Protest and Progress

LAST week's mass protests in South Africa could have pushed that country even further into violent confrontation. But the opposite appears to have happened. The strikes and marches called by the African National Congress were mostly peaceful. They provided needed political expression for the still-disenfranchised black majority and should help open the way for resumed negotiations.

By the ANC's estimate, the two-day national strike involved 4 million workers. Some people may have gone along with the strike because they feared retaliation. But the ANC managed to keep its radical elements under reasonable control. ANC leaders reportedly let the business community know they hoped to resume talks after the strike, thereby quelling concerns of long-term economic damage.

Nelson Mandela personally led a march of 10,000 ANC supporters to the halls of power in Pretoria. He called for quick progress toward "an interim government of national unity."

President Frederik de Klerk has little choice but to respond to that call. His government has to drop any lingering hopes of maintaining a semblance of minority rule and move as quickly as possible toward an elected constituent assembly that can draw up a new national charter - the elements of which have largely been agreed to.

The government has taken some steps to meet the ANC's basic condition for restarting talks: stopping the township violence. Mr. De Klerk has ordered a ban on dangerous weapons in "areas of unrest." And the official commission investigating the Boipatong massacre is acknowledged to be fair and diligent.

In addition, the government and the ANC may agree to an amnesty plan, applied both to security agents and to inmates described by the ANC as political prisoners.

For its part, the ANC has to continue to rein in its radicals. The successes of mass protest should not lead to excesses of protest; both sides will have to be flexible as talks resume.

The potential for violence and polarization remains great. But the potential for fruitful negotiations has grown, encouraged by the ANC's disciplined mass action, the government's readiness to move ahead, and international involvement through United Nations observers and envoys.

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