THE weekend battle between about 350 armed right-wing white farmers and a multiracial contingent of security forces marks a psychological turning point that could alter the balance-of-power in current negotiations between the government and black leaders. At least two farmers were injured in the gunfire in the early hours of Saturday morning as troop carriers formed a barrier between irate white farmers - gathered on a private farm - and about 400 unarmed black residents of a shanty settlement on adjacent government-owned land known as Goedgevonden (Dutch for ``well-founded''), about 135 miles west of Johannesburg.
The farmers had set a 48-hour deadline for the government to remove the black residents from the land. The situation was later defused when Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok persuaded the farmers to await the outcome of a court action on May 28.
It is the first time that security forces have fired live ammunition on right-wing whites and the first time in decades that a white government has opened fire on a white political demonstration.
``When the state fires on right-wing whites some kind of Rubicon has been crossed,'' said independent analyst Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, an Afrikaner who heads the pro-democracy Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa. ``It highlights [President Frederik] de Klerk's dilemma and should deepen understanding of the problems he faces.''
The clash coincided with talks between Mr. De Klerk and ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela over the issue of violence.
One of the issues in the talks is the question of police impartiality. Mr. Mandela has repeatedly charged that the government puts a higher value on white lives than it does on black lives when it comes to crowd control.
Some analysts believe that the confrontation at Goedgevonden could hasten the process of reform within the police force.
``With events like these, police are being ratcheted slowly into line as the defenders of the reform process,'' said Natal University political scientist Mervyn Frost. ``Despite themselves, police are being forced into a straight law-and-order role.''
``Far from this incident marking the beginning of a white-on-white civil war I think it is an important moment in history which could bring De Klerk and Mandela closer together,'' he said.
The black residents of Goedgevonden returned to the land last month after a 13-year absence. They were forcibly removed by the authorities in 1978 after more than three decades of occupying the land that they claim is rightfully theirs. There is legal precedent for the residents to claim the land after having lived on it for so long.
Now De Klerk says he is prepared to consider returning land to individuals who were dispossessed under apartheid rule.
Goedgevonden is about 10 miles from the ultra-conservative town of Ventersdorp amid maize, sunflower, and cattle farms.
Neighboring farmers have been renting the land from the government as grazing for their cattle for the past decade or so. They claim that the reoccupation of the land by black residents is illegal and has led to an increase in stock theft.
When former residents began reoccupying the land police erected a road-block at the entrance and blocked any further settlers returning to the land.
When this reporter visited the area Wednesday he was barred by an armed guard from the Department of Agriculture. Aid agencies have been allowed only brief access and have been prevented from taking water-trucks onto the land after a neighboring farmer cut the water supply to the black residents.
Although agriculture officials appear to be making life as difficult as possible for the black residents in the hopes that they will leave, De Klerk has clearly gone to considerable lengths to prevent white farmers from taking the law into their own hands.
Seven of neighboring farmers have brought a court application to have the black residents' presence made illegal - a step which would authorize their eviction by the state within 72 hours. The case is to be decided May 28.
Meanwhile the extreme-right Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB), which has its headquarters in Ventersdorp, has threatened to remove the residents of Goedgevonden if the government fails to do so by May 18.
It is not clear what role the Resistance Movement played in the attempted attack on Goedgevonden Saturday, but its fiery leader, Eugene Terreblanche, was seen in the area.
It appears that his movement was responsible for a simultaneous attack on a squatter camp in the black township of Tshing, near Ventersdorp, which left 17 black residents injured as whites smashed down the doors of shacks and beat the inmates with sticks and batons. The AWB and white farmers denied any coordination between the two attacks.
White soldiers on horseback armed with automatic rifles were sent to assist black policemen to guard the township after the attack.
``Luckily the police and the Army came to protect the people,'' Stefaans Jacobi, who was beaten by the right-wingers as he lay in his bed, told the Sunday Times of Johannesburg.