Strains in South Africa

September 19, 1990

To some people, the South African government of F. W. de Klerk appears on the verge of cutting a deal with the black majority as represented by the African National Congress (ANC) led by Nelson Mandela. Many hope that it is true, and almost all find Mr. Mandela indispensable to the process because of his prestige in and out of South Africa. But two tragic and violent situations threaten to undercut Mr. Mandela or destroy any bonds of trust between him and the government.

One is the violence between Zulu supporters of the Inkatha organization and Xhosa supporters of ANC, which has taken nearly 800 lives since Aug. 12. Mr. Mandela and the ANC leadership denounce the security operation to quell the violence, "Operation Iron Fist," as brutal and partisan on the side of the Zulu-Inkatha side. They threaten to call off the talks.

Their allegation, if true, would be in keeping with past police behavior when government policy built up the Inkatha leader, Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and discredited Mr. Mandela and ANC at every opportunity. In the last years of the presidency of P. W. Botha, the security apparatus was basically removed from parliamentary oversight. Now when government policy under President de Klerk has turned around, it is not clear if police are still acting under old assumptions.

The other tragedy is the charging of Mrs. Winnie Mandela with assault and kidnapping in the death of 14-year-old Stompei Seipei in 1988. The chief of a group of young thugs, who formed Mrs. Mandela's bodyguard, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for that crime. Beyond doubt, it did occur. Testimony at his trial implicated Mrs. Mandela. The original incident discredited Mrs. Mandela among the ANC leadership. She returned to its good graces after the release of Mr. Mandela, who supports and depends on her and considers the incident a provocation. She said she would welcome a charge to exonerate herself in court. Now she will have that opportunity.

The Johannesburg attorney general who brought this charge may well be acting in the best rather than worst of South African legal tradition, without regard for consequences. But political consequences there are. An almost impossible task has been handed to Mr. Mandela, who is 72 and was prepared by 27 years of prison. And events are making that job harder for him every day.

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