S. Africa Turning Point?

THE vigorous rejection of white vigilante nationalists from Bophuthatswana may be a turning point toward holding the free and fair elections in South Africa scheduled for April 27.

Cooperation between President Frederik de Klerk and ANC leader Nelson Mandela in using both local police and the Army to battle incoming convoys of violent right-wingers bent on keeping apartheid and preventing elections in the small semiautonomous state is reassuring. The episode was violent but brief. The vigilantes were escorted to the border - even as Lucas Mangope, the ruler of Bophuthatswana, agreed to open elections.

Moreover, resistance to nonracial elections in South Africa has been weakened considerably. Decisive action by white and black government forces on behalf of civil order appears to have split radical white separatist groups and isolated the troublesome Inkatha Freedom Party of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi at a crucial time.

Nelson Mandela was the biggest winner in the Bophuthatswana battle; he is expected to pick up some 1.8 million additional votes there.

Still to be worked out, however, in the overall election process is the status of Natal province. If Inkatha boycotts Natal and incites violence there, South Africans have a dilemma: Are the national elections null and void, or does Natal get split up?

Throughout the run-up to South Africa's elections, it is essential that the press be given safe access to all parts of the country. An obvious factor in the successful official show of force in Bophuthatswana was instant press coverage of the battle.

Yet the price paid for that reporting was the beating by white vigilantes of six journalists, including our own correspondent John Battersby. Mr. Battersby and a colleague were assaulted three separate times over a period of a half-hour before escaping. They were attacked solely because they were journalists.

The white South African government must find a way to keep journalists reasonably safe. Part of the integrity of a free and fair election is that it has been reported thoroughly. The Afrikaner resistance must learn to talk to the press, too.

Safety and access must especially be guaranteed to black journalists, always a target. As Battersby commented to us after his ordeal, ``If I had been black, I surely would not be here today.''

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