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The Extremes Lash Out at the Center : South Africa: Horrifying as it is, the latest violence illustrates the desperation of democracy's opponents, as talks bear fruit.

July 28, 1993|ANTHONY HAZLITT HEARD | Anthony Hazlitt Heard, former editor of the Cape Times, is a director of the Open Society Foundation of South Africa. and

CAPE TOWN — The atrocity of a Cape Town church congregation being raked with automatic gunfire and blasted with grenades makes this clear: South Africa must get its constitutional act together without delay or risk slipping into chaos.

The 12 dead and 50 wounded worshipers form part of a litany of death sweeping this country. In a grim parallel the same evening, a thousand miles away, no fewer than eight blacks were shot dead by motorized attackers while partying in Daveton squatter camp east of Johannesburg. Another four were killed Monday.

Up to now, the brunt of political violence has been borne by blacks, but most of the victims at the Cape Town suburb of Kenilworth were white, indicating that no community is safe.

Cape Town is regarded as less violent than other parts of the country and is considered a suitable location by multinational organizations. Cape Town newspapers were recently crowing about an influx of companies and individuals seeking to escape the violence elsewhere in South Africa. Then along came Kenilworth.

Violence marked by boldness, skill and planning tends to increase whenever the country's embattled political negotiators move closer to a settlement. South African police often seem strangely powerless to apprehend the perpetrators, whose deeds are committed in public and sometimes witnessed by many people.

The Kenilworth outrage occurred at the beginning of a week in which a draft constitution was published and crucial debates are scheduled over a bill of rights and other measures to stabilize the politics of South Africa. Conspiratorial minds jump easily to the conclusion that, despite government disclaimers, there is a right-wing "third force," led by whites but sometimes using blacks, that has the ear of elements in the security forces and is desperately trying to derail the negotiations. Yet one cannot be sure. It is equally possible that these gruesome events are to be laid squarely at the door of far-left black groups who have been murderously active in the Eastern Cape province. In the murky world of racial killing, far right and far left can team up in crude cooperation, using the services of township thugs who do not mind who they spray with bullets and grenades as long as the pay is right.

In the morass of allegation and counter-allegation, no one can say for sure who is responsible--unless the perpetrators are caught red-handed, as happens infrequently. In the assassination earlier this year of African National Congress populist Chris Hani, a chance tip by a white woman led to the arrest of an East European immigrant tied to the white political far right, who has been accused of the crime. But in most cases the police--and South Africa--are not that lucky.

Non-racial elections are planned for next April 27, after which the country should, for the first time, have a government viewed by most of its citizens as legitimate. Then the politicians who triumph can fashion security forces that command wider support than those in place now. They may be more effective.

The international community is, in spite of its own economic difficulties, moving to underpin the South African democratic experiment, and not a moment too soon. After all the years of criticism and ostracism because of apartheid, South Africa desperately needs a helping hand. There is a massive backlog of socioeconomic woes--rampant joblessness (as high as 70% in some rural areas); industrial unrest and low productivity; soaring crime; embittered youths who have never been properly educated; sporadic stonings and shootings on highways, and marauding attacks on innocent civilians in their homes, in bars, on streets and now even in church.

Good news is at a premium. A modest increase in the gold price, a win for a South African sports team, even spring flowers, are hailed with relief by media and public.

The important thing is that society is opening up after its long political sleep, despite the violence. The media are freer than ever. Debate is vigorous. Apartheid, if not its disruptive legacy, has been abolished in law. Enlightened measures, such as a bill of rights, a law ending sex discrimination, a move toward independent broadcasting, the impartial appointment of judges and magistrates, all are in the cards.

There is only one way to go: on toward democracy. A comforting thought is that, for the first time in its history, South Africa sees the glimmerings of that democratic future. And more: The violence can be seen as the gory compliment that wreckers and losers pay to political progress.

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