Bullets and Politics in South Africa


The bloody assault Sunday on South African church-goers was a repulsive piece of symbolism. Bad enough that a church was selected as a target in the continued civil strife as South Africa moves haltingly toward racial justice. But predominantly white St. James Church, affiliated with an evangelistic Anglican denomination, has been open to all races for 25 years and reached out to a nearby black township. This was not a random attack such as has been marring the efforts by majorities of blacks and whites to create a constitutional, multi-racial society. It was a calculated piece of terrorism designed to derail the negotiations leading to new elections in April.

Who were the terrorists? No group has claimed responsibility. The fact that it could have been white or black extremists -- the assassins were black, but that proves nothing -- is evidence enough of the challenge facing responsible leaders of both races. Happily, there are plenty on both sides, but there are also enough bitter-enders who demand power on their own terms to bloody the path toward truly democratic majority rule.

The 11 brutal murders Sunday were only a fraction of the racial and factional strife over the weekend. The pace has picked up since the Pretoria government and most political parties agreed to the nation's first really free elections. Terrorists representing extremists of both races are determined to block the creation of a strong government that could unite and strengthen the racially diverse nation. They can't be allowed to succeed.

What kind of government -- a strong central regime or a looser federation of provinces -- South Africa will have is a matter for all of its citizens to decide. How power will be divided among blacks, whites and others during a transition period of majority rule and the subsequent final permanent shape of the national government can be decided only by the one-man, one-vote election already accepted by all but the fanatics.

The world community has a stake in the outcome of these negotiations. It can influence them by casting its support in concrete terms to the moderates of both races and by withholding it from the extremists. Political freedom is an end in itself, but it is an empty victory without economic progress as well. The United States, international agencies, private investors and advocacy groups can and should arm the nation-builders in South Africa with the political and economic tools they need to guarantee freedom in April.

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