Soweto Diary

Jeremy Harding

Last month, two days after the war on the Reef between Inkatha and the ANC erupted in Soweto, the families in Klipspruit Extension were moving out. The windows had been smashed in every single house on the dusty road through this respectable, middle-class development. Dozens of well-dressed middle-class Sowetans were loading mattresses, tables, cushions, chairs and pictures onto pick-up trucks and roof racks. There was a house set back from the road, fronting the open field through which Inkatha must have come. It belonged to the Kunene family, one of whom had recently died in a car crash. When Inkatha burst in, the family were holding a vigil for the dead man. The women must have been in the covered yard at the back preparing food for the funeral the next day. The big pots had been overturned and there was a litter of freshly-sliced vegetables on the floor. The rest of the makeshift outdoor kitchen had been broken up, its contents strewn on top of the vegetables – except for the meat, which had been stolen. All that remained of that, propped on the surface of a listing wooden table, was an enormous cow’s head, its horns angled up to the canopy and its dim eyes fixed on the dirt path at the back of the house.

At the front entrance, there was a wash of blood across the white cement wall and two dark patches in the rectangle of grass beyond. The dead man’s father-in-law and a close friend of his had both been killed in the attack. A third corpse was found some way from the house. The victims were said to have died from stab wounds. The other mourners had been forced to abandon the coffin and the body of the man they were supposed to bury. Walking back through Klipspruit into a nearby squatter camp, where the residents were singing freedom songs and calling for Inkatha blood, you could see that the past would take a long time to lay to rest.

As for the future, it is obscured by violence almost everywhere one chooses to look. There is the war in Natal, still sputtering on, between Zulus, mainly urban, who declare for the ANC and those, mainly rural, who support Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Inkatha. This difference of opinion has already cost nearly four thousand lives. Then there is the latest war on the Reef – the one we are reading about – of which the conflict in Natal was the precursor. In the Reef, however, it is mostly Xhosa blood that flows through the veins of the Congress and so the killing has an ethnic character. Two mighty hosts of tribal sentiment (Xhosa and Zulu) are being raised for yet another war, should the current ones happen to abate. There are also several varieties of Afrikaner jihad which it would require a stable centre to head off.

In August the statisticians announced that the per diem death rate in the Transvaal had surpassed even that of Beirut (in 1988 the same kind of chastening comparisons were made for Pietermaritzburg in Natal). It is depressing that the Reef war should have featured on the Beirut Index, and depressing to read about it in the Daily Mail, ‘the paper for a changing South Africa’. South Africa is changing all right: the violence is intensifying, the rhetoric is darkening, flexible positions are suddenly hardening again and the poor, whose material situation must be vastly improved for any political settlement to work, are worse-off as a result of the country’s steady economic decline. (Negative growth of approximately 1.5 per cent is reported for the first six months of this year.) It is an ominous sign, too, that the Daily Mail has since collapsed. Not so little things like this, and epic horrors like the township war, combine to persuade even modest optimists that their hopes have been ill-founded.

The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in