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Fiasco in 'Bop' clears way for SA elections: White extremists and Inkatha are in disarray, writes John Carlin in Johannesburg

THE COLLAPSE of the Freedom Alliance, the unholy marriage of the black and white right, has shattered the greatest obstacle to peace in South Africa and, while more violence can be expected, has cleared the way for all races to vote in the country's first democratic elections next month.

A short, sharp military showdown exposed the bluster behind the far right's threats of civil war and delivered, in less than 24 hours, the outcome the government and the African National Congress (ANC) had sought during months of painstaking negotiations.

On 12 October last year the Afrikaner Volksfront coalition, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party and the government of Bophuthatswana, formalised a union held together by a seemingly strong bond: their common fear of democracy.

Their combined support amounted, at best, to 10 per cent of the population but they had the firepower, they snarled, to stop the April elections. Unable to gauge the exact nature of the threat, the ANC and the government bent over backwards to accommodate their demands while simultaneously, in discussion after discussion, trying to divide them.

What South Africa's two main political parties now know, to their immense relief, is that when it comes to the crunch the South African Defence Force can be expected to defend the new order against - another happy discovery - the paper tigers of the far right.

It all started going wrong for the apartheid die-hards when, in response to a request from what remained of the Bophuthatswana government, General Constand Viljoen dispatched his motley Boer army to Mmabatho, the homeland capital. It was a decision so politically misguided, with such suicidally catastrophic consequences, that by Friday night the Volksfront had split in two and Lucas Mangope, the embattled leader of Bophuthatswana, was staring political oblivion in the face.

General Viljoen, explaining his decision on Saturday to break away from the Volksfront and register for the elections in the name of the Freedom Front, blamed the 'Bop' fiasco on Eugene Terre- Blanche's rabble, the Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB). Had they not joined the fray with the rest of the Boer 'commandos', he said, there would never have been such murder, mayhem and, in the end, the worst humiliation since the Boer war.

This was disingenuous. It was he who gave the order for the volk to embark on their midnight ride in the full knowledge that the AWB was as integral a part of the Volksfront as his other, purportedly more disciplined, troops. The general, who Nelson Mandela describes as a gentleman, has always felt uncomfortable in the presence of Mr Terre-Blanche. But, despite the promptings of, among others, his appalled wife, he stuck by them.

To imagine that when he issued the call to war the AWB would fail to respond, their raison d'etre having always rested on the fantasy that one day they would rise up in arms to claim their 'volkstaat', indicates how far removed from reality General Viljoen is. Responsibility for the killings in Mmabatho is not something he can shrug off.

Just how many deaths will result from Chief Buthelezi's continued refusal to participate in the elections is the question that remains to be answered. He failed to meet the final deadline for electoral registration and, barring some last-minute acrobatics by the strained Independent Electoral Commission, the door is open for the ANC to sweep the board in the Zulu province of Natal and the homeland that lies within its borders, KwaZulu. Alternatively, Inkatha will set about their customary bloody tactics in a bid to stop people from voting.

But there is another possibility. Chief Buthelezi, remarking on events in Bophuthatswana on Friday, said he had glimpsed 'the nightmare' that lay in store for South Africa. He might, in truth, have been giving expression to more immediate fears.

For the moment Chief Buthelezi has the lid on things. But his real nightmare, many suspect, is that one day in the not too distant future the South African Defence Force will drive into KwaZulu and that the residents of his capital, Ulundi, will welcome them with as much celebration as the residents of Mmabatho.