SOUTH Africa's progress toward ending its historic system of apartheid has been remarkable of late - making the enormous outbreak of violence in the townships on Wednesday all the more sad.
This week the white government in Johannesburg took another important step toward a new South Africa. It has agreed to an interim power-sharing council that will work with the government in overseeing the transition to national elections in April, in which all South Africans would vote.
It is important that the April 27 elections, promised to blacks after the assassination of popular leader Chris Hani last spring, come off. All parties understand that. Not only is the credibility of the De Klerk government at stake - so too is the ability of the African National Congress to remain united and to keep a lid on the volatile townships.
Yet there are significant hurdles to surmount - some immediate. The first hurdle is consensus. The South African government brought 19 of 26 political parties into a council that will participate in rules governing security, media, and voting. This is progressive. But of the five most important parties, only three agree to the process. The Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party and the hardline white Volksfront have not only opted out, but are threatening violence in April, and organizing for it. The Volksfront Afrikaaners are small in number but can do significant damage; it is unlikely that the De Klerk government can send in security forces against mobilized whites.
In the next month, President Frederik De Klerk must bring all five parties into agreement, perhaps in a special meeting. What they must discuss is the second major hurdle - the transitional constitution that will govern both before and after the elections.
In a sense, Mr. De Klerk has done all the relatively easy things. It is in this transitional constitution that all the basic substantive issues of power lie. Will South Africa be a unitary or a federal system in the months or even years before a new constitution can be agreed on? Will the capacity to tax and to govern the police be vested in the central government or in the regions? These are the most basic issues, fighting issues, and they have been put on hold for years.
White hardliners are holding out for independent regional powers. Black hardliners want the central government to control South Africa. The 150 people killed by bands of roving gunmen in the past week attribute to the tense situation and the high stakes involved. It will be a tribute to all parties, and to De Klerk in particular, if he can find agreement on a constitution by the end of October, when the election process and the transition are scheduled to begin.