Police shot dead a black community leader Saturday as he led a protest meeting against government plans to move blacks from his farming village in an area that officially is classified as part of white South Africa, witnesses charged today. A police spokesman said that the shooting was in self-defense.
The witnesses said Saul Mkhize, 48, an accountant, was shot in the chest after villagers in Driefontein, about 200 miles southeast of here, swarmed around two policemen who declared the meeting illegal and tried to drag him away.
Mkhize had waged a vigorous fight to save Driefontein's 5,000 residents from being swept away to join half a million others removed from similar "black spots" to be deposited in the 14 percent of South Africa set aside for black occupation.
"In many ways this outrage was inevitable," Sheena Duncan, national president of Black Sash, the nation's most important civil rights movements, said in an interview. "Mkhize, being an exceptional man, was being more successful than most in thwarting the government's plans to remove his community--and the South African government does not tolerate effective opposition."
Louis Le Grange, minister of law and order, declined to comment on Mkhize's death. An unidentified police spokesman in the area told reporters last night, "There was something of a riot, and the policemen were threatened . . . . People were at their heels. They fired in self-defense."
Witnesses said in telephone interviews that the two policemen told the crowd that the meeting was illegal and tried to drag Mkhize to their van. As the crowd surged around, Mkhize called out to them not to fight, one witness said. When the police got to the van, they fired two shots and Mkhize fell to the ground with a bullet wound in his chest, he said.
Driefontein is one of few communities of its kind left in South Africa.
In 1912 a black lawyer named P.I.K. Seme bought it from a white farmer on behalf of a company called the Native Farmers' Association of Africa, which sought to establish black communities on the land.
But this was in conflict with the long-term plans of the minority whites who already were ruling the country. A year later the government introduced the Natives Land Act, which forbade further land transactions between blacks and whites and started carving up the country into what are now known as "white" areas and black tribal "homelands."
Over the years the villagers established themselves as a stable farming community, rearing cattle, goats and chickens, and growing corn, potatoes, pumpkins and a few peach trees. They established a few small shops, a bus service, churches and their own water supply. In good years they have produced more than their own needs and marketed the surplus in nearby Wakkerstroom.
In South Africa, where blacks have no freehold rights outside the "homelands," these achievements amount to a unique degree of community independence.
However, in terms of government policy Driefontein is a "black spot" in a white area, and so it must go. For years the government has been removing such black spots, often in the face of fierce community resistance, and there are another 75 scheduled for removal.
There are two others near Driefontein marked down for erasure, Daggaskraal and Ngema. Two years ago the communities of all three elected Saul Mkhize as their leader. Though Mkhize worked in Johannesburg as an accountant and returned home only at weekends, he campaigned against the removals with rare vigor. He was not, however, a political radical in the South African context.
"You would have to call him a conservative," Sheena Duncan said. "He was a rural landowner, and he built his resistance movement around the fact that they have owned this land since the beginning of the century and their dead are buried there."
When government officials last November started numbering the gravestones at Driefontein in preparation for reburials in the "homelands," Mkhize was outraged.
"When we bury our dead we expect them to rest in peace," he told a Johannesburg newspaper. Pretoria gave orders for the numbers to be removed from the gravestones.
Three weeks ago the government's commissioner for black affairs in the region, Marthinus J. Prinsloo, called at Driefontein to tell Mkhize that his people should prepare for the move and that "there is nothing further to discuss." Mkhize, who told Prinsloo that the order was unacceptable, then organized Saturday's meeting in protest.