The number of people killed in race riots and confrontations with police in South Africa during the past 19 months passed the 600 mark this week, and included a number of Indians. At Sharpeville in 1960 the total killed was 69. The toll in the Soweto riots in 1976-77 is on the record at 575 killed.
Of the more than 600 killed during the current run of interracial tension in South Africa, 120 have been killed since July 21. That was the date that President Pieter W. Botha declared a state of emergency in certain areas and expanded the police's powers of arrest and detention. The declaration of emergency may have had the effect of quickening and intensifying the unrest and violence. The killings have focused world attention on South Africa.
This is not a situation like Iran where the Shah and his army supporters had the weapons but were unwilling to use them. In this case the dominant whites have the weapons and use them.
Also, this is not a situation like Kenya and Rhodesia where most of the whites were recent arrivals who could go back to their original European homes or to South Africa. Most of the whites of South Africa are descended from people who began arriving at the same time the Pilgrims from England were landing at Plymouth Rock and the Protestants from northern England and Scotland were settling in Ulster.
The white Afrikaners of South Africa are natives. They have no other homeland. There is not the slightest thought among them of going away and leaving their homes, their land, their farms, their mines and factories and banks and businesses to the blacks, even though those blacks outnumber them about 5 to 1.
This is not a prerevolutionary situation in the sense that the blacks might suddenly gain military superiority and take over the country. But there is a condition of tension which cannot go on indefinitely. Daily riotings, strikes, and killings take a toll on the South African economy. It can not indefinitely stand such turbulence and disruption of normal life.
Besides, popular disapproval in the outside world has reached the point at which the United States Congress will certainly impose economic sanctions on South Africa unless there is a prompt change in government policy there and a decline in the killings.
France has already banned new investments in South Africa. Canada announced yesterday it was recalling its ambassador to South Africa for consultations and promised further steps if Pretoria does not move toward ending apartheid.
Change is bound to come in South Africa. The immediate question is whether the government can come up with a package of changes sufficient to stem the present wave of unrest. That would allow at least a period of stability during which everyone could regroup and think over the difficult problems involved in devising a new and more stable political and economic system.
One of the unusual features of the present rioting has been that more Indians have been killed than whites. Rioting has occurred not just between whites and blacks, and blacks and blacks, but also between blacks and Indians.
South Africa is a country fragmented along racial lines. Curiously, religion is not an issue in this case. Nor is political ideology the main issue.
In many of the world's trouble spots religion is a major factor. In the Middle East, Muslims, Christians, and Jews form a triangular welter of problems. In Ireland it is Protestants versus Roman Catholics.
Ideology is a major cause of US-Soviet friction. One reason for strain in Soviet relations with China is difference over interpretation of communism. To the Soviets, the Chinese brand is as heretical as Martin Luther's version of Christianity seemed to Rome.
But in South Africa most blacks and whites are Christians. Although many whites fear that communist elements are encouraging black unrest, the black thrust is not toward nationalization of property, but toward political and social equality.
If the whites were to give the blacks ``one man, one vote'' there would be an immediate end to the high standard of living enjoyed by the dominant white minority. This may come someday in South Africa, but not for a long, long time.
The week has seen little other world news of major significance. In Central America we are waiting to see whether the newly launched ``contra'' invasion of Nicaragua can make a lasting lodgment inside the country. In the Middle East there is still maneuvering around King Hussein's peace initiative. Washington is still hoping something can come of it, and Israel is busy thinking up reasons why nothing can. Finally, Moscow and Washington continued their presummit propaganda.