There was a moment here Wednesday when it seemed as though history would repeat itself. One thousand black protesters, part of one of the dozens of demonstrations and riots that swept through South Africa last week, faced a force of riot police in five armored cars across a 200-yard no man's land.
It was a scene similar to the one in 1960, when police opened fire, killed 69 nonviolent black demonstrators and made this shabby township an international symbol of resistance to apartheid, South Africa's rigid system of racial segregation.
This time, however, the tension was broken when a priest walked out of the crowd, carrying a white flag toward the police lines. The people of the town, he told police, had formed a committee to negotiate with white officials over the immediate source of their grievances, the increased rent on their government-owned houses.
The officials and the committee talked, and while they reached no agreement, the tension was relieved. The next day, four South African Cabinet ministers visited Sharpeville. Yet the ministers met with neither the committee nor any of the other protest groups in the township. Instead they met with the government-backed town council -- the target of the riots in the first place.
The council chairman, Esau Mahlatsi, had fled for his life during the riots. His deputy, Sam Dlaminig, was hacked to death on his front doorstep, after which the mob shoved his body into his car and set it afire. Two other council members were killed, and many had their houses burned.
At a news conference after the ministers' tour, a black reporter pointed out that residents of Sharpeville and a cluster of five adjoining townships had rejected the whole council system by a massive boycott of local elections, most recently in December when only 14.7 percent of those eligible had voted. In similar elections in other black townships, the turnout had been even less.
"If the rest of the people did not take part in the elections," Law and Order Minister Louis Le Grange said, "that is their business. These are the elected representatives, and the government will recognize them."
Le Grange's statement highlighted the cause of the current conflict between the white government and the black resistance. At the same time, it is the key to what makes last week's riots part of a continuum started 24 years ago by the Sharpeville massacre.
That event climaxed a passive-resistance campaign against apartheid's hated pass laws, under which blacks have to carry identification documents authorizing their presence in white areas. The campaign had been organized by the two leading black nationalist organizations, the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress.
In the crisis that followed the massacre, both organizations were banned by the government. Once outlawed, they decided it was no longer possible to fight apartheid by constitutional means. They adopted guerrilla strategies, and went underground.
For its part, the government decided to fill the black leadership vacuum by building an alternative, more docile political structure for the blacks. Over the next 24 years, the whites installed black governments in 10 tribal "homelands," four of which now have nominal independence but are not recognized as independent nations by the rest of the world.
For those blacks who live in so-called "white" South Africa, in townships like Sharpeville and Soweto, the government has expanded the system by establishing local government councils. As with the homelands, ruled by tribal chieftains, the majority of blacks refused to recognize the councils as legitimate. In last December's elections, 10.9 percent of Soweto's population turned out to vote, along with 11.6 percent of the Cape Town townships' and 14.7 percent in the Sharpeville complex (known as Lekoa.) These figures are similar to those of turnouts, only 17 percent, in recent elections for subordinate parliamentary chambers for the nonwhite (mixed race, called "Colored" in South Africa) and Indian communities.
Yet the government has said it considers this an adequate mandate, and that it henceforth will regard those elected members of the new parliaments -- one of whom received only 118 votes -- as the sole legitimate voices of the Colored and Indian people.
Within the townships, the blacks have set up their own self-help bodies, called "civics," and other organizations. There is no communication, no negotiation, between these organizations and the councils, which are ignored by most blacks. Similarly, the government ignores the "civics" and speaks only with the councils.
The alienation produced by this situation makes the society prone to periodic and unpredictable explosions, as emotional issues -- like the rent increases -- trigger eruptions of community anger.
Until recently, blacks were not permitted to own property in South Africa. Under recent reforms, they now can lease home sites in the townships for 99 years, and own the houses they build on them. In most cases, however, blacks still rent their homes from the government, which owns the townships. This system is administered by the local councils, which use the rent payments as revenue to run the township.
On Sept. 1, the basic rental for one of Sharpeville's matchbox houses was raised from $39.54 to $43.25 a month -- bringing the total increase over the past year to more than $10 a month. Electricity and water charges are an additional $30 to $60 a month.
There are no official figures for average earnings for Sharpeville's 45,000 residents, but one informed estimate put it at $210 a month for a family of six. The subsistence cost for such a family was calculated last year at $183.
Several factors, including the current estimated 13 percent inflation rate, add emotional fuel to these statistics. One is that blacks resent the bus fares they have to pay to travel from their segregated townships to the white areas where they work. They contend that since it is whites who have pushed them out of the cities, whites should foot the bill.
Another factor is that for years the white government prohibited the establishment of proper commercial facilities in the townships. This meant not only that residents had to travel to the white cities to do much of their shopping, but also that the townships did not develop business districts that could make them financially viable.
The government currently is trying to upgrade the townships. In the past four years it has spent $7.5 million to provide Sharpeville with electricity and a new sewage system.
The rent increases are designed to pay for these improvements, and many blacks see this as yet another attempt to make them pay for the costs of the apartheid system.
Since the white government has distanced itself from such decisions by the establishment of the black councils to administer the townships, it is the councils that have become the target of black resentment.