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Unrest Won't Harm S. Africa Vote, Official Says : Politics: Commissioner acts to reassure citizens. Meanwhile, Zulus delay summit with government and ANC to discuss crisis.

March 30, 1994|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Hoping to reassure a traumatized city and a frightened nation, the head of the independent electoral commission calmly insisted Tuesday that the blazing gun battles and chaos that swept the central business district here Monday will not derail or delay next month's democratic elections.

"Quite frankly, it does not seem to impact directly on the prospects of substantially free and fair elections," Judge Johann Kriegler told a news conference. "It may have major political implications . . . but I'm pretty certain it will have no effect on the electoral process."

But Kriegler added that a hastily formed task force had gone overnight to KwaZulu, the volatile Zulu homeland run by Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, to determine if free and fair balloting will be possible there given Buthelezi's increasingly strident opposition to the elections and record levels of political violence in surrounding Natal province.

The task force has until April 5 to make its report. All-race elections for a national and nine provincial parliaments and the first post-apartheid government are scheduled for April 26-28.

If necessary, Kriegler said, the voting could be postponed in selected parts of KwaZulu until stability is assured.

Here in Johannesburg, police said Tuesday that at least 34 people, including three police officers, were killed and 173 wounded by gunfire and marauding mobs downtown on a day that one newspaper here dubbed "Bloody Monday." An additional 18 people were killed in related factional violence in and around the black townships of Soweto.

On Monday, there had been a confusing series of wild shooting sprees involving the police, African National Congress security guards and thousands of anti-election Zulu protesters aligned with Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party. Most of the Zulus marched through the streets armed with traditional weapons like spears and clubs, but many pulled out automatic pistols and assault rifles when the shooting began.

Each group blamed the others for instigating Monday's violence. But witnesses and participants gave vastly differing accounts of who fired the first shots.

It was also impossible to prove widely accepted reports that snipers or agents provocateurs had opened fire from high-rise office buildings onto Zulus gathered peacefully in a grassy plaza in front of the main library.

The downtown remained tense and filled with rumors Tuesday, but most shops and offices reopened, and trains and taxis resumed service. Sporadic shooting was reported, and unidentified gunmen in a speeding minivan fired at the heavily guarded ANC headquarters. No one was injured, and the gunmen escaped.

ANC guards killed eight Zulus at a back corner of the headquarters, a 21-story office tower, in the worst single incident Monday, after armed protesters repeatedly circled the building and fired shots at ANC workers.

On Tuesday, a team of police forensic experts investigated the blood-stained pavement and shattered windows nearby, in part to determine if the ANC guards had fired into the crowd from an overhead balcony.

Hopes that the tragedy could spark a sense of urgency and force the feuding parties into a truce were dashed when the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, postponed an emergency, two-day peace summit at least until after Easter.

Government officials had announced late Monday that President Frederik W. de Klerk, ANC President Nelson Mandela, Buthelezi and his nephew, the king, would meet this week for the first time to discuss the political crisis and the growing violence.

But in a letter to De Klerk, Zwelithini said negotiations must wait until "people have been given the opportunity to bury their dead and until such time as the fierce anger in their breast has abated somewhat."

A scheduled meeting between Mandela and the king earlier this month was called off after ANC officials reported assassination threats against their leader, who is expected to become the country's first black president.

The Zulu leaders oppose the election and the country's interim constitution because they say it does not guarantee them the autonomy they seek for the estimated 8 million Zulus. The tribal Zulu homeland, created under apartheid to separate the races, is to be reincorporated into the new South Africa after the elections.

In Pretoria, the Transitional Executive Council--a multi-party group set up to oversee the government in the run-up to the election--ordered the drafting of regulations needed to declare a state of emergency in Natal province. Among other things, that declaration could allow the dispatch of troops to quell the violence there.

John Kane-Berman, head of the Institute of Race Relations in Johannesburg, said Monday's violence increased pressure to delay elections until Zulu concerns can be addressed and an all-inclusive solution can be found.

"I hope the events here drive home to politicians and foreign governments that the notion of holding a free and fair election in a month's time is a pipe dream," he said in an interview. "The sooner people realize that and stop living in cloud cuckoo land, the better. . . . We now have to think of the unthinkable--postponing the elections."

But Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop and Nobel laureate, said in Cape Town that a delay is impossible. "The elections must happen," he said.

The battle of Johannesburg marked the first time that the brutal factional fighting that has ravaged black townships for years moved into the white-dominated city that is the commercial and political hub of the country.

Law and Order Minister Hernus Kriel declared central Johannesburg and 10 surrounding districts "unrest areas," giving police enhanced powers of search and seizure, curfew and arrest to curb gatherings and quell disturbances.

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