Leading article: A welcome unity of purpose in South Africa

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PEACE HAS broken out between Thabo Mbeki, the heir apparent of the African National Congress, and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party. The pair plan to fight the 2 June national elections on a single ticket, an amazing turnaround for leaders of two parties whose supporters killed 15,000 of each other during the last elections in 1994. But is it to be welcomed?

The ANC does not need Inkatha's support to govern. But an electoral pact would give the ANC the necessary two-thirds support for its plans to change South Africa's constitution. President Mandela has stated his desire to increase the number of black judges by changing the constitution. With Inkatha under its wing, the ANC could claim to represent KwaZulu- Natal, the most populous province, and the Zulu nation, South Africa's most important tribe. The ANC would then be a truly national party.

Yet many fear that such a super-ANC could allow Mr Mbeki, a former Communist, to indulge his more dictatorial leanings. The ANC government has recently sought to promote its supporters within the South African Broadcasting Corporation and Mr Mbeki has intimated that President Mandela has given whites an excessively easy ride since the end of apartheid. Doomsayers see the spectre of another African one-party state looming.

But it is easy to forget that South Africa is still in a period of national reconstruction to repair the damage of apartheid. Since 1994 the ANC has provided electricity to 2 million homes and water to 3 million. And with unemployment at 40 per cent and a murder rate seven times that of the US, Mr Mbeki needs foreign investment and is aware of foreign sensitivities. This government of unity, committed to democracy, is to be cautiously welcomed.

It is likely to be a transitional alliance, for racial politics is eroding. Already many black voters are prepared to support even the New National Party - the face-lifted successor to the creators of apartheid - in the provincial elections. Opposition to the ANC should not be focused primarily among the Zulus. South Africa, and the ANC, will soon accept that a democracy needs differences of opinion, and new parties will come to the fore, basing their arguments along policy lines rather than racial or tribal divisions.