Johannesburg's Trial

IN the end, the question of who fired first in the tragic gun battles in downtown Johannesburg on March 28 may matter less than two broader, related questions:

* Can the current government or its successor counter fearmongering from the Inkatha Freedom Party, whose campaign for an autonomous homeland and a boycott of coming elections is based largely on raising fears of cultural extinction for Zulus at the hands of the African National Congress?

* And is the current government, however shortlived, willing to enforce its desire for free and fair elections?

On the first question, the government, and particularly the ANC, are clearly trying to keep the lines open. It was of little help that Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini (Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi's nephew) declined to attend an emergency summit meeting called for March 31 by President Frederik de Klerk and ANC leader Nelson Mandela. The reason: His followers were still too angry for him to take part in such a meeting. Yet it is in a time of crisis that open communication is most needed.

The second question stems from the government's response to the Zulu demonstrations. Consider the political climate. As the election has neared, the violence between the ANC and Inkatha supporters has grown in Natal Province, Inkatha's stronghold. The government increasingly has asserted its authority over the once ``independent'' black homelands to try to ensure free and fair elections.

Similar pressures were building on KwaZulu in Natal Province. South African police had reported gunfire in the black township of Soweto earlier in the day. The gunfire came from Inkatha hostels and killed several passersby. A rally had been scheduled in Johannesburg, but the Zulu participants defied an agreement to leave their weapons behind. A large group split off to march on ANC headquarters. Given the political tensions and the surging crowds, it is not hard to imagine either group shooting first.

Where was the enforcement of the no-weapons agreement or the crowd control necessary to keep the rally to its chosen site?

This incident cannot be allowed to derail the elections. The government rightly wants to avoid violent confrontations with Inkatha if at all possible. Yet in trying to regain order on March 28, it got one anyway. Confidence in the government depends not only on how faithfully it works to be inclusive, but also on a public perception that reformers are moving ahead to enforce free and fair elections.

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