JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africa is braced for two days of paralysis this week as millions of black workers stage a nationwide strike aimed at forcing the white government to give way to black rule.
Thousands of police officers have been dispatched to the nation's most volatile black townships, and government officials have warned of possible violence between supporters and opponents of the strike.
On the eve of the mass work stoppage, observers from the United Nations arrived in the country, saying they hoped their presence would contribute to a peaceful climate. It was the first time that U.N. observers had played such a role in South African politics.
The two-day strike, which begins today, was called by the African National Congress (ANC) and its allies to put pressure on the government of President F. W. de Klerk. But it will also test the power of the ANC, the government's major adversary in political negotiations.
Some analysts are calling it "the black referendum," saying that the ANC needs this show of support in the same way Mr. de Klerk needed whites to vote for his program in March in the hard-fought white referendum.
"F. W. de Klerk gambled his political future on a white referendum," wrote the liberal Weekly Mail newspaper. "He emerged the victor, with the white population solidly behind him. The general strike will do the same for ANC leader Nelson Mandela. He could emerge from two difficult days with enough support to lead his side back to the table."
The ANC has been building up to this day since it pulled out of negotiations June 24, saying the government was not serious about creating a democracy to replace the apartheid system of white domination.
The pullout was triggered by the massacre of more than 40 people in the ANC stronghold of Boipatong, where residents charged that police were involved. But the negotiations had already hit a serious snag.
There had been growing discontent among ANC supporters with the pace and direction of negotiations, in which the government insisted on a constitution with special protections for the white minority.
"It is quite clear the government does not have the political will to cross the democratic threshold," Mr. Mandela said in a televised interview yesterday.
He said that the campaign of "mass action," a program of sit-ins, marches, boycotts and strikes, was designed to push the government over that threshold. The campaign is supported by the ANC and its two main allies, the South African Communist Party and the nation's big labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
Labor leader Jay Naidoo has called on workers to "bring the South African government to its knees" and force it to accede to the demands of the ANC-led alliance, which include an election in which every citizen has an equal vote regardless of race.
Three other black political organizations have opposed the strike. The ANC's main rival, the Inkatha Freedom Party, urged its members to go to work.
Authorities expressed concern that violence could erupt between supporters and opponents of the strike in the nation's already tense and volatile black townships. More than 6,000 people have been killed in political fighting in the past two years, much of it waged between ANC and Inkatha supporters.
The Pan Africanist Congress and the Azanian People's Organization, both left of the ANC, said they are opposing the strike because it is designed to spur a resumption of negotiations. Both groups are opposed to negotiating with the white-minority government, saying there is no point in talking with the oppressors of the black majority.
Police have dispatched 5,000 troops to several townships to maintain calm, but ANC leaders have charged that the troops were sent to intimidate its supporters.
One of the ANC's main complaints against the government has been that police forces are involved in the killing of black citizens and have not been brought under control since the days when black activists were treated as terrorists and police were given -- free reign to suppress them.
Business leaders have said that the strike could badly damage South Africa's sagging economy. Having failed in attempts to avert the strike through discussions with the ANC and its allies, ,, business leaders are braced for two days of industrial paralysis.
A team of seven U.N. observers arrived yesterday to join three other U.N. representatives who have been in South Africa for the past two weeks on a mission led by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Mr. Vance said he would make recommendations on what future role the United Nations could play in assisting the South African reform process.