THE South African government is facing increasing political and diplomatic pressure to review its opposition to an international peacekeeping force to counter escalating political violence in the country's black townships as political parties begin preparing for the first nonracial ballot.
"There should be international monitoring of the situation, and it should be looked at as a matter of some urgency," says African National Congress (ANC) spokeswoman Gill Marcus.
Since a National Peace Accord was signed by the major parties to the violence last September, more than 1,400 people have died in township political violence, which ranges from random attacks on commuters through group attacks on squatter camps and political assassinations.
In the past eight weeks, more than 600 people have died in violence in the black areas - mainly in the over-crowded townships around Johannesburg and the peri-urban and rural areas of Natal province, where a vicious civil war is being waged between supporters of the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).
Western diplomats and human rights lawyers believe that it would be impossible to hold an election in the current climate, and that the widely discredited South African security forces have neither the credibility nor the collective will to stabilize the situation.
This was born out by an incident in the Phola Park squatter camp east of Johannesburg on April 8, when a controversial South African Defense Force Unit - known as 32 Battalion - went on the rampage after the soldiers say they were fired on, allegedly beating, assaulting, and raping more than 100 people.
"It is quite clear that you could not hold elections in the current climate," says Lloyd Vogelman, director of the Project for the Study of Violence at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University. Climate for elections
This view was underscored in a recent report by a group of visiting international jurists who studied the violence at the invitation of Lawyers for Human Rights, a human rights lobby group.
The jurists found that both the ANC and the IFP had stepped up violent attacks on each other and that it would be impossible to hold free and fair elections under the circumstances.
Mr. Vogelman says that an international force would have to include policing and judicial elements and would need to work closely with existing security forces and law officers.
"It can't just be a United Nations peacekeeping force," he says. "It would have to be able to prosecute and have the power of arrest."
A human rights lawyer involved in the follow-up investigation of a judicial commission into the violence told the Monitor that he believed the viciousness of the attack by 32 Battalion was linked to indications that ANC-inspired "defense units" had taken control at the camp, and had ousted community leaders responsible for the defense of the squatter area.
"There is an uncontrollable spiral of attack and counter-attack which is getting increasingly difficult to control," the lawyer said. "The ANC may have to review its whole strategy of defense units if the situation is to be brought under political control."
There is growing concern among human rights lawyers and community workers that only a dramatic political intervention can halt the current cycle of violence before a long-term culture of violence becomes entrenched.
"It is a Catch-22 situation," says a Western diplomat. "It is perhaps only a democratic election which could help stabilize the situation in the long-term. But the question is: Can you hold an election in the present climate?"
Political organizations exchange recriminations about the cause of the violence, and it is now widely accepted that elements of the security forces - acting in concert with right-wing elements bent on sabotaging the negotiations - are responsible for a great deal of the violence. Destabilize townships
"We believe that the purpose of the violence is to destabilize the townships and to hamper ordinary political organization and mobilization ahead of democratic elections," says Safoora Sadek, coordinator of the anti-apartheid Human Rights Commission (HRC), which monitors the violence on a day-to-day basis.
A joint study by the HRC and the Community Agency for Social Inquiry (Case) indicates that the most intense periods of violence coincide with key events in the negotiating process and efforts to create peace.
"The violence appears to be switched on and off at strategic moments," says Ms. Sadek.
ANC President Nelson Mandela called for an international monitoring force after visiting strife-torn Alexandra township earlier this month. Mr. Mandela's call represents a subtle shift in the ANC's position in the direction of greater international involvement to control the escalating violence, a call which has long been made by the rival Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).
"It would have to be a peacekeeping force of some magnitude," concedes ANC spokeswoman Marcus, adding that international bodies like the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and the Commonwealth - who have all given their full backing to the interracial negotiating forum, Codesa - could be approached.
"The dynamics that are being set in motion by the present spiral of violence have disastrous consequences for the future," says Marcus. Powersharing agreement
As political, diplomatic and human rights circles worry about the prospects for holding an election under current conditions, CODESA wrestles with the detail of a deal which would secure agreement on sharing power during a phased transition to majority rule - and setting a date for the first democratic poll. While leaders of the various negotiating groups are making public appearances to bolster their support in the process, the work on the negotiating front itself has bogged down. The next round of CODE SA talks are expected to take place in the middle of May.
In the past six weeks, township violence has reached its highest levels since August 1990, when the decision by the ANC to suspend its 29-year-old "armed struggle" to end white rule triggered a new wave of violence, which has raged in varying intensity since that date.