JUDGE Richard Goldstone has the quiet confidence of a man who knows he is making a difference.
As head of the government-appointed commission probing political violence in this country, Justice Goldstone has emerged as arguably the most indispensable arbitrator in South Africa's turbulent transition to democracy.
African National Congress (ANC) head Nelson Mandela has sometimes questioned Goldstone's judgment, but never his integrity. President Frederik de Klerk has moved swiftly when chided by Goldstone over slow implementation of proposals.
"Anyone in public life has a duty to speak out on public issues," he said in a Monitor interview. "If there is doubt as to where a moral issue ends and a political issue begins, then judges should err on the side of speaking out."
Since the commission was formed in October 1991, Goldstone has become a household name here and was recently voted by a South African radio station as the top newsmaker of 1992 - well ahead of both Mr. Mandela and President De Klerk.
Political violence has not subsided significantly during his term: Between 200 and 300 people are killed every month, mainly in the simmering conflict in Natal province and the townships around Johannesburg. But diplomats and political scientists say that violence levels would be much higher without him.
"Perhaps even more significant than the specific achievements of the commission," says a Western diplomat who has closely monitored it, "is the fact that an institution with such credibility and authority ... could emerge from a society as polarized as South Africa." Rolling back apartheid
Goldstone left his stamp on the law books during a decade on the bench of the Transvaal Supreme Court (1980-90) with several judgments that played pivotal roles in rolling back the frontiers of legislative apartheid. The most notable of these was the 1981 ruling in the case of Gladys Govender v. the State that effectively halted the enforcement of the Group Areas Act, which segregated residential areas by race.
Goldstone says the credibility that his commission now enjoys has a lot to do with the credibility of the judiciary as an institution that survived the ravages of apartheid.
"At all times through the centuries," Goldstone says, "South Africa has had a truly independent judiciary. Throughout the years of apartheid, black people used the courts to establish civil rights.
Non-governmental organizations like the Legal Resources Centre were able to push back the frontiers of apartheid by using the courts."
Unlike some of his colleagues, Goldstone says he faced no moral dilemma over whether or not to accept an appointment as a judge during the apartheid era. He says judges have a duty to speak out.
By taking on the job of investigating political violence, Goldstone has had to negotiate his way through a quagmire of mistrust. He insists that it has not been as daunting as people make out.
But it has not always been smooth sailing.
He has been accused by the ANC of allowing his reports to be distorted by the government; he has been accused by government spokesmen of making "wild statements"; he has been cold-shouldered by the radical Pan-Africanist Congress - as well as by the reactionary Inkatha Freedom Party. The left-of-center newspaper Weekly Mail accused him of "matching criticism with praise and doling out each, in equal quantities, to everyone."
Some Western diplomats are concerned that the judge did not insist on a more hands-on approach to the investigation triggered by his dramatic raid last November on a company that served as a front for South African military intelligence.
There, the judge found evidence of involvement of the former head of military intelligence in recent "dirty tricks" to discredit the ANC.
Goldstone's public disclosure of the raid and his findings rocked the security establishment and forced De Klerk to act.
The president's decision to order Defense Force Chief-of-Staff Gen. Pierre Steyn to probe all intelligence activities - in cooperation with Goldstone - has presented a public challenge to the judge's authority.
After a much-publicized meeting with De Klerk, five days after Goldstone's disclosures of the raid, the judge opted to remain silent. He assured Western diplomats that he had both the resources and the authority to ensure that a thorough investigation would ensue.
In the past, he has acted swiftly to defuse threatening situations and he has consistently censured political leaders who make inflammatory political speeches. People's conduct changes
Goldstone has proposed practical measures to end violence on commuter trains, in taxis, in the mines, in men-only township hostels, and in the war-ravaged hills of Natal Province.
"The commission has been a vitally important safety valve," Goldstone told the Monitor in an interview in his Cape Town office overlooking Table Mountain.
The most important aspect of the commission, he says, is that it provides a "credible public instrument" to deal with disasters such as last summer's massacres at Boipatong and Bisho, Ciskei, and thus prevent a total breakdown in the negotiations between the ANC and the government over majority rule.
In addition to 18 reports on specific instances of violence, diplomats credit Goldstone's most important achievements as:
* His catalytic role in reversing the government's stand on an international role in the transition.
* Assisting De Klerk in acknowledging - and then taking on - subversive elements in the military.
* Providing a vehicle for restructuring the security forces.
The judge says that the involvement of the international community, which followed the breakdown in negotiations after the mas- sacre of 42 people at Boipatong, has been of paramount importance in reducing the levels of violence and changing patterns of behavior.
"People's conduct has changed as a result of the presence of international observers," he says.
In April last year - and in the face of strenuous government resistance - Goldstone insisted on the presence of five key inter- national experts on a panel to advise on rules for public protest.
Goldstone regards the guidelines laid down in the report, issued last month, as the commission's greatest success. The principles have been adhered to by both the police and the ANC.
The panel was led by Prof. Philip Heymann, director of the Center for Criminal Justice at Harvard Law School, and it included New York Police Commissioner Lee Brown and British criminologist Peter Waddington, who was later to head the investigation into the police response to the Boipatong massacre.
Some lawyers say Goldstone's character is the key to his success.
"I don't think anyone else could have done it," says a human rights lawyer who has worked with the judge.
"He has the rare ability to straddle both the legal and political worlds," he observes. "He is a great strategist and combines a deep humanity with a political sensitivity."
Democratic Party leader Zach de Beer sees Goldstone as an ideal candidate for taking charge of the security forces during the transition in South Africa.
His appointment on the political violence commission is for three years and he hopes it will not be longer.
"The shorter the life of this commission, the better for South Africa," he says. "Once we have a legitimate government, the need for the commission will recede very quickly."