Has South Africa's transition to democracy run out of steam? Since President Frederik de Klerk legalized opposition parties more than two years ago, political liberalization has been accompanied by escalating violence and continued deprivation for black South Africans. The quest for democracy at the national level has been accompanied by an alarming deterioration of prospects for democracy in the black townships.
Hopes for setting up an interim government before the end of the year -- and democratic elections next year -- are fast receding.
African National Congress President Nelson Mandela announced last week he was withdrawing from negotiations with the government over a transition to a multiracial democracy in protest of a township massacre that left at least 39 people dead.
"The negotiation process is completely in tatters," Mr. Mandela told a crowd of 25,000 supporters in Evaton after visiting the scene of the massacre in nearby Boipatong township. "We are now convinced that [Mr. De Klerk's] method of bringing about a solution in this country is war."
"Looking back on De Klerk's turn-around in February 1990, there is no doubt that he averted an apocalypse in South Africa," says a Western diplomat. "But what has happened since has illustrated vividly that it is one thing to dismantle apartheid, but quite another to create a democracy in South Africa."
There is powerful evidence that both government and the ANC have lost control of violent elements in their ranks who are bent on sabotaging a negotiated settlement.
According to eyewitness accounts, the indiscriminate massacre in Boipatong south of Johannesburg involved collaboration between uniformed police officers and members of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party. President De Klerk faces unprecedented public pressure to identify the policemen involved and ensure that they are prosecuted. It was clear from the reception he received when he visited the scene of the massacre last weekend that black youths hold him responsible.
"De Klerk's credibility on the violence issue is at an all-time low," says a Western diplomat. "He will not get away this time with his government's bland denials of police collusion."
The ANC is experiencing serious divisions in its own ranks in the politically explosive townships south of Johannesburg, including Sharpeville, Sebokeng, and Boipatong.
The atmosphere is every bit as tense as it was in August 1984, when nationwide civil unrest broke out after a rent boycott in Sebokeng. The violence reached proportions of a national uprising and was met with a harsh national emergency in June 1986 that led to tens of thousands of arrests and thousands of deaths.
Could it happen again?
Signs abound that the crisis is deepening. "When we were dealing with the political process it was relatively easy," says Democratic Party legislator Colin Eglin, a senior figure in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, the interracial negotiating forum that deadlocked at a summit last month on the issue of majority rule. "But when we moved closer to taking decisions about power, the going got more difficult.
"Government believes the ANC will use a future majority to override minority rights, and the ANC believes the government will use a veto to prevent majoritarianism and perpetuate white rule," Mr. Eglin says.
Since winning support for continued reform from a two-thirds majority of white voters in a March referendum, the government has become more hard-line in talks with black leaders and less ready to discuss a timetable for transfer of power.
"It is clear that the government is ready to attempt an experiment in power-sharing, but it is not prepared to commit itself to a timetable for handing over power," says the diplomat.
Mr. De Klerk's political maneuvering has paid rich dividends for his ruling National Party. He has succeeded in convincing the world that the dismantling of apartheid is irreversible and that his commitment to establishing a democratic system is genuine. International sanctions have collapsed, the ANC has suspended its armed struggle, and African states are lining up to do business with South Africa.
The ANC, on the other hand, is losing international allies and has had several humiliating put-downs by African governments losing patience with the slow pace of political negotiations.
"If the situation in South Africa continues in this way, people will get tired, and it will be the people of South Africa who will be the losers," says Joseph Garba of Nigeria, who formerly headed the United Nations Special Committee against apartheid.
Diplomats and political scientists are beginning to ask whether it is possible to establish a democracy in the next few decades. Western diplomats are looking to Mr. De Klerk to break the impasse.
"There needs to be a leap of faith similar in magnitude to the bold step De Klerk took in February 1990 when he legalized the political opposition," the Western diplomat says. "Unless De Klerk can make a similar gesture to break the deadlock, he is going to be forced to declare a national emergency."
The ANC's plans for nationwide protests in mid-July if constitutional talks do not reach agreement have created fears in political circles that negotiations may no longer be an option.
Hope may lie in the fact that there can be no return to the apartheid past.
"De Klerk cannot go back to repression, and Mandela cannot go back to sanctions and a guerrilla struggle," the Western diplomat says.
John Battersby is a staff reporter for the Christian Science Monitor.