VIOLENCE seems to have gained the upper hand in South Africa for now. The June 18 attack on the township of Boipatong, during which at least 40 residents were brutally massacred, brought to a boil the frustrations of the country's black majority.
African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela has cut off bilateral talks with the government, and the multiparty Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), inaugurated late last year, is threatened.
President Frederik de Klerk, chased away when he tried to visit the scene of the slaughter, dismissed reportedly eye-witness accounts of security police aiding Zulu marauders from a nearby workers' hostel.
This angry stand-off can't last. Mr. Mandela and the ANC will have to resume talks with the government, talks that have come tantalizingly close to fruition.
The deadlock in CODESA over protection of minorities versus rule by the majority won't be easy to resolve, but other dicey issues - like the integration of black guerrillas into the national armed forces - have been successfully negotiated. It's far from hopeless.
Many in the ANC believe the government is fomenting violence so that it can slap on a new state of emergency and perpetuate white rule. Reports of a government plan to spark violence are being circulated.
After he was forced to flee Boipotang, Mr. De Klerk made cryptic reference to a reimposed emergency. That tactic, however, would erase gains and reforms already won by De Klerk. As he has repeatedly said, there is no path back to apartheid.
Why do fresh outbreaks of violence so often come at politically sensitive junctures? The Boipotang incident seemed geared to sabotage tense negotiations between the ANC and the government. Collusion between renegade elements in the police and violent elements in the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, acknowledged to have happened in the past, is a recurrent charge.
De Klerk must convincingly respond to such charges and thus try to rebuild trust. He could more forcefully address the problem of hostels like the one that spawned the June 18 massacre, perhaps closing some. He could initiate an independent commission, representing various racial and ethnic groups, to investigate and possibly head off township violence. He could follow up current arrests with vigorous prosecutions of those involved in the Boipotang outrage. He, along with Mandela, could explore ways that
international peacekeepers might play a role.
This is a low point in South Africa's transition from apartheid. The government must show that it's ready to move more quickly toward a multiracial interim administration and a new constitution. The inclination toward a long, drawn-out process perilously ignores the depth of black South Africans' impatience.
Mandela and his colleagues, meanwhile, have to keep the bridges to negotiation open and not capitulate to violence-prone militants in their own ranks.