CAN the political center in South Africa hold until the country's first all-race vote scheduled for April 26-28?
This is the question being asked in political and diplomatic circles following the catastrophic eruption of political violence in downtown Johannesburg Monday that claimed at least 53 lives and injured hundreds of people.
``There is a power vacuum in the country, which is very dangerous in a time of crisis,'' says University of Cape Town political scientist Robert Schrire.
``This makes it all the more urgent to get on and hold the election, so that a new government can reassert its authority and regain the power that has been sapping away from the present government over the past few years,'' he says.
Following Monday's bloody battle - which brought the conflict in strife-torn Natal Province between Zulu supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party and the African National Congress (ANC) to the country's commercial center - attitudes have hardened alarmingly. And deaths from political violence have hit unprecedented levels.
The Transitional Executive Council (TEC), the multiracial body that is increasingly running the country, has recommended emergency rule in Natal and is working on a decree to carry it out.
Inkatha leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi reacted on Tuesday to the killings with the most belligerent speech of his political career.
``We have now entered a final struggle to the finish between the ANC and the Zulu nation unless there is an extension of the voting date deadline to enable a negotiated settlement regarding the question of Zulu sovereignty, to be worked out before elections take place,'' he said.
In the wake of the killings, Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini called off meetings planned for yesterday and today between himself, Chief Buthelezi, President Frederik de Klerk, and ANC President Nelson Mandela.
The men were to discuss the political crisis and the holding of the April elections.
The meeting is now due to take place next week, say government officials.
``The slaughter of the innocent will reverberate around Zulu society for a long time,'' said King Goodwill, adding that it would be inappropriate for him to take part in a summit until the dead from Monday's carnage are buried.
According to recent opinion polls, more than half the country's 8 million or so Zulus support the ANC.
``Buthelezi seems finally to have signed his political death warrant,'' says a Western diplomat. ``It is now really only a matter of how and when he will be removed from office and what the cost will be in human lives.''
The disintegration of the political center was vividly illustrated by Monday's raging battles.
The police failed to mount an effective preventative operation and virtually gave up at crucial points of the conflict. They have been in a state of turmoil bordering on mutiny at mid-levels following suspension of three top generals last week on suspicion of running guns to Inkatha.
When the police arrived at ANC headquarters Tuesday to conduct a search of the building, the raid was called off by the government after a top ANC official warned the police would not be allowed into the building.
This is particularly serious because events surrounding the fatal shooting by ANC security guards of at least 11 people - and the injuring of about a dozen - are still shrouded in mystery. The ANC insists the security guards fired in self-defense after three armed attacks on the building earlier in the day.
But an interview by the Monitor on Tuesday with an impartial eyewitness gives an account of four men emerging from a first-floor ledge of the ANC building and emptying a magazine into the advancing crowd.
ANC spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa told the Monitor the ANC was not aware of any such incident and reiterated that the security guards fired from ground level in self-defense after firing warning shots.
But the ANC admitted for the first time on Wednesday that it was investigating reports, documented by a foreign journalist, of an incident earlier in the day where a sniper is said to have fired on a crowd of marchers from a nearby building housing its regional headquarters. An innocent bystander was shot dead in the incident.
``It ... raises questions about the ability of an ANC government to enforce law and order without resorting to the familiar repressive tactics of the past,'' says a Western diplomat.
The Goldstone Commission, a judicial body probing the causes of political violence in South Africa, is conducting an inquiry into Monday's shootings.
Professor Schrire says the government had hoped to legitimize its decisions through multiracial bodies like the TEC in the run-up to the election. Instead, power is shifting rapidly from the government to the ANC, the group widely expected to win an outright majority in the April poll.
``The reality is that the veto power of the ANC has been re-inforced to the point where government cannot make any decision without securing the agreement of the TEC and other interim institutions and relying on personal relationships like the one that exists between De Klerk and Mandela,'' he says.
Police were tipped off
Many questions remain unanswered. Both parties claim the police were tipped off in advance that there was going to be armed conflict.
Then why did the police fail to provide protection for the ANC national and regional headquarters?
Why are they unable to identify or explain the presence of snipers who fired on the crowd from buildings?
And why was Inkatha official Themba Khoza, who has been named by a judicial commission as a ringleader in a gun-running operation by the police to Inkatha, allowed to organize an Inkatha march in Johannesburg in an explosively volatile political situation?
In the rapidly moving canvass of South Africa's troubled transition to democracy, the next crisis is likely to obscure the vital answers to these questions.