LAST weekend's assassination of South African black militant hero Chris Hani, second in stature only to Nelson Mandela among blacks, is a crude attempt to derail democratization talks between the government and the African National Congress. Those talks, and the solid understandings on which they are built, will lead concretely toward more equality.
The shooting of Hani is tragic, but it is also a tired old trick to get the black townships to explode - particularly Hani's constituency, the so-called lost generation of young black men who have languished for a decade, uneducated and unemployed. The killing is clearly designed to sow discord among ANC militants who feel blacks should have more power, and to get whites to react to black violence with fear and an argument that the ANC is ungovernable.
For the black and white mainstreams in South Africa, the push toward power-sharing and the talks scheduled for June have gone too far to be derailed by such an obvious ploy. Yet in the heat of the moment, the obvious is often ignored. Young blacks may not care that the Polish-born neo-Nazi assassin was an obscure ideological extremist who may have acted alone. The white government will be blamed, particularly "third force" elements among the police. The townships are already stirring ominously.
Hence, it is crucial that President Frederik de Klerk continue to find ways to use the death of Hani against those who killed him. He has loudly condemned the act, of course, and called for a speedy trial. He is allowing the ANC to closely monitor the government's investigation.
But Mr. de Klerk may have to go further, given the understandable suspicion among some blacks. Why not use the occasion of Hani's funeral, either by letter or in person if it is appropriate, to publicly do what the white South African government never has done - officially renounce the policy of apartheid and apologize for it?
The tragedy of Hani's death is that after a career advocating the violent overthrow of whites, he had in recent weeks advocated peace and cooperation. Leaders of both races must come together visibly to ensure that the assassination's intent backfires.