JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The violence and anger of the last week have raised serious anxieties about the future of the political reform process that was pushing this country away from its racist past.
At the moment, the reform process seems to be in greater jeopardy than at any time since President F. W. de Klerk won election in September 1989 and released Nelson Mandela from prison five months later.
Since the Mandela release, South Africa has been on a steady, though sometimes bumpy, course away from the politics of white domination and black underground resistance. The old ways had been replaced by a new politics of negotiation, which was overwhelmingly endorsed by the white population in March in one of the high points of this country's troubled history.
But in little more than three months, things have plummeted dramatically, and the country is in danger of slipping into chaos and armed confrontation.
"This is the most serious trough into which the whole process has fallen since the unbanning of black political organizations," said David Welsh, a political analyst at the University of Cape Town.
"What happened last week threatens the very process of negotiations," said Kader Asmal, a member of the African National Congress' national governing committee.
He referred to the massacre of 40 people in the small black township of Boipatong last week, an event that has jolted the nation, shaken the government and turned a large spotlight on the problem of violence plaguing black communities.
On Sunday, Mr. Mandela said he was suspending bilateral talks between the government and the ANC, its major negotiating partner, because of the ANC's position that government security forces are either instigating the violence or not trying very hard to stop it.
Yesterday, the ANC pulled out of the multiparty talks. Other groups -- 19 are involved -- agreed to a postponement, and no new date was announced.
The multiparty talks deadlocked in May when the government and the ANC could not agree on how to write a new constitution. A meeting today was to have been an attempt to break that deadlock.
While Mr. Mandela has been talking with Mr. de Klerk's government, violence in the townships has claimed thousands of lives and black poverty has worsened as a result of a 3-year-old recession.
The government tries to turn the blame back on the ANC, saying its latest strategy of protests and strikes aimed at pressuring the government at the negotiating table has created a climate of tension and paved the way for violence. The problem with that theory at this particular time is that ANC supporters were at the receiving end of the massacre last week. Boipatong is an ANC stronghold, and the massacre there is fast becoming a rallying point for ANC militants.
Mr. Mandela's followers, convinced that the government is conspiring with a black rival organization -- the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party -- to undermine the ANC, have been demanding guns instead of words from their leaders in the past few days. Many believe Boipatong is proof that negotiations will NTC deliver nothing but grief to their downtrodden communities.
Mr. Mandela, outraged and perhaps also concerned that his angry followers might decide he is not tough enough, on Sunday unleashed his strongest attack ever on Mr. de Klerk. That followed Mr. de Klerk's political humiliation Saturday, when residents of Boipatong literally ran him out of the township, giving him his first personal encounter with the rage that simmers just beneath the surface of black townships.
"The reality is that South Africa is full of anger," said Lloyd Vogelman, director of the independent Project for the Study of Violence.
In response to his humiliation, Mr. de Klerk immediately began talking about reimposing a state of emergency -- evoking the Draconian laws that came to characterize the nature of apartheid before they were dismantled.
Mr. Vogelman said both sides are in extreme danger of reverting to their pre-reform stands -- repression by the government and, on the other side, guerrilla warfare and mass protests.
If that happens, the future of South Africa could be as dark as its past. All hopes for a democratic, peaceful, apartheid-free future are pinned to negotiations.
The problem is that negotiations require at least a shred of trust or good will, and at the moment every shred that existed between the ANC and the government has disappeared. Neither side believes the other is serious about negotiating. Mr. Welsh thinks it might be possible over time for the two sides to rebuild the trust they have lost. But the question is what happens to the young militants on the ground while the leaders relearn the language of negotiation.
Both Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk could lose control of their constituencies before they regain control of the negotiations.
"We are looking at a major crisis," Mr. Welsh said.