UN Weighs Role In Curbing Violence In South Africa

THE United Nations Security Council is offering its help to get South Africa's interracial constitutional talks back on track. The question is whether the Pretoria government and the African National Congress (ANC) are willing to compromise and trust one other enough to make good use of the offer.

The UN action, widely considered a modest but key first step in what could become more lengthy UN involvement, followed a marathon two-day emergency session of the Council requested by the Organization of African Unity (OAU).

Representatives of more than three dozen African nations, regional and internal South African groups, and Council member nations voiced their concerns Wednesday and Thursday about escalating violence within South Africa and their hopes that progress toward nonracial democracy there would resume soon.

The Council condemned the violence in South Africa and asked UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to send a special representative there to talk with all parties, suggest ways to end the violence, and try to create conditions under which talks could resume. Mr. Boutros-Ghali had already proposed to Pretoria officials last week that he send Cyrus Vance, his special envoy in Yugoslavia's civil war, on a goodwill mission to South Africa.

ANC President Nelson Mandela would have liked the Council to do far more than it has. He has urged that the UN investigate and monitor the violence, and favors sending UN peacekeepers to the scene. The ANC leader delivered a hard-hitting speech to the Council, detailing numerous incidents of "organized and orchestrated" violence followed by what he described as feeble or nonexistent attempts at prosecution. By acts of both commission and omission, he said, Pretoria is legally responsible.

The UN has long been at odds with South Africa. The General Assembly was an early outspoken opponent of apartheid. It took many years for South Africa, which controlled Namibia under a League of Nations mandate, to see the UN as a rightful party to, rather than just a meddler in, the dispute over Namibia's future.

"I think it's quite a positive sign that [South African President Frederik] de Klerk is willing to give the UN some legitimacy in what one could easily define as a domestic issue," comments David Abernethy, a political scientist and African specialist at Stanford University.

Though Pretoria insists that South Africa must solve its own problems and seeks to limit any UN role, both the government and the ANC ultimately want the talks to continue. "Both sides clearly recognize the enormous costs of moving toward direct confrontation," Professor Abernethy says. "Neither has a stake in the indefinite postponement of a constitutional convention."

Yet for now distrust on both sides appears to run deep.

Mr. Mandela warned the Council to be wary of Pretoria's "sweet-sounding words." He said the ruling white minority "constantly" looks for ways to guarantee itself continued power, citing Pretoria's insistence on a minority veto in a constitution-making assembly that the ANC considers disproportionately high.

South African officials blame ethnic rivalry for the violence. "You can't lay that at the door of the government," insists a South African diplomat. Yet he concedes that some individuals in the security forces have clearly overstepped their orders. "Nobody's hands are clean," he says.

Speaker after speaker at the Council sessions deplored the violence in South Africa, stressing the need to end it before talks resume. United States Ambassador to the UN Edward Perkins, for instance, said the violence must be both examined and brought under control. "The world is watching," he said.

A number of speakers from developing nations picked up on the political point raised by Mandela. The mathematical formula devised by Pretoria to give the white minority a veto over majority actions cannot be ignored by the Council, insisted Zimbabwe's Foreign Minister, Nathan Shamuyarira. "That's what brought [the talks] to a halt," he said. "The international community cannot avoid addressing this matter."

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