While experts discuss the causes of the carnage sweeping black townships in South Africa, the events themselves suggest that the country is moving rapidly toward a new order.
The bad news is that, after a relative lull a few months ago, the violence has grown horrifically; recent studies show a death toll worse than in Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Peru or Colombia. In addition, some of the security authorities appear to be exacerbating things by taking sides; the country's ruling white minority, already confused, is increasingly scared about sharing power with blacks, and there are signs that world opinion is taking a grim view of the democratic prospects in South Africa.
Against this rather somber background, President F. W. de Klerk will be meeting President Bush in Washington on Sept. 24.
Yet, if one stands back from the appalling events, some factors give cause for hope. The paradox is that South Africa may just be getting there, politically.
The fighting has undeniable tribal overtones and is complicated by gangsterism and local disputes among bitter blacks, who are still without rights. But essentially the struggle is over delimitation of constituencies, as an astute observer, Dr. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, former leader of the white opposition in Parliament, has pointed out.
A huge battle for "turf" is being waged throughout Natal province, in townships in the Transvaal and in conflict areas such as Crossroads in the Cape. Blacks, denied political rights for generations, sense that they are about to win them and are battling it out to establish constituencies. It is a very crude way to "delimit" seats. But at least it involves looking more ahead than to the past.
The Zulu factor is obviously of major significance. These militant people of Natal province, who last century adopted tactics of "total war" and scattered thousands of fellow blacks, are once again flexing their muscles. They are the most populous group in the country, and Inkatha, the political party of their formal political leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, claims a membership of nearly 2 million.
Determined not to be sidelined in Natal, Buthelezi is going for national power, possibly in an alliance with De Klerk's National Party. The renewed violence in Transvaal province coincided with his moves to extend Inkatha's influence there.
The fact that the dominant black liberation movement, the African National Congress, is led mainly by people tracing their ancestry to the Xhosas of the Eastern Cape, historical rivals of the Zulus, gives the conflict a certain tribal edge--but it is not a straight matter of Zulu versus Xhosa.
In fact, there has never been a major war between the Zulus and Xhosas, in spite of border incidents. Zulus have fought Zulus in Natal--some backing the ANC and some Inkatha.
Also, intermarriage and massive urbanization have done much to break down tribalism. The ANC includes Zulus in its leadership and was once led by a Zulu, the late Albert Lutuli. The violent picture is complicated by the drab poverty of the townships, massive black unemployment, rivalry between the ANC and the smaller, ideologically more radical Pan-Africanist Congress and petty fiefdoms battling it out.
Ironically, it is De Klerk's reform process that has stirred things up by raising political aspirations. Generally speaking, the violence is not directed at the government, as in the past, but at other black groups. The government finds itself in the role of arbiter--and to the extent that some elements of the security forces side with Inkatha, this role is tarnished, and peace prospects are diminished.
Some observers would write South Africa off as another Lebanon, with mindless violence thwarting democratic progress indefinitely. But South Africa has none of the fanatical religious cleavages found in the Middle East. Although apartheid has ravaged blacks, this very deprivation will make their sharing in the country's prosperity more dramatic.
The most overworked words in any conflict are "something must be done." They are heard incessantly in South Africa. But until a democratic constitution is forged and free elections are held--even amid some violence--it is difficult to see an end to this conflict. The violence should be a spur to clinch democracy.