The cause of peaceful change in South Africa has taken a drubbing. While the government was preparing to negotiate the nation's future with the then-outlawed African National Congress, it was also subsidizing the rival Inkatha movement. The $700,000 in subsidies to which Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok admits is the smoking gun of South Africa's biggest scandal. A great deal of purposeful resolve will be needed from President F. W. De Klerk and ANC president Nelson Mandela to keep their relationship constructive.

Suspicions have rattled about for years. Many of them have to do with alleged police support for Inkatha violence against ANC members. This side of it is not as yet admitted. The scandal is growing, however, and the extent of government support of Inkatha is not yet known. Confirmation of the scandal has paralyzed South African politics. The cabinet of President F. W. De Klerk went into a three-day retreat. Mr. Vlok publicly offered to resign. In Inkatha, the leader's secretary, M. Z. Khumalo, resigned and tried to insulate the movement leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, from taint.

Inkatha and Mr. Buthelezi, the major black leader who opposed world economic sanctions against South Africa, have suffered a loss of prestige outside their population base. They may be strong as ever among the Zulus. The arguments over sanctions are moot. Sanctions are crumbling.

The scandal's main effect is to stiffen ANC against the negotiations to which it is committed and to raise its demands for government displays of good faith first. These include the resignations of Mr. Vlok and Defense Minister Magnus Malan, judicial inquiries into secret spending and clandestine operations. The ANC accuses a shadowy "third force" within the government of acting on its own initiative against the anti-apartheid movement. Mr. De Klerk claims he stopped the payments program when he learned of it. But his authority over the whole government has been brought into question.

Out of this mess can come good, if -- and only if -- the requisite investigations are credible and the government commits itself to open and honest behavior. The ANC is yet going to have to win legitimacy from the ballot when people have real choices freely made, and Inkatha is still in business. "Inkathagate" can clear the air. Covered up, however, it would do the opposite, sowing distrust on a scale that could never be overcome.

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