THE weekend terrorist attack that killed four and injured 17 whites attending a country club Christmas party in the eastern Cape marked a new phase of political violence and highlights the need for a swift transition to democracy, according to academics, politicians, and Western diplomats.
The grenade and automatic rifle attack, which took place in the King William's Town golf club on Saturday night, has been condemned by the National Party, the African National Congress (ANC), and human rights groups.
But the radical Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) has refused to confirm or deny a police claim that its military wing, the Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (APLA), was responsible for the attack.
"There is a lot of international hullabaloo around the attack purely because white people have died," said PAC Secretary-General Benny Alexander in an official PAC statement.
It was the first carefully planned attack on white civilians at a social gathering in four years, although there have been a series of random gun attacks on white civilians in vehicles close to black townships in recent months.
Such attacks against black civilians are commonplace. Over the past weekend 20 black people were killed by unidentified gunmen and grenades in three separate incidents in Tembisa township near Johannesburg, and at Umlazi and KwaMashu townships near Durban in Natal Province. Organized operation
"The country is entering a new phase of violence," says Lloyd Vogelman, director of the Project for the Study of Violence at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
"It was clearly a relatively organized attack by well-trained people and it was very bold," Mr. Vogelman says. "I think one can expect a lot more organized attacks on white civilians."
He says violence could "skyrocket" in the months ahead - particularly in the eastern Cape where there is a high level of disillusionment, a steady flow of arms, and growing tensions between the ANC and the rival PAC.
Vogelman said that as a political deal on an interim government drew closer there could be an escalation of attacks from the radical PAC, disillusioned elements within the ANC, and members of the "third force" - a right-wing grouping in the security forces that has tried to undermine a political settlement.
"I would say we are about 18 months away from near-anarchy and levels of violence which will take a long time to stop," Vogelman says. "The only way to halt the current trend is to move swiftly to a democratic election and a transitional government of national unity which can begin to reverse the break-down of law and order."
Vogelman says the current deterioration of the security situation is the result of weak political groups lacking control their wilder elements, and widespread mistrust in the police force and the system of criminal justice.
This has led to increasing acts of informal retribution and lawlessness which some justified in terms of political arguments.
"In this climate there is a continual blurring of the lines between political violence and crime," Vogelman says. "Only when there is a government of national unity will it be possible to create a new social morality." ANC response
The ANC described the weekend attack as "an outrageous act of naked terrorism."
"This type of atrocity only serves the interests of those who are trying to derail the negotiation process through violence," the ANC said. "It must send a clear signal to all South Africans that there must be no delay in the transition process."
The PAC, which still wages an armed struggle against apartheid from outside the country, has a policy of not commenting on the actions of its military wing, which runs as a separate operation.
The PAC statement cast doubt over the police claim that they had been telephoned by an APLA spokesman claiming responsibility for the attack.
The statement expressed the group's anger at the National Party regime, the police, and the media for ignoring attacks on black civilians and playing up white deaths by labeling the club incident a "massacre." The group criticized the police for offering a reward of 50,000 rand ($16,500) and sending 42 police vehicles to the scene of the attack.
"It is this type of racial attitude by the regime, the security forces, and the media which leads many ordinary Africans to the conclusion that the violence will be treated more seriously - and indeed ended - if it is not confined only in the townships but spills over to white areas," the PAC statement said.
When news of the attack was broken to Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu after a church service at nearby Uitenhage, he buried his forehead in his hands and murmured repeatedly: "It's horrible, it's horrible."
Also on Saturday, four members of a white family in Veereniging, south of Johannesburg, were killed and their 8-year-old son critically wounded by an armed robber. An 18-year-old black man was arrested Sunday in connection with the indicent.
Since January an average of 308 people have died monthly in political violence and more than 200 policemen have been killed.