Breakdown in South Africa

June 23, 1992

For South Africa, the temporary breakdown of constitutional talks is ominous. The slaughter which provoked it is more so. Black-white negotiations in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) were fated to stop and stutter and start again. But if a halt cannot be brought to the violence between Zulu and Xhosa, between African National Congress and Inkatha Freedom Party, it is grim news. If supporters of the ANC believe that the government through the police is fomenting the attacks carried out by Zulu people, then the potential alliance between ANC and the current white government, on which South Africa's hope for internal peace rests, cannot materialize.

The rampage by a small army of Zulu workers from a hostel who killed 40 residents of Boipatong township on Wednesday appalled the country and angered the part of the black population for which the ANC speaks. Its importance was underlined when President F. W. de Klerk, having been jeered out of Boipatong when he tried to express condolence on Saturday, then aborted a visit to Spain. South Africa is close to civil war between Xhosa and Zulu, and to open defiance or revolution.

ANC president Nelson Mandela, whose unadmitted partnership with Mr. de Klerk has been driving South Africa forward, called that already-troubled partnership off, at least for the time being. Name-calling between ANC and government ensued. So did the killing of more Boipatong people by police putting down unrest provoked by the de Klerk visit. Mr. Mandela is an old man of whom too much is asked. He took on renewed militancy if only to retain a leadership that is under attack from impatient young people.

The charge of police complicity in Inkatha brutalities against ANC loyalists is, in the outside world, not proven but a suspicion that will not go away. The certainty of it among ANC adherents is a measure of Mr. de Klerk's credibility problem. It has certainly been true in the past, but a police conspiracy to foment Xhosa-Zulu bloodshed could not work except in fertile soil. There is something to this ethnic warfare greater than can be blamed on the government and it is delaying majority rule. ANC and other groups have to face this problem more frankly than they have. Nonetheless, the government cannot regain credibility until it finds and prosecutes the assassins of Boipatong.

There are people in both black and white populations who want to decide their constitutional future with guns, not negotiations. They will get their way if this violence is allowed to grow. The suspended bilateral talks between the ANC and the government can be restarted, but they can work only if some degree of trust is restored.

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