SA leaders stand by as death marches on: John Carlin in Johannesburg detects a mood of deep despair over the worsening violence

Plenty of good news in South Africa these days. The national rugby team beat the world champions, Australia, at the weekend; the price of gold, the country's biggest export-earner, is going through the roof; big business, government and the trade unions are cementing an extraordinary alliance for economic progress; and, no less miraculous, the government and the African National Congress are building a new political centre.

Why is it, then, that the national mood is more despairing today than at any point since President F W de Klerk's historic announcement on 2 February 1990 that Nelson Mandela was to be released to negotiate a new, democratic order? Why do Mr de Klerk and Mr Mandela, heroes at one level, look so tragically incompetent on another, so incapable of stopping the bloodshed and holding the centre together?

Because they lack power where it counts. Because, while they have truth and justice and reason in abundance and, between them, the support of the vast majority of South Africans, they lack guns, their country's traditional instrument of political persuasion.

The events of the past 10 days have dramatised once again the two leaders' impotence. Hard on the heels of the church massacre in Cape Town, white right-wingers indiscriminately shot two blacks; on Saturday Inkatha impis stormed out of their hostel stronghold in Tembisa township, north of Johannesburg, and slaughtered 30 neighbourhood innocents; in Tokoza, a more frequent battleground to the east of Johannesburg, 44 died over the weekend. The total number of political killings since 1 June has risen above 800.

President de Klerk and Mr Mandela, meanwhile, play Florence Nightingale. They visit the survivors in hospital - as Mr de Klerk did in Tembisa on Sunday - but have no more power to stop the next slaughter (today? tomorrow?) than the nurses and doctors.

They would if they could. The National Party has no more interest in the violence persisting at this point than the ANC. If elections take place next April as scheduled, the ANC will win and the 'Nats' will come second. When the next elections take place in 1999 Mr de Klerk calculates his party can build on the failures of an ANC-led government and, having forged new alliances, storm to victory.

But, as the Romans knew, to keep the peace you must prepare for war. Where are Mr Mandela's battalions? In the black townships the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, known popularly as MK), acquired, with no justification, a reputation almost as mythical as the ANC leader's, pre-1990.

Today in Tokoza, Tembisa and elsewhere people have stopped bothering to ask the old questions: 'Where is MK? Why aren't they here to defend us?'

As for Mr de Klerk, his armed might is as formidable in theory as in practice it is weak.

His anxiety about the army was exposed for all to see in October last year when he forced through parliament, in the most undemocratic manner, a law granting indemnity to all those involved in the dirty war against 'Communism'.

Only last week, he bowed to military pressure to appoint the head of the army, General Georg Meiring, as overall chief of the South African Defence Force (SADF) when the present incumbent retires in October.

Gen Meiring, it would seem, believes with as much conviction as the new spiritual leader of the far right (former SADF chief Constand Viljoen) that the war against Communism has not ended.

Nine months ago he was issuing public statements denouncing the ANC and making false propaganda claims about violent MK plots. He it was, shamelessly exceeding his mandate, who authorised an elaborate intelligence scheme exposed last year covertly to smear the ANC.

As for the police, an hour-long press conference last Thursday by the Minister of Law and Order, Hernus Kriel, seeking to impress upon the population his resolve to combat violence, served only to reinforce the generalised hopelessness.

The 113,000-strong force was to be increased by 3,500; new equipment was to be issued; higher rewards to be offered. But there was no awareness, as a despondent senior policeman acknowledged last week, of the real problem: solving murders.

'The police solve one - just one - case in Thokoza, say. What happens? Next time the community co-operate in providing witnesses. Then the credibility of the police rises. . .and, most important, the death rate goes right down.'

What are the chances of the police changing the habits and prejudices of decades and taking black lives seriously enough to do their job? 'I've heard the UN is recruiting South Africans to join observer missions in Bosnia and Somalia,' the despondent policeman replied. 'Any idea how I should go about applying?'