'Yes' to South Africa's Future

SOUTH Africa is irreversibly on track toward multiracial democracy. The country's last whites-only election confirmed that Tuesday. President Frederik de Klerk got the overwhelming mandate he sought to continue negotiating a new political structure with the black majority.

That negotiating process is nearing completion. The parties taking part in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) are putting final touches on a proposal for an interim government, including blacks, that will administer the country and hold a nonracial election for a constituent assembly.

White South Africans' resounding "yes" this week means the process will move ahead even faster. Mr. De Klerk's margin of victory confirmed his sharp political instincts. His chief collaborators in reform, Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the African National Congress, had balked at the idea of another white vote, but they join in cheering the referendum's success.

Unfortunately, the vote is not likely to stop the violence that has shadowed every step away from the darkness of apartheid. Some white extremists have vowed civil war before they submit to a government in which black South Africans have a part. De Klerk faces difficult decisions about just how tough he will get with renegade whites.

The yes vote on reform, however, could undermine the hard line championed by Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht; more moderate elements in that party may now steer it toward participation in CODESA.

Black extremism is a constant danger too. The killings in black townships seem to increase at crucial political junctures - provoked by those who want to deepen black despair and white fear.

But those emotions should gradually subside as South Africans as a whole take up the work of rebuilding their society. Whites, for the most part, recognize that their country's future - as a respected member of the international community and as an economic power - depends on a just political system. Many blacks, meanwhile, show a remarkable ability to move their long struggle into a new stage of partnership with whites.

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