A NATIONWIDE police crackdown on the leadership of the radical Pan-Africanist Congress has disrupted multiracial talks for a transition to democracy and jeopardized a June deadline for setting a date for the country's first democratic ballot.
PAC President Clarence Makwethu said yesterday that his party would not continue to take part in the negotiations unless the government freed 62 PAC leaders still in custody, restored siezed property, and repaired damage incurred in the raids.
The crackdown, coming at a time of escalating township violence, has shaken confidence in the 26-member Multi-Party Negotiating Forum and widened divisions between hawks and doves in the ruling National Party.
"One cannot escape the conclusion that elements in government carefully planned the timing of this swoop to ensure maximum impact in demonstrating who is in control and [to ensure] that terrorism will not be tolerated - even if it means jeopardizing negotiations," said a Western diplomat.
The simultaneous crackdown on PAC officials around the country early Tuesday morning and the forced entry into PAC premises bore all the hallmarks of security operations at the height of the apartheid era.
Police swooped in on senior members of the PAC and alleged officials of its military wing, the Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA), arresting 73. The operation was the most extensive crackdown on a black opposition group since the United Democratic Front and other anti-apartheid groups were banned in February 1988. It followed four days of renewed violence in the black townships east of Johannesburg that has already claimed more than 50 lives.
Yesterday police released 11 of the arrested officials, including one of seven detained PAC executives.
Most of the 26 parties at the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum supported a resolution that criticized the government for the "insensitive" timing of the raids and the potential damage it could inflict on the negotiating process.
But Gen. Constand Viljoen, a former chief of the South African Defense Force who now heads a right-wing umbrella group, the Afrikaner Volksfront, welcomed the raids. "If this is a move to ensure more peace as we have recommended ... it is a step in the right direction," General Viljoen said.
The timing of the raid, which was not approved by the Cabinet in advance, appears to have widened a split in the National Party. It emerged Tuesday that the Constitutional Development Minister Roelf Meyer, who heads the government negotiating team, had no prior knowledge of the raids.
A parliamentary legislator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said President Frederik de Klerk had told him that he had first known about the raids only after they had already begun.
Mr. De Klerk was locked in all-day discussions with members of his Cabinet yesterday in what was expected to be a stormy session after the African National Congress demanded the sacking of Law and Order Minister Hernus Kriel in response to the raid.
ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa said the raid was a "travesty of justice" which had left the negotiations "hanging by a thread."
He said it also raised questions as to who was controlling the country - the politicians or the security officials?
In the aftermath of the crackdown, the PAC, which in the past has failed to translate widespread sympathy among radical blacks into a significant increase in membership, has already received a huge propaganda boost.
But PAC General Secretary Benny Alexander, who says he escaped from the police and disputes their claim that he was released after questioning, said that the raid had rendered the organization unworkable.
"We are effectively banned from functioning," he said.
PAC Foreign Secretary Gora Ebrahim slammed the government for its "Gestapo-like tactics" and said the action appeared directed at forcing the PAC out of negotiations when the most important decisions about the future were about to be taken.
PAC leaders appear to have accepted that a long-term withdrawal from the negotiating forum would play into the hands of right-wing elements in government who want to delay the process so that a newly-formed right-wing front can formulate a united position and table its proposals at the negotiating table.
The PAC, which has continued to wage an armed struggle against security personnel and white farmers while taking part in negotiations, has focused its political campaign on the return of land to the black majority.
Police said the arrest of PAC and APLA officials around the country was part of routine police duties in preventing crime and did not constitute an orchestrated attack on a political organization.