S. Africa breathes easier on debt issue, but sees little relief from township unrest

A rare crisis talk between South Africa's white government and a key black critic has offered a chance to show that dialogue can work -- and the major risk of showing that it doesn't. Last Friday's meeting of Nobel prize-winner Bishop Desmond Tutu and Adriaan Vlok, white Deputy Minister of both Defense and Law and Order came amid new signs of the gap between black political demands and the government's vision of gradual ``reform.''

Meanwhile, the announcement of an interim truce in South Africa's feud with foreign bankers may reinforce goverment confidence in its recipe for incremental change. ``We can smile again,'' crowed a pro-government paper Saturday.

Bishop Tutu received a skeptical hearing from some 30,000 fellow blacks in the riot-scarred township of Alexandra Friday when he returned to report to residents there on his meeting with Mr. Vlok.

The bishop told the crowd that President Botha had sent word ``he was busy and that Mr. Vlok [would] talk to us'' and then report back to the President.

Violence in the past week -- involving black youths and South African police and soldiers -- has claimed at least 23 lives in teeming Alexandra, near Johannesburg. One community leader says roughly twice as many may, in fact, have died.

At time of writing Sunday, the area was reported quiet. But police reports indicated there was violence throughout the weekend in several other black townships. Some 120 people have died in South African political unrest since Jan. 1.

Following several days of unrest in Alexandra, that began when police clashed with a crowd gathered for the funeral of a local resident, Tutu and other anti-apartheid activists rushed to Cape Town to try to mediate a peace accord.

They called on the government to withdraw troops in Alexandra and many other black areas under a state of emergency, which was declared last year. The group also asked the release of blacks detained during the urest in Alexandra, permission for a public funeral for the victims, and a countrywide end to the state of emergency.

The government, Tutu told the Alexandra crowd, was receptive to the idea of allowing a funeral ceremony. He said he had been assured officials would look into the other requests, although no action was taken.

Some in the crowd booed.

In a statement to the press, the bishop and his fellow envoys added that Vlok had proposed possible future meetings.

Future talks, however, are expected to depend, in part, on what the government does as a follow-up to the recent meeting with Tutu.

And, Alexandra's blacks are now looking for two early signs of good faith: permission to hold the public funeral; and freeing of the detainees.

``The fuse over there is very short,'' Tutu told reporters in Johannesburg Friday. And, a white sympathizer, Methodist clergyman Peter Storey, added: ``I don't think people recognize by what a slender thread the leadership of people who are pleading for peaceful change . . . is at present hanging.''

A black church leader explained: ``What the government regards as reform is, in the black community . . . regarded as a futile exercise.''

Symptomatic of the gap was the fact that the latest move to ease race-related restrictions -- effective Friday -- stirred little evident interest in black areas.

The change allows non-whites to own or operate businesses in downtown Johannesburg and Durban. Blacks, however, still are not allowed to live in such ``white'' areas.

Government supporters seem to feel vindicated in resisting more rapid change by the announcement that talks last Thursday with Western bankers yielded a formula to ease South Africa's debt-repayment crisis.

Last summer, Western bankers, alarmed over South African violence, refused to roll over $24 billion in debts. In response, Pretoria froze repayment on $14 of the $24 billion.

The new accord, arranged by a South African appointed Swiss mediator, falls closer to the banks' preferred terms than to South Africa's. It involves repayment of some $2 billion within a year and a fresh look at the debt situation by next February.

Some economists here say that if violence increases, and US political attention on South Africa resurges when the 1988 presidential election campaigning begins, the result may be a renewed debt crisis.

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