South African Turmoil

April 13, 1991

The promise of progress in South Africa has given way to pessimism with the persistent fighting between black members of the African National Congress and those of Inkatha. None of three contentious parties will harbor a monopoly of blame should talks break down and hopes end. The government, ANC and Inkatha will all share it.

Despite their efforts to spur peace between their followers, ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela and Inkatha leader Manosuthu Buthelezi have descended to public statements blaming the other for the breakdown that both anticipate. The ANC has now made a seven-point ultimatum to the government of President F. W. De Klerk that it can hardly have expected that government to meet. One demand is for the government to prevent Inkatha members from carrying traditional Zulu weapons at demonstrations, and another is for Mr. De Klerk to fire his defense minister and law and order minister; both to be done by May 9 or the ANC will quit talking to the government. The government pointedly refused to consider firing the ministers, who had offered to resign, and Mr. Mandela backed down to the point of asking only for positive response on township violence.

This probably means, as South Africa's Sunday Times has reported, that ANC is divided in factions, with the currently dominant group unprepared to negotiate. Mr. Mandela is adding his voice to theirs to keep the appearance of unity. An ANC open letter to the government was self-revealing in accusing the government of trying to inflate Inkatha's image "from that of a minor to the rank of third major player on the political arena." That could indeed be the paramount complaint.

What's suggested is that the troubles are not merely communal antipathy between the Xhosa people in ANC and Zulus in Inkatha, or a plot by secret police to turn the violence on (though there may well have been such plots in the past). Rather, the ANC letter betrays that the two main black political groups really are jealous rivals and that the ANC is frustrated at government concessions that may take away ANC thunder. The ANC may be the principal opposition to apartheid but the odds are that when free elections are finally held, ethnic loyalties will affect voting habits and that Inkatha will hold Zulu areas.

Some 5,000 black South Africans have been killed by one another in four years -- 400 this year -- in the communal fighting. There is considerable irony in the ANC seeking more, instead of less, government muscle in the black townships to put a stop to the bloodshed. Both ANC and Inkatha will have served their people ill if they are unable themselves to bring their followers to peaceful coexistence, or to play the role in negotiating change in South Africa that everyone expects of ANC.

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