Back to the Table in South Africa


The African National Congress made some points with its two-day general strike and mass demonstrations this week. One is that it speaks for a great many South Africans: the number of workers who stayed away from their jobs was estimated at two million by the employers and four million by the unions. The other is that political violence within the black population undermines peaceful change and is abetted by white authorities who ought to be trying to stop it.

Those points made, the ANC ought to go back to the bargaining process. It might have called symbolically for the end of President F. W. de Klerk's regime during those demonstrations, but meanwhile it needs to talk to Mr. de Klerk and agree on an orderly transition to a regime chosen by all South Africans.

The ANC had to make such gestures when it suspended constitutional talks after the June 17 massacre of 42 ANC supporters in Boipatong Township by Zulu residents loyal to the rival Inkatha Freedom Party. Despite government and police denials of police complicity, a commission headed by a respected judge has begun hearings. That, and the United Nations dispatch of observers to monitor violence, internationalizing the issue, provide assurance the ANC needs to return to the talks.

Despite its rhetoric, the ANC depends on this process as much as the government does. It is just as threatened by anarchy such as that at Sebokeng, a township near Boipatong where government authority is gone and the ANC supposedly rules through a civic association. Two journalists were shot nearby while trying to get there, all public services are being destroyed and the life of the people is getting drastically worse.

The ANC president, Nelson Mandela, though urging continued economic sanctions against his country, helped to weaken them in spirit by using his boycott of talks to visit the South African team at the opening of the Olympics in Barcelona. His presence supported South African athletes of all races and ethnicities and tacitly acknowledged the distance that official South Africa has already come. He sat with prime ministers and kings and seemed to be, already, part of the government of South Africa.

The government of Mr. de Klerk needs to gain control of security forces and purge them of any remaining intent to sabotage progress, inherited from Mr. de Klerk's predecessors in power. And Mr. Mandela needs to get on with cooperation in planning the transition he demands. There isn't much doubt that both of them know it.

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