PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk, serving out his last weeks as head of state, announced yesterday the imposition of emergency rule in Natal Province to curb escalating violence and ensure that the country's first all-race elections proceed on schedule April 26-28.
``The election will take place on the scheduled dates,'' Mr. De Klerk stressed at a news conference here. ``Everything is under control. There is no need for panic.''
Despite such assurances, however, Western diplomats and South African political analysts worry of a possible violent backlash from Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. They see emergency rule in Natal Province as a major setback to the Zulu leader's strategy of boycotting the election.
Issuing an angry public reaction from his headquarters in Ulundi, Chief Buthelezi said the deployment of South African Defense Forces (SADF) in the KwaZulu homeland would render free and fair elections impossible. ``We'll see it as an invasion, especially if soldiers and Army tanks will be rolling in here. It looks like an invasion ... as if we're being forced by the barrel of a gun,'' he said.
The declaration followed a recommendation of the multiracial Transitional Executive Council and has the full support of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), the group widely expected to gain an overall majority in the ballot.
On the eve of De Klerk's announcement, Independent Electoral Commission head Johann Kriegler, who is responsible for organizing and certifying the poll, made it clear that there was no question of delaying the election.
``We're going to hold the election come hell or high water,'' Judge Kriegler told a function at the Weekly Mail and Guardian newspaper.
De Klerk informed Buthelezi, leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), of the government decision minutes before the news conference was held.
The government last declared a national emergency in June 1986 in a bid to stave off a mounting rebellion by anti-apartheid groups. The emergency led to the detention of tens of thousands of anti-apartheid activists, but was lifted in June 1990 after De Klerk legalized political opposition to apartheid. The emergency in Natal Province was retained until October 1990.
The new move by De Klerk was greeted with a mixture of relief and concern.
``I think we're into the last lap now,'' says a Western diplomat. ``Buthelezi's reaction will determine whether the emergency succeeds in curbing the alarming levels of violence in the province or sparks an intensified campaign of resistance by Zulus loyal to the IFP.''
De Klerk gave the assurance that greater deployment of the SADF in strife-torn Natal province, which includes the fragmented KwaZulu homeland, would ensure that election campaigning and the necessary preparation for the ballot could go ahead in the face of a boycott by Inkatha. The Natal death toll for March is almost 300 - the highest in the 10-year conflict between Zulu supporters of Inkatha and the ANC.
Facing a barrage of hostile questions at a news conference yesterday, Mr. Mandela defended the emergency, saying it was intended to ``protect democracy'' and, unlike previous emergencies, was meant to save lives rather than repress legitimate dissent.
Details of the emergency were still under discussion at the time of going to press, but De Klerk hinted that mass protests that could lead to violence would be outlawed, a ban would be imposed on carrying dangerous weapons, and security forces would be granted increased powers of arrest and detention.
Leaders of the white right strongly criticized the emergency and warned that there would be no peace in South Africa until the demands of the Zulus loyal to Buthelezi and Afrikaners, who rejected the political settlement, were accommodated.
Diplomats said that the move could jeopardize the planned summit early next week between De Klerk, Buthelezi, ANC President Nelson Mandela, and the Zulu monarch, Zing Goodwill Zwelithini.
``I think the chances of a negotiated settlement with the IFP are receding fast,'' the Western diplomat says.
But De Klerk insisted that the emergency was not directed at Buthelezi and his KwaZulu government but rather to ensure that the election could go ahead in Natal. ``I will only make inroads into the KwaZulu government if there is evidence of maladministration or if it does not cooperate in making free and fair elections possible,'' De Klerk said.
He said he was still committed to the constitutional accommodation of the demands of King Goodwill for greater autonomy for the KwaZulu/Natal region and the continuation of the Zulu monarchy.
Reacting to reports of turmoil in the South African Police since three senior generals were suspended last week on suspicion of running guns to Inkatha, De Klerk said that the police were fully involved in the decision.
``It is true that the findings of the Goldstone Commission were a deep shock to the police, but it has not interfered with a good relationship between me and the police,'' De Klerk said.
Military analysts are divided about the capacity of Inkatha, which has partial control of the 5 000-strong KwaZulu police force, to disrupt the election in the face of a security crackdown.
The emergency was announced two days after a march by about 20,000 Inkatha-supporting Zulus in downtown Johannesburg led to several hours of anarchy in which at least 53 people lost their lives and more than 250 were injured in gun battles in the city center.