The war came to Soweto along the railway line. On a cold winter morning in August a large party of Inkatha fighters massed on Inhlanzane railway station in Soweto and attacked the five thirty from Naledi as it pulled in, full of hungover commuters on their way to Johannesburg and young ANC militants swaying between the seats on their routine business of consciousness raising. The first reports coming through gave four dead; the next nine, but by then the dead were already lost in the growing figure for the township as a whole. It could have been worse, but no one was sure how many had been injured at the railway station, and injuries in this war of hacking and slicing and setting alight could be as bad as death.
By mid-morning, a few hours after the attack on the train, a large crowd of residents had massed outside the Jabulani single men’s hostel and another outside the hostel in Mapetla. Both places were isolated barracks for Zulu migrant workers deep in the enemy territory of Soweto. There were several such hostels; their occupants lived like a slave labour force, exclusively male, more than six hours’ drive from their kin, surrounded by the most sophisticated, criminal township culture in southern Africa. When Inkatha made trouble elsewhere, these occupants in Soweto were the objects of bad feeling. Today the trouble was right in the township, building up as the thick brown smog from the night fires started to lift.
My first stop was at the house of an acquaintance in Orlando East. Judo Mawisa was in the shebeen. A slight man in his forties with a damaged eye, he came padding out and up to the house and then led me across the township to the Jabulani hostel, near the railway station. As we approached, we encountered barricades put up by the township residents. There had been a clash between young residents and Inkatha but no one seemed certain of the outcome. People were preparing for the next round. A woman in her mid-forties launched a barrage of rhetoric against Inkatha for the benefit of a BBC reporter. She was an eloquent figure in a bright dress who evoked the virtues of the old Soweto. A crowd of younger women stood around, cheering her on. ‘The hostel system is a creation of apartheid,’ she said. ‘We must finish with apartheid for good.’ This was true; it was also a discreet way of saying that the hostels should be torched, and Inkatha with them. When the reporter had switched off his tape machine, she straightened her dress and the younger women applauded her.