Why death rides South Africa's trains

Issue 

By Norm Dixon

"Commuters travelling on trains, buses and taxis have been coming under increasing attack and are daily being exposed to the danger of losing their lives while simply travelling to and fro from their work."

This description came from the chairperson of South Africa's non- government Human Rights Commission, Dr Max Coleman, at the International Meeting on Political Violence in South Africa, held recently in London. The meeting was jointly sponsored by the British Anti-Apartheid Movement and the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid.

"Some of the violence is targeted at specific groups or individuals active in the political arena. But more and more the violence seems be totally random and indiscriminate. The only possible motive is to sow alarm, despondency and terror as a destabilising tactic", Dr Coleman said.

At the hearing, Coleman said the deaths of commuters in South Africa account for 11% of all victims of violence in 1990 and 1991. "A total of 295 deaths for the two years and 850 injuries in 246 incidents: we are talking about a massive phenomenon."

In the first three months of 1992, 143 people have lost their lives in train attacks.

The London meeting was told that the commission investigating political violence in South Africa, headed by Justice Goldstone, has heard evidence that violence against rail commuters has continued to escalate since July 1990. The pattern is of organised groups boarding trains during peak hours and indiscriminately attacking passengers. The attackers wield weapons ranging from so-called traditional weapons to pangas (machetes) and firearms.

There is substantial evidence that many of the attackers are members of Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi's Inkatha organisation. Inkatha is widely considered a surrogate for the apartheid regime and is known to have received secret funds from Pretoria's security police coffers. There is also proof that operatives of the South African military and police are also involved in the random attacks.

Whenever it has been possible to identify the attackers, it was found they were hostel dwellers. Buthelezi's Inkatha followers

tightly control many workers' hostels and regularly use them as fortified bases from which to launch attacks on township residents. Hostels are also easily infiltrated by government mercenaries.

The railway lines and stations most affected are those in the vicinity of hostels. During the periods mid-December 1990 to mid-January 1991 and mid-December 1991 to mid-January 1992, there were almost no attacks. These are periods when hostel dwellers go back to their rural areas.

A May hearing of the Goldstone Commission was told by a former hostel dweller — identified only as 01 to avoid retribution from Inkatha — that Inkatha leaders mobilised hostel dwellers to attack trains and that a certain "Mr Ntombela" asked "brave people" who could use spears and pangas to volunteer for attacks on township residents. The informant provided the commission with names of people who attacked a train at Kliptown station in Soweto.

In August, Southern Africa Report revealed that a white Inkatha official, Bruce Anderson, and a South African Defence Force major personally ordered Inkatha-controlled hostels to attack black train commuters and township residents. The information came from a former SADF Battalion 111 soldier who said he also took part in the attacks.

Anderson, who headed Inkatha's branch in Sandton, Johannesburg, was deported to Britain in July, after Mozambique insisted that South Africa stop cross-border gun running. Anderson was named as one of the gun runners. Anderson was once a member of Britain's racist National Front, a former aide to Zimbabwe contra Ndabaningi Sithole and a "confidante" of the Mozambican bandit, Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama.

Southern Africa Report's ex-soldier informant said the train attacks involved mainly former Battalion 111 soldiers or kwaZulu police officers living under civilian cover in Johannesburg's Inkatha-controlled hostels.

Also in August, the weekly New Nation was told by a member of the SADF's Five Reconnaissance Regiment that he was among a group of "Recces" given specialised training courses on how to attack and alight quickly from fast moving trains. The team attacked Johannesburg's Jeppe station in September 1990. Most of the soldiers who took part in the attacks were Namibians and Mozambicans, veterans of the South African wars against SWAPO in Namibia and Angola and Mozambique.

The police refuse to intervene to stop the train violence, the London meeting was told. An incident on May 15 illustrates the

situation. On that day a large group of Inkatha supporters boarded a train near Johannesburg. When they got to New Canada, a junction station, they were stopped by the South African Police. The group was armed with an assortment of "traditional" weapons. It was found that during the journey a passenger had been killed and another injured. The police took no action, and no attempt was made to disarm the culprits. Instead they directed the large group to return to their point of origin by train. On the return trip, another person was killed and another injured.

In recent weeks, train violence has again surged after the ANC forced significant concessions from President F.W. de Klerk on the release of political prisoners and measures to curb violence, and as prospects for a resumption of talks between the ANC and the government improve.

The upsurge matches a pattern documented by the Johannesburg-based Community Agency for Social Enquiry. According to CASE, the township violence appears to be switched on and off at strategic moments, always to the advantage of the government. It also found that when de Klerk travelled abroad, the death toll dropped.