AS Pretoria and the African National Congress prepare for their first round of direct talks in two weeks time, a nationwide resurgence of violence is threatening to erode the positions of moderates on both sides. There is evidence that neither anti-apartheid groups allied to the African National Congress nor government security forces are able to control radical elements in their ranks.
While recent clashes have not yet endangered the talks scheduled for April 11, the rapid polarization tends to strengthen the hand of radicals in both camps.
Anti-apartheid leaders say that it is becoming increasingly difficult to control militant youths in the black townships, particularly when emotions are inflamed by police action.
Following Monday's fatal shooting of at least nine black demonstrators in Sebokeng, a sprawling black township 35 miles south of Johannesburg (some 448 were injured by police fire), anti-apartheid leaders have begun to publicly doubt the sincerity of the government's intention to allow peaceful protest.
Anti-apartheid leaders and eyewitnesses say that police opened fire without warning or provocation on about 50,000 marchers who were waiting for a black police officer to hand a list of grievances to white officers at a police barricade.
Police say that they opened fire in self-defense against a mob armed with sticks, stones, and iron bars.
``The protesters have very legitimate grievances,'' says sociologist Duncan Innes. ``But right-wing elements in the police who have no interest in negotiations are opening fire to sabotage negotiations. Blacks will then say: how can you negotiate with people who shoot you down?''
``And so,'' Mr. Innes adds, ``the situation rapidly polarizes, strengthening the position of the more radical Africanists [main rivals of the ANC].''
Anti-apartheid leaders insist that the sole purpose of the protest march was to highlight black grievances which have changed little from those that sparked off a nationwide black rebellion in 1984. The first clash over rent increases occurred in Sebokeng that year, and the anger of the crowd turned on black councilmen backed by Pretoria who were regarded as collaborators.
Since Mr. De Klerk relaxed restrictions on anti-apartheid groups two months ago, the anti-apartheid leaders have drawn attention to the same grievances by organizing protests against rents and electricity tariffs and demanding the resignation of black councilmen.
A visit to Sebokeng the day after the shootings revealed a township still suffering from the same neglect and overcrowding that sparked the 1984 violence.
While some modern houses have sprung up near the matchbox-like dwellings in which most residents live, most roads are unpaved and sometimes impassible. Piles of refuse lie at street corners and schools are run-down and hopelessly overcrowded. The ``new'' South Africa seems remote here. And expectations created by recent political changes appear impossible to meet.
Angry youths erect makeshift barricades of rocks and iron railings to block police vehicles. On Tuesday they were engaging in running battles with black policemen. Older residents, resigned to daily battles, huddle in their homes, hoping that the sounds of raining rocks and gunfire will eventually subside.
Local white councilmen have been demanding police reinforcements to protect nervous whites.
``Do the police have to be reinforced every time the blacks say: `Ouch, it hurts to live under apartheid?''' asks United Democratic Front activist Bavumile Vilakazi, one of the leaders of Monday's march. ``Does this mean that blacks have to be killed when engaging in peaceful protest?''
``We want to give our leaders a mandate for negotiations, but this sort of action makes us doubt the sincerity of the government and whether it can control its police force,'' Mr. Vilakazi says.
ANC veteran Walter Sisulu blames the shootings on right-wing elements in the police force who did not want the ANC and the government to negotiate. But both Mr. Sisulu and Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok have reaffirmed their commitment to negotiations.
Monday's confrontation between armed riot police and a peaceful protest march in Sebokeng illustrated how volatile the political situation is and how quickly it could spin out of control.
There were dozens of eyewitnesses to the confrontation. ``There was a volley of shots,'' says Herbert Mabuza, a photographer of the Johannesburg Star who witnessed the shootings. ``Then there was silence. The police started laughing. The crowd seemed frozen for a second; then started screaming. They turned and ran, fighting and jumping over each other to get away from the police.''
Charles Motaung, whose 20-year-old brother Philip was shot dead, says leaders of the march were trying to persuade people to return to the township when police opened fire.
``I saw police shooting straight into the crowd while they [the crowd] were turning around to go back into the township.''