South Africa on the Brink

April 15, 1993

South Africa's response to the assassination of Chris Hani, the popular hero of militant black youth, should be early elections to create the multi-racial government he was working for when he was gunned down by a white racist. In the words of Nelson Mandela, the nation is "on the brink of disaster." Unless prompt action is taken to contain the outrage triggered by Mr. Hani's martyrdom, South Africa could plunge into chaos and civil war.

At this juncture, the white Nationalist government and the black African National Congress have tried with mixed results to limit violence by preaching calm and vowing to accelerate the political negotiations that have made them unlikely allies. But this particular crisis -- dubbed "The Days of Hani" -- will not be over until a massive funeral observance Monday that promises to be one of the most significant in South African history.

Mr. Hani was a crucial figure in the effort to bury apartheid and create multi-racial rule because of his special appeal to impatient young people in townships and rural shantytowns. A guerrilla general turned peacemaker, a Communist Party leader who could deal with the white business community, a potential successor to the aging Mr. Mandela, Mr. Hani had the credentials to rebuff black radicals preaching violence as the road to power. The question now is whether there is any ANC figure even remotely capable of fulfilling that role.

Mr. Mandela was booed yesterday when he talked of cooperation with the government of President F. W. de Klerk. He was unable to keep young blacks from leaving a stadium to add to the mayhem that has erupted since the assassination. It is unthinkable that Mr. Hani would have received such treatment from his young followers.

A new danger is the proliferation of conspiracy theories now that it has been determined that Mr. Hani was killed by a Polish immigrant loner who somehow came into possession of a gun stolen three years ago from a military arsenal by white extremist groups. There are rumors, fed by the absence of bodyguards at the time of the killing, that government security units, which long considered Mr. Hani an enemy, had a hand in the crime.

Yesterday a general strike brought more death, injury and economic paralysis to the country. No doubt the trial of the accused gunman, Janusz Walus, will spur continuing agitation.

Fortunately, multi-party negotiations supported by Mr. Hani had begun shortly before he was murdered. For the slain leader, the most appropriate memorial would be swift movement to a

government under which power is shared fairly by the black majority and the white minority. The alternative is almost too appalling to contemplate.

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