Road to April's Vote

TODAY, the South African Parliament takes up ratification of a 164-page interim constitution, the document that will govern the country during its transition to majority rule.

Ratification is seen as certain. The world continues to show its support for the historic changes taking place. The United States House of Representatives, for example, voted on Friday to remove the last vestiges of economic sanctions against Pretoria.

As South Africa shifts from drafting an interim constitution to campaigning for seats in a new parliament, the country enters a particularly sensitive time. White right-wing groups and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party continue to threaten violence to undercut South Africa's progress and disrupt the April 27 parliamentary elections. The two main parties - the National Party, led by President Frederik de Klerk, and the African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela - must ensure a free and fair process, not only on election day, but during the campaign as well. Otherwise, the interim government will lack the political and moral legitimacy it will need to quell any violence from democracy's opponents.

The first step is to continue the effort to keep lines open to Inkatha and the white right wing. Even from their own perspective, they have nowhere else to go. Yet they have had an influence on the interim constitution. The insistence of Inkatha and the white right wing on being given autonomous provinces in a new South Africa is said to have contributed to the ANC agreeing to a more federal arrangement between provinces and Pretoria than it would have liked. Rejection of fully autonomous provinces was correct; such an arrangement would have undercut the notion of a multi-ethnic South Africa. But the authority given to provinces under the new agreement should help check the power of the national government. To their credit, the government and the ANC are holding talks with conservative black and white right-wing parties.

A second step would be to allow international monitors in to help verify the fairness of preparations for elections, as well as the fairness of the vote itself. The government has the go-ahead to establish an independent media commission and an independent broadcasting board. These are charged with guaranteeing equal access to the media by all parties. Likewise, voter registration efforts should be monitored to keep them as free as possible from manipulation.

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