FEAR STALKS THE LAND_‘Whole country has gone mad’

By GENE MUSTAIN and MICHAEL O. ALLEN, Daily News Staff Writers, Wednesday | April 6, 1994

JOHANNESBURG—The looming national election has laid a new carpet of fear across this already traumatized and hyper-vigilant society.

With three weeks to go, gun stores and food stores are running out of weapons and non-perishable food, and many whites are bailing out—for the duration of the campaign and its uncertain aftermath, if not for good.

“The whole country has gone mad,” said the owner of a gun store in the seemingly non-violent suburb of Birnam, as he busied himself with customers unhappy to learn that his stock of weapons was practically depleted.

“All I’ve got left are some old M-1 rifles,” he said, as he showed an elderly white man how to load a shotgun the man had brought to the store. “The demand has outstripped my supply. It’s the same all over.”

Up the street, on a day when pamphlets distributed by white right-wing groups warned of terror strikes against electrical plants, the owner of a grocery store reported a run on the necessities of bunker life.

“I understand the panic,” said Manny Rodrigues(cq), a Portuguese national who fled election violence in Mozambique years ago. “I’d say 30% of my white customers have already left the country. If I could sell this store, I would.”

A woman in Rodrigues’ store, who emigrated to Canada nine months ago, but was back visiting relatives, said she couldn’t wait to leave again because even the streets of Birnam, a middle-class community, seem scary to her.

“I just feel menace everywhere,” she said, adding that she would not give her name, “even to a newspaper in New York, because I don’t want nobody tracking me down.”

The woman said she would have changed her flight home to an earlier date if all the flights weren’t booked. And travel agents yesterday reported that many South Africans have booked extended holidays in neighboring countries.

Last year, about 8,000 whites left the country permanently—twice as many as the year before—and while this year’s figures are incomplete, anecdotal evidence from real estate agents suggests an upsurge in emigration.

There’s more to the story of this “chicken run”—as the phenomenon of white flight is locally known—than the election-related violence that ripped apart downtown Johannesburg last week and the continuing strife between black factions across the country.

Even before the prospect of black majority rule set blacks against one another, the nation was in the grip of a crime wave that has made many wonder whether the road to democracy will feature a detour toward anarchy.

The crime explosion has turned downtown buildings into fortresses and boosted the fortunes of security firms. Across the city and its racial spectrum, people issue warnings about carjackings and walking alone at night.

Most of the nicer homes in the necklace of suburbs that separate the city from the poverty and rage of the black ghettos are surrounded by thick brick walls, many of which feature coils of barbed wire and electronic sensors.

“People live like that because of all the break-ins and killings we’ve had,” said Rodrigues. “The violence has changed; now there is a feeling that the crooks will just as soon shoot you as rob you.”

Most whites and blacks agree that the street crime is another legacy of apartheid—which consigned millions of blacks to an inferior education, if any at all. For decades, the masters of apartheid also responded to peaceful protest with violence, frequently murder.

In the deprivation of the ghettos, a culture of violence and criminality has taken hold. What South Africa has sewn, it now reaps.