THE latest violence against defenseless black township residents in South Africa should have shattered for good a number of myths. This was not ``spontaneous'' violence, as has been officially claimed. When 1,000 Zulus poured out of their hostels, armed with spears and axes, they proceeded according to plan. The police, typically, appeared on the scene too late to do much but escort the murderous raiders back to their dwellings. The single-sex hostels occupied by Zulu contract workers have limited access and are set apart. Couldn't they be closely watched by police to head off the marauders who flow from them?
Even better, the hostel system should be phased out entirely, as the African National Congress, whose supporters are the targets of Zulu raids, have demanded.
Last weekend's murder of another 27 township residents - pushing the total killed in the last month well above 200 - should have made it clear, too, that efforts to disarm warring factions must include so-called ``traditional'' weapons. Spears can be just as lethal as guns.
President Frederik de Klerk last week agreed to deploy more forces to block the violence, enforce a strict curfew, and take other measures. Mr. De Klerk also committed himself to disarming the combatants and addressing the hostel problem.
Those commitments must be followed by concrete actions, or the most cherished hope of all - that the current process of political change in South Africa is irrerversible - could itself be shattered.
The government has raised that possibility by threatening to reimpose a state of emergency if the violence doesn't ebb. But a retreat to emergency measures could wreck the liberalization that has allowed the ANC and other groups to prepare themselves for full participation in the country's evolution. A reimposed emergency would play into the hands of radicals in the ANC who have always preferred confrontation.
This week's conviction of Winnie Mandela on kidnapping charges adds to the political uncertainty.
Mr. Mandela is heading toward an ANC conference this summer, at which he must be able to show colleagues that the dialogue with De Klerk has paid off. He, and the country as a whole, need to see such actions as the replacing of violence-breeding hostels, as well as thorough investigations of incidents of violence.
Only the government can take these steps. De Klerk must demonstrate his commitment to a just South Africa and dispel suspicions that the government's real purpose is to sow dissension in the ANC.