PRIVATE armies on the left and the right in South Africa have marked the new year by unleashing a campaign of terror designed to wreck attempts to create a nonracial democracy.
Apparently concerned at the prospect of a new, nonracial society being achieved at the ballot box, these groups have turned to bombs and bullets to protest the swift progress being made towards a political settlement.
Six explosions in the town of Nelspruit, east of Johannesburg, early on Jan. 1 caused almost $1 million in damage and marked the start of a campaign by white extremists to target multiracial schools for further terrorist attacks.
A right-wing group calling itself the Afrikaner Volkstaat Beweging (AVB) claimed responsibility for the blasts. A spokesman for the group said they were not prepared to share power with "barbarians."
In the first three days of 1992, five black policemen were killed in separate incidents in townships around Johannesburg. The black Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA) - the military wing of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) - claimed responsibility for two of the murders. 'Comical situation'
The PAC's general secretary, Benny Alexander, refused to distance himself from the APLA actions. Indeed, Mr. Alexander shocked South Africans by saying he found something strangely humorous about the killings: "If APLA attacks unarmed civilians, it is a serious matter. But if they attack armed, well-trained, arms-in-hand forces who fail to return fire and run away in numerical strength, then it becomes a very comical situation."
His statements will reinforce suspicions of some that the PAC is "pandering" to the so-called "lost generation" - the militant black youth of South African townships. The PAC refused to attend the recent Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), at which the government officially began negotiating the end of white minority rule.
Instead, the PAC says it is about to launch a campaign called "Death to CODESA," opposing the creation of the first nonracial constitutional forum.
The bombings by the white right-wing groups and the refusal of the PAC to distance itself from the killings of the policemen prompted Minister of Law and Order Hernus Kriel to pledge a clampdown on private armies.
But the task is a complicated one, as groups such as the African National Congress (ANC) argue that the real problem lies with government hit squads still roaming the townships. The ANC argues that black liberation movements can never agree to disband their military wings while the government fails to stop the spiraling township violence.
South Africa's Security Council last year decided that banning private armies would only drive them further underground and make them more popular. Cultural weapons ruling
The sudden display of aggression by private armies has tended to overshadow the progress being made behind the scenes on another issue which has contributed to violence in South Africa - the carrying of so-called cultural weapons at political rallies.
For a hundred years, the original version of the Natal Code of Zulu Law made it a crime to carry or publicly display dangerous weapons, including spears. But last August, President Frederik de Klerk amended this to allow an exemption for Zulus, saying he was attempting to uphold a coveted African tradition.
This caused great suspicion among ANC members, because many Zulus belong to the Inkatha Freedom Party, which has been involved in bloody conflicts with the ANC in the townships.
On Dec. 13, Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Didcott ruled in favor of a freelance journalist, Solomon Lechesa Tsenoli, who applied to have Mr. De Klerk's amendments declared invalid.
Human rights lawyers have hailed the decision and are urging the president to use the ruling as a precedent for the banning of cultural weapons nationwide.
Only a week before the court ruling was handed down, at least 17 people died after a rally in Soweto township addressed by Inkatha Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, at which his supporters carried spears and other traditional weapons.
Referring to the violence in Natal alone, in which 6,000 people have died in the last five years, Justice Didcott said he found it "hard to understand why, in a state of affairs so [perilous]," the recent exemption should have been effected in the first place. "[A] century of proscription makes it hard to regard any such practice nowadays as a traditional one," he said.
Observers expect De Klerk to announce a major breakthrough on this issue when he opens Parliament later this month. South African lawyers say the court has now given the president a clear legal mandate to place a total ban - without special exemptions for Zulus or any other groups.
Nicholas Hansom of the Center for Applied Legal Studies here says: "It will provide a basis on which De Klerk can build when he issues his proclamation on dangerous weapons."
Professor Hansom says adoption of the judgment would mean banning the carrying of traditional weapons in South Africa as a whole, and ordering police to extend the application of the law to members of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party.
Inkatha central committee member Walter Felgate immediately declared that, in spite of the decision, Zulus would continue to carry "traditonal weapons" to political rallies and cultural events.
He was repeating the defiant stand of Chief Buthelezi, who, while pointing with a ceremonial rod, told September's National Peace Summit that his supporters would never give up their right to carry cultural weapons. But officials in the broad-based peace committee overseeing the implementation of South Africa's peace accord are optimistic that Inkatha will eventually drop its resistance to such a ban.