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Images of South Africa’s racial past reappear with ferocity in riots

February 6, 1997

ELDORADO PARK, South Africa (AP) _ Images reminiscent of South Africa’s bitter past reappeared Thursday when mixed-race rioters looted, burned tires and fought police to protest alleged discrimination by the black-led government.

At least one person died and more than 100 were injured, including six policemen, in the worst racial unrest since President Nelson Mandela defeated white leader F.W. De Klerk and came to power in 1994.

But those who once fought the white-led government now run it, and the protesters were mostly poor people of mixed-race descent who say they have been treated unfairly by the new black leaders.

``The government is neglecting us. They talk about equality but there isn’t any for us,″ said Nevi Brinck, manning a barricade of blazing tires in this sprawling mixed-race township about 30 miles south of Johannesburg.

``We’re only doing what they did to fight for their rights,″ he added. ``I am fighting for my people.″

The fight cost a teen-age boy who was shot in the chest his life, and it resulted in chaos in several squalid townships once reserved for people of mixed race under the former apartheid regime.

Most people treated at the trauma center in Eldorado Park were protesters hit by birdshot, rubber bullets and live ammunition fired by police.

Police spokeswoman Olta Stapelberg said a half-dozen policemen also were injured, three seriously, including one burned by a fire bomb tossed at an armored vehicle. The policeman inside clambered out, his clothing on fire.

The protests were called by a group fighting for equal rights for people of mixed-race descent, known as coloreds in South Africa. The ANC called Basil Douglas, leader of the group and a member of the local governing council, an ``unsound anarchist″ and accused him of inciting violence.

Organizers had promised peaceful demonstrations, but clashes erupted early in the day when police tried to clear burning barricades of tires and tree limbs. In the afternoon, police opened fire on rioters who threw stones and shot back with handguns.

A crowd of protesters looted a gas station in Eldorado Park, carrying off armfuls of beer and food until scores of police in armored vehicles fired buckshot and tear gas.

The crowd stopped one taxi van, forced out the occupants, broke the windows and ripped off the sliding door before a police helicopter lowered on the scene, scattering people with its downdraft.

For the most part, though, police watched from a distance or videotaped the unrest.

``It would inflame the situation if we made any immediate arrests,″ Sgt. Mark Reynolds explained.″

Protesters targeted taxis and buses to keep people from going to work. Bus service to several townships was suspended for the day.

Rashid Evans, a protest organizer, said his community was tired of paying more money for electricity and water service than blacks in other townships.

He claimed blacks pay only a flat fee of $7 to $9 a month, while coloreds get charged for use even though their meters rarely get checked. In some areas, power and water service has been cut for nonpayment.

``We’re paying for rotten houses,″ Evans spat. ``We’re not black enough and we’re not white enough.″

Etienne Phillips, an Eldorado Park businessman, stood on the roadside with neighbors watching the rioting.

``I’m sorry it has come to this. We wanted a peaceful demonstration,″ said Phillips. ``The world will see us looting, not our real problems.″

Mixed-race people long have been caught between more powerful forces in South Africa. Descendants of interracial coupling, they were poor stepchildren to dominant whites under apartheid who gave them their own chamber of Parliament but little real power.

That status, however, spawned hatred from blacks who considered the coloreds sell-outs and as racist as apartheid leaders.

Now, with Mandela’s African National Congress in power, mixed-race people fear trampling by the black majority.

Previous efforts to stir unrest largely have failed, but Thursday’s protests were the biggest in mixed-race settlements since Mandela’s election.

``We are tired of waiting,″ said Goodwin Aldren, a community leader. ``The government has called us the children of adultery and they ignore us, but we are South Africans with rights.″

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