OVER the past few months, events in South Africa have spun a narrative of progress and cautious hope - the unbanning of the African National Congress and other opposition organizations, the dramatic release of Nelson Mandela, the inching toward negotiations to end apartheid and enfranchise blacks. Carefully orchestrating these developments has been South Africa's reform-minded president, Frederik de Klerk. During the same period, however, another, more ominous story has been unfolding in South Africa - disclosures of a secret army unit that for more than a decade has systematically murdered and intimidated opponents of apartheid, both black and white.
Last week a formal judicial inquiry began into the so-called Civil Cooperation Bureau. Allegations of its Gestapo tactics have been mounting since November, when a former member of one of the unit's death squads confessed to murders he committed. These squads may have been responsible for 100 assassinations since 1977.
The disclosures come at what seems, in some respects, an unpropitious time, for they divert government and public attention from the urgent need to get on with negotiations, and they could weaken Mr. De Klerk and undercut his program. They could also impede negotiations by emboldening black militants in their political demands or by provoking a backlash by white hard-liners.
But because the evil existed, it had to be exposed. De Klerk doesn't appear to be implicated in the terrorism, so the disclosures give him a chance to exert firm moral leadership. He should begin by firing Defense Minister Magnus Malan, whose weasel-worded assertion that he didn't order any murders leaves many questions unanswered.
Despite the government's political embarrassment, De Klerk can use the death-squad reports as a chance to distance his progressive vision from the savage element in the Afrikaner legacy.