Small, Sure Steps in South Africa

SOUTH African President Frederik de Klerk opened on Jan. 29 what may well be the final segregated parliament in South Africa. Certainly it ought to be the final one, given all that Mr. de Klerk has said and done and the high expectations among blacks in the townships.

While De Klerk gave needed assurances to white South Africans that their rights and property would be protected under a new government, he also kept a steady hand on the wheel of reform: multiparty negotiations in March, initial power-sharing in June, and a transitional constitution in September. The president also plans to replace longtime conservative members of his Cabinet and has prepared to replace the racially segregated ministry of education with a nonracial one.

These are small but sure steps. Yet while the South African government's intentions seem direct and clear, troubles with the transition to an interim power-sharing government are mounting. It is not clear, for example, that enough agreement can be reached between the African National Congress (ANC) and National Party (NP) on basic issues in order to hold the national elections in March or April of 1994, which De Klerk originally promised.

But the most serious problem facing South Africa is the ongoing fissures and divisions in the ANC and NP. The departure of popular black leader Chris Hani from the ANC to devote full time to the Communist Party and the forming of a new party by Winnie Mandela are the tip of an iceberg of black discontent. The issue is an old one for any revolutionary struggle: Does the opposition continue to fight for full and absolute rights? Or does it negotiate and find agreement?

Such cracks could easily be exploited by extremes on both sides, white and black. Hence, we support the idea of a confidence-building referendum recently put forward to Monitor reporter John Battersby by mediator Frederick van Syl Slabbert. A referendum that reasserts a majority desire for change in South Africa would give De Klerk momentum in the coming transitional months. It would marginalize extremes on either side that want to thwart change in pursuit of a separate agenda - one that could easily lea d to violence.

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