANC, led by Nelson Mandela, is fully behind the talks and the elections, confident of victory at the polls, certainly nationwide, and probably in all of the country's regions.
But the fight between these organizations is not just over the constitution and elections. It goes back close to a decade to when Inkatha began resorting to violence to maintain its hegemony in Natal and gain a foothold in townships near Johannesburg; to when the then-banned ANC used intimidation to gain cooperation with its political tactics of boycotts and stayaways and sometimes sanctioned gruesome executions.
Inkatha members in the townships tend to live in hostels, dormitory-like accommodations built to house male migrant workers, most of them Zulus from Natal, that have become permanent residences, in some cases for entire families.
ANC members tend to live in the other parts of the townships, urban locations that long have provided the anti-apartheid organization with its base.
Over the years, attitudes have hardened. There have been so many killings and attacks that the grudges now go deep. It's dry kindling that easily can turn into an inferno.
Though the East Rand has been wracked by violence for over three years, much of the current trouble started in May when shots were fired during an ANC march past Tokoza hostel.
Did hostel residents fire on marchers? Did marchers fire on the hostel? Did police start the firing, unprovoked? It is rare indeed that such questions are ever answered with finality.
Whatever the initial cause, that attack, in which 13 people died, set in motion the series of events that have turned Katlehong and Tokoza into a war zone.
The streets are littered with barricades manned most nights by Self Defense Units made up of ANC-aligned youth, the "comrades," who say they are protecting their homes in the way the police never do, stopping cars, on the lookout for suspicious characters.
The comrades make the township a no-go zone for hostel residents who stare out suspiciously from their surrounded enclaves. Areas around the hostels have become no-go zones for non-Zulus.
In some cases, people living near hostels have been forced out of houses which were then taken over by Inkatha sympathizers. In other cases, Zulu-speakers have been forced out of their township houses and have sought refuge either in the hostel or in the homes that the hostel controls.
Areas in the middle, those that have been battlegrounds, are wastelands, littered with burned-out houses and the remains of barricades.
The result is that the hostels clustered around the southern end of Katlehong have become isolated. With taxis stopped at the barricades since May, and travel by foot into no-go areas out of the question, the only way the hostel residents can leave is on the train. At various times during the past several months, vandals have damaged the tracks, leaving these hostels cut off completely for weeks at a time.
"Now, the police are guarding the tracks," Mr. Sibiya said. "But people have started shooting at the train. We want them to start patrolling the areas where people are shooting."
Mr. Sibiya had met the truck filled with donated supplies at the Peace Committee's communications center at Natalspruit Hospital. Normally, it would take about 10 minutes to drive across Katlehong to the hostels.
But that would take this well-known Inkatha member through ANC-controlled territory, so he led the truck on a half-hour drive around the southern edge of the township.
"It wastes time, but I'm trying to save some lives," he explained.
The truck went through Palm Ridge, an Indian community whose town hall has taken in refugees from the Katlehong war. When the fighting is bad, up to 1,000 people crowd into the auditorium, spilling out onto the surrounding grounds.
For about 80 people, it has become a permanent home. They tell stories of their houses, or neighbors' houses, being burned, of being afraid to go home.
Marriett Mobaso, 49, was caught in some sort of no-go zone three years ago, doused with gasoline and set alight. She survived and was in Natalspruit hospital until August. When she was released, she found strangers in her house and has been at Palm Ridge ever since.
"I don't know who did this to me," she said. "I don't know who is in my house. I don't know where to go."
From Palm Ridge, the truck drove over recently plowed roads across barren fields to reach the hostels.
About 3,000 people live in Kwesine hostel, a fan-shaped array of long low buildings around a central area dominated by a huge mound of garbage.
"See, our people have nothing to do," Mr. Sibiya said, indicatingabout 100 unemployed men sitting outside the hostel's beer hall. "They just sit outside during the day and move back inside at night. They can't go anywhere else."
The hostel's community hall has also been turned into a refugee center for Inkatha sympathizers forced out of their township homes.
A few hundred yards away, the similar-sized Buyafathi hostel borders on the township. A wall that faces an empty field is pocked-marked with bullet holes. Another side of the hostel borders on houses occupied by Inkatha members. A barricade of stones that marks the beginning of ANC territory is visible a few blocks down each street.
Within the hostel a few dozen men, their numbers growing as the trains disgorge those returning from jobs, wander amid junked cars. Chickens strut inside a makeshift cage beneath a stairway.
"Look at us. We are not so aggressive. We don't attack anybody," said Nicholas Mdlwembe, denying a charge often made by the ANC, which demanded that some hostels be fenced in and guarded after hostel residents killed 42 people in the township of Boipatung last year.
"But the youth in the township, every day they attack the hostel," said Mr. Mdlwembe, who fled to the hostel two years ago. "I think it's because they do drugs and alcohol. Look around here. We don't have any guns. There's no drugs."
In the township, the youth claim they guard the streets to stop attacks from the hostel, telling stories of people being kidnapped, taken into the hostel and killed.
Accusing the police
Both sides accuse the police of aiding the other. The ANC is demanding that the white-commanded Internal Stability Unit (ISU), a special detachment of the South African police that handles political violence, withdraw from the townships, leaving only community-based police behind.
"When the ISU sees young boys, who are just defending the community, they shoot them or take them to jail," said Johnson Nonjeke, the ANC's chairman in Katlehong. "We want police who will protect people, not harass them."
But Inkatha counters that too many of the local policemen side with the ANC's Self Defense Units. Complicating the issue is the emergence of the mainly black Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union, seen by many as aligned with the ANC.
"I trust the ISU," said hostel resident Zithulele Khanya. "When they see a criminal, they know what to do with him."
The delivery completed, Mr. Sibiya leads the truck back along the circuitous route to the hospital. Parked in front of the Peace Committee's headquarters are its two armored vehicles, used to deliver peace monitors to dangerous areas. On the side of one of them, the twin dove peace symbol is scarred by a bullet hole.
On his return, Mr. Sibiya learned that there were reports of a shooting involving the ISU at a hostel next to Buyafathi. He got on his walkie-talkie, trying to find out what was going on.
In the next day's paper, it was reported that police said they were fired on from Mandike hostel. They shot back, killing one hostel resident, another statistic in the East Rand violence.