Inkatha's Reluctant OK

CHIEF Mangosuthu Buthelezi's 11th-hour decision April 19 to bring his Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) into South Africa's electoral process is a welcome development. His move does not guarantee violence-free elections April 26-28, but it substantially decreases the likelihood of violence during balloting.

The pressures on all sides to bring Inkatha into the process were enormous. Inkatha had put itself in the unenviable position of asking its mainly Zulu followers - who had the opportunity to take part in elections for the first time in the country's history - not to vote. Some of the concerns Chief Buthelezi raised about the rival African National Congress's quest for a strong national government were shared by many, including many white liberals who opposed apartheid. Among the troubling issues: granting powers to states that the national government could nevertheless override; and allowing political parties to strip dissenters within their ranks in parliament of party membership and hence of their seats.

Yet any debates over the merits of such issues were drowned out by Buthelezi's appeals to ethnic pride and to fear of tribal eradication at the hands of the ANC, and by the street battles between the two groups that ensued. He faced increasing isolation: Former black homelands were reintegrated into the country; and other members of the so-called Freedom Alliance, which included white right-wing groups opposed to the ANC, peeled off one by one to participate. His isolation was magnified when international mediators left the country within 48 hours of their arrival, citing Inkatha's continued insistence on postponing elections until differences were resolved. Ulti- mately, his hard-line stance was going to cost him power.

But the ANC and the ruling National Party also were under pressure. Election-day violence would intimidate voters, undercut the vote's legitimacy, and discourage international investment, which will be vital if South Africa is to meet the economic expectations of its black majority. As if to underscore the point, South Africa's stock market rallied and its currency strengthened following the announcement of the agreement.

Buthelezi painted himself into a corner, and ANC leader Nelson Mandela and President Frederik de Klerk gave him an exit. We hope such ``good faith'' efforts carry over into post-election talks.

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