BEKKERSDAL, South Africa -- Containing the violence in the townships around Johannesburg sometimes seems like trying to stuff a balloon in a suitcase -- no sooner have you got one side in than it pops out somewhere else.
The latest eruption is in this triangle of matchbox houses, dwarfed by the informal settlements of squatter shacks that have sprung up around them, that lies about an hour west of Johannesburg in the area called the West Rand.
Although the body count of four in the past week and at least two yesterday is low by nearby township standards, the pattern is tragically familiar, boding ill not only for the future of Bekkersdal but also for a free and fair election in two months.
Over on the East Rand, where not so long ago four dead was considered a peaceful night in the townships of Katlehong and Tokoza, relative peace has returned with a surprising suddenness.
It comes after a decision brokered by the South African Government and the African National Congress (ANC) to rid those townships of the police force called the Internal Stability Unit (ISU), replacing their ominous armored vehicles with the open Jeep-type vehicles and foot patrols of troops from the South African Defense Force.
Although the move was denounced by the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, whose members living in the migrant labor hostels are blamed by the ANC for attacks on township residents, the murder rate in the troubled townships fell from five or six a night to about one. Children have returned to schools, worshipers to church, workers to jobs.
It was just this sort of breakdown in the social fabric that troubled so many who examined Katlehong and Tokoza that seems now to threaten Bekkersdal.
Friday afternoon, two months before they are supposed to vote in the country's first non-racial election, the Merude family was packing all its belongings on the back of an open truck, moving them out of their impressive house that had been expanded and improved beyond its modest beginnings.
To understand why, you just had to look across the street where house after house stood deserted, most of their windows broken. Next door, a house was burned out. A broken window in the living room of the Merude house seemed an ominous forecast of its future.
This piece of Xude Street seems to be going the way of so many parts of Tokoza and Katlehong, turned into a no-man's land in the battle between warring political organizations. The squatter camp that is the Inkatha stronghold lies a few blocks down the street.
As in the East Rand, the troubles did not spring up overnight. Bekkersdal is a stronghold of the Azanian People's Organization (AZAPO), the remnants of the Black Consciousness movement spearheaded by people such as Steve Biko in the 1970s.
In the late 1980s, members of AZAPO and the ANC conducted periodic turf battles. But in the past few years, Inkatha has begun organizing some of the squatters, many of whom work in nearby gold mines. Inkatha supporters began to fight with AZAPO adherents who then joined with the ANC in opposing
their common enemy.
Still, in recent years Bekkersdal has simmered along fairly quietly. There was a bit of trouble late last year when the ANC called a boycott of the nearby white town of Westaria to protest the presence of the Internal Stability Unit. Inkatha opposed the boycott, and there were many charges of the ANC's using intimidation to enforce it. A month later the boycott ended, and calm seemed to return.
Alliance holds fast
But last week that ended. Although both Inkatha and AZAPO oppose the coming election, the ANC-AZAPO alliance held fast in Bekkersdal. About a dozen houses have been burned. Hundreds of people have crowded into the police station at night, deserting their homes as they search for a safe place to sleep.
On Thursday, a running gun battle between the warring elements and police occupied much of the day, leaving two dead. Friday morning revealed the hacked and burned body of a man, allegedly taken from his house by ANC supporters in the middle of the night.
And yesterday's burial of an Inkatha supporter left at least two more people dead when a hand grenade exploded inside the church where the funeral was taking place.
Witnesses told Reuters that at least one of the dead was a resident who opened fire on the funeral procession shortly after the grenade was thrown. Among the wounded were several women who had lost limbs in the grenade blast, they said.
At a Friday news conference, the ANC had its explanation for the upturn in violence: the increased presence of the ISU with units that were withdrawn from the East Rand. The Nyalas, Caspers and Hippos -- the names given to the ISU's armored troop carriers -- now rumble through Bekkersdal's dirt streets with regularity.
"This happens everywhere the ISU goes," ANC official Robert McBride said. "They do nothing when the Inkatha attacks people. Sometimes they even help them. Then if the youth of the township get together to protect themselves, the ISU attacks them."
The ANC produced two women who told of seeing relatives -- a son and a brother-in-law -- taken away by the ISU and then turning up dead.
ISU officials deny such charges, saying that they are caught in between warring political factions over which they have no control.
"We're just trying to do our job," said one officer who asked noto be identified. "We want to protect and serve the people."
Charles Loliwe, local leader of the Inkatha Youth, also denied that the ISU aids his side.
"How could that be when we have had some members who have been arrested by the ISU?" he asked.
He stood amid the shacks of the Inkatha zone, denying that his followers had attacked anyone, saying that they only defended themselves and that his house had been burned twice in the past week.
"Right now I have no place to stay," he said. "All these shacks are full."
His explanation for the vacant, looted houses down the street was that ANC and AZAPO supporters had forced the people out because the houses were on Inkatha territory.
Claims and counterclaims
Such claims and counterclaims are typical in the township wars. But the decline of violence in the East Rand gives circumstantial support to the ANC's charges that the move of the ISU was connected to its rise on the West Rand.
Still, Mr. McBride did not deny the possibility that ANC members might have been responsible for the gruesome burned and mutilated body discovered Friday morning.
"What would you do if the police had come and shot up your house and you knew who sent them? Nothing?" he asked. "You treat people like animals, and they are going to act like animals."