JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA. — Johannesburg, South Africa. -- Watching the negotiated struggle for democracy in this country is reminiscent of that old saw about how you don't want to see sausage being made if you ever intend to eat some. The final product might be fine, but taking a gander at what goes into it can make one a bit queasy.
The latest product on the South African democracy shelves is the Transition Executive Council, or TEC for short. The idea is that since the government is essentially a discredited institution elected only by the small white minority, and since the ruling National Party is an active political player, there is no way to trust it to put on a fair election with everything from a state-run television to its police force to disperse and enforce its viewpoint.
So, along with media and electoral commissions, the multi-party, multi-racial TEC is supposed to insure that the elections, set for April 27, are played on the proverbial level field.
But there is a bit of fudging going on here. The TEC will somehow run a country that is still being run by another government which is not giving up its constitutional power. Indeed, the TEC will get its power from that government's Parliament which is meeting in a special session starting tomorrow to pass the TEC and related bills.
The fudge is accomplished by making the TEC a huge advisory commission to the government. It has the power to overrule decisions, but only by mustering a nearly impossible 80 percent majority vote on most crucial issues.
But as a matter of political reality, the government will not have the legitimacy to go against a TEC demand. Parliament is already taking a back seat to the negotiations seeking a new democratic South Africa. The power base and media spotlight have moved from Cape Town and Pretoria to the World Trade Center in suburban Johannesburg, where those negotiations are taking place.
So, the TEC is going to be where the action is. Or, as the case may be, where the inaction is.
There is a child-is-father-to-the-man situation here, as the TEC is basically going to be the same group that brought it so painstakingly into existence.
That would be the 26-party negotiating committee that began its life by almost falling apart over an inability to name itself. It never did manage to accomplish that task, though the media finally pinned the moniker Multi Party Talks on it.
In the early excitement over the democratization process, there seemed to have been a feeling that the new South Africa would spring to life from a fertile bed of goodwill and brotherly love. Disagreements were unseemly.
Though that early excitement has faded, the abhorrence of disagreements has not. All too often, in an effort to avoid a disagreement, the Multi Party Talks have avoided making a decision. Whether it's over the date for the election or the details of the TEC, the talks drag on and on and on, missing deadline after deadline, until finally the agreement is reached, more in a spirit of tedium and boredom than goodwill and brotherly love.
Even so, almost every tough decision has caused a walkout of some sort. The TEC was fashioned with the Inkatha Freedom Party, the government of KwaZulu, the homeland run by Inkatha, and the right wing white Conservative Party absent from the table.
Maybe the incessant seeking of consensus is proper in negotiations like this, but it's no way to run a railroad, not to mention a country in dire need of strong leadership if it is to avoid descending into chaos.
So the question that faces South Africa is if, in its metamorphosis from the Multi Party Talks to the TEC, this animal will find a backbone.
It will need one because South Africa will be looking to the TEC to do something about its most pressing problem -- the proliferation of violence such as the brutal murder of 21 blacks at a taxi stand less than 24 hours after the talks agreed on the TEC proposal.
Even if you grant the current government the best of intentions, it will never be able to deal effectively with violence in the black townships. Its police and defense forces were used for so long to enforce the hated apartheid laws that the communities will continue to distrust them and suspect them of involvement in violence.
The TEC will have the weapon it needs to fight violence in the form of a National Peacekeeping Force made up of the various military and police forces of the TEC's members, meaning it will include the armies that, until a few years ago, were fighting against the apartheid regime.
Combine control of that force with the TEC's ability to ferret out at least some of the secrets of the current government -- and thus reveal if the police have been playing a sinister role in the violence they are supposed to be combating -- and you have the possibility that South Africa will have a police force that the majority of its citizens deem legitimate.
Inkatha's leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, has already tried to set this force up for failure. He blames the army of the dominant African National Congress (ANC) for attacks on Inkatha members and he refuses to allow his KwaZulu police to join a force that includes these "terrorists."
These ANC soldiers are going to be an important part of the National Peacekeeping Force, so if the force takes any action against Inkatha members, Mr. Buthelezi will denounce it as a vendetta carried out by ANC henchmen.
Similarly the Conservative Party will undoubtedly try to rally its mainly rural supporters against this force which will contain so many of its old enemies.
To stem the violence that is the greatest threat to a free and fair election, the TEC is going to have to take some tough stands, to crack down hard in the townships, to risk making a few people mad in order to insure that the vast majority get a chance at the pursuit of happiness.
The danger is that the TEC will revert to its Multi Party Talks ways, dickering, say, over how many members of this army or that police force should be represented in some segment of the National Peacekeeping Force, never taking strong action because that might offend someone.
Then, instead of making a new nation, the TEC would be making sausage while South Africa burns.
Michael Hill is The Baltimore Sun's Johannesburg correspondent.