SEBOKENG, SOUTH AFRICA, JAN. 27 -- Thousands of residents in this traumatized black township gathered today to bury most of the 42 persons killed in a gangland-style massacre at a wake earlier this month, and heard a plea that no revenge be taken on the suspected killers.
The massacre, the worst in black South Africa's history, has left the township haunted by fear and rumor. Talk of revenge, death and more killing hang heavy in the air.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu pleaded with the crowd, which showed up to bury 36 of the victims, to end the cycle of violence and killings that has consumed the township since President Frederik W. de Klerk removed a ban on anti-apartheid groups last February.
"We are pulling one another down," Tutu said. "What has happened to us? I agree the system wants to destroy us. But do we have to cooperate with the system?"
Sebokeng has been the nation's center of black resistance to apartheid since 1984.
For the 600,000 residents of this sprawling township in the nation's industrial heartland known as the Vaal Triangle, the "enemy" used to be easy to identify: the South African government and police; the hated apartheid system of racial separation and its local representatives, the black town councilors.
Now, however, it is far less clear who really is the enemy. Instead of being brutalized by the white-led security forces, Sebokeng residents are brutalizing each other.
The enemy, African National Congress national treasurer Thomas Nkobi warned today, is "within our midst."
ANC officials and many residents assert that the massacre was the outcome of a struggle between ANC township "comrades" and comtsotsis -- who say they belong to local ANC "street committees" but who the ANC claims are only gangs of criminals hiding behind the ANC banner.
According to this account, the massacre occurred when the comtsotsis retaliated for an attempt by an ANC comrade, Mphikeleli Christoffel Nangalembe, to stop them from stealing cars.
The comtsotsis had kidnapped and killed Nangalembe, but were not satisfied and decided to attack his family and friends, the ANC officials say. In the early hours of Jan. 12, about 10 gunmen arrived at the Nangalembe home, where 300 people were attending his wake, and opened fire with AK-47 automatic rifles. Twenty-seven mourners were killed on the spot and 15 others died at a hospital.
A local ANC official, Bavumile Vilikazi, said he was convinced that the gunmen received encouragement, and possibly guns, from supporters of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, an ANC rival. One gang member, Temba Kobaka, is the son of a local Inkatha party leader, he said.
But not a single speaker at today's burial ceremony accused Buthelezi of involvement, possibly out of a desire not to upset a "peace summit" that ANC leader Nelson Mandela is set to hold with Buthelezi in Durban.
Instead, ANC speakers blasted police for "criminal negligence" in failing to heed warnings of an attack on the wake and accused them of indirect responsibility for the massacre.
"The government and police are using gangs and criminals to do their dirty work," Nkobi told the cheering crowd.
So far, police have arrested 12 suspects in connection with the massacre and seized 10 AK-47 rifles, several of them reportedly taken from the Kobaka family home.
But other residents believe that Nangalembe was a comtsotsi himself, with his own gang involved in a longstanding battle with another gang for neighborhood supremacy. One press report, denied by the ANC, said Nangalembe ran a "people's court" that had condemned to death four opposing gang members.
The massacre has left pro-ANC youth crying for revenge and parents wondering why their community is afflicted with so much violence. Today's mass funeral was the third in less than a year here.
"There's so much trouble in the township, people are being killed every day," said Nao Litau, who runs an advice center to help residents deal with their problems. She said she despairs for the future of her community.
Sebokeng illustrates the complexities of politics in South Africa's black townships, where the old apartheid institutions are disintegrating and law and order has broken down -- but a new order has yet to emerge. A boycott of rent and utility charges has left piles of uncollected garbage all over the township. The rent strike, begun in 1984, has never been resolved.
All of the government-imposed black town councilors here have long since resigned or been driven from office; many of their homes and gas stations have been burned down though the charred remains of the structures have not been swept away.
In the current power vacuum, black political groups legalized last February increasingly have resorted to knives and guns in their contests for turf and power. Reports are rampant among ANC supporters in the township that disgruntled police officers have been deliberately stoking the flames by providing aid and guns to the Zulus living in the township's hostels for single men to fight pro-ANC forces.
One of the many rumors circulating in the township is that Xhosa-speaking inhabitants are set to retaliate for the deaths of their relatives and friends in fighting last summer with Buthelezi supporters.
"Until they reach the number of Xhosas who died, they won't stop killing the Zulus," said one non-Zulu resident. "If you just speak Zulu in the hostels, they kill you."
Meanwhile, young ANC activists have set up street committees in some areas to run community affairs but have been unable to establish a township-wide "civic association" acceptable to the whole community.
"There is something wrong in our leadership," said Litau. "I would blame our leaders. They don't have control over our people. Anyhow, most of us, we don't know who our leaders are in the township. Some claim to be ANC but they are just thugs."