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South African Elections: Commentary: Nothing spectacular, please. It's upsetting

WHAT South Africa does not want today is surprises. Not big surprises, at any rate. By nightfall the number-crunchers hired by the local television and radio stations should have digested sufficient provisional results to give us a reasonably safe estimate of the outcome of the elections.

Justice having been done, the first priority is stability. Without stability, capital will not invest and if capital does not invest it will not be possible for the new national unity government to provide blacks with the liberation dividend: jobs, houses, water, electricity. If those who have voted for the ANC do not see tangible evidence that apartheid wrongs are being redressed, a climate will be created for greater instability that will lead South Africa further down the slippery slope.

To avoid this chain reaction, today's results must show that the ANC is the majority party, that F W de Klerk's National Party has fared more or less as their showings in the polls indicated, and that Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party will do well enough to qualify for at least one post in the cabinet.

This means the ANC must end up with at least 50 per cent of the vote, the National Party with no less than 15 per cent and Inkatha with a minimum of 5 per cent.

The big two parties will probably fare better than that but, in the highly unlikely event that Nelson Mandela does not emerge as the first black president, the prospects of unrest in the townships would be high.

Should the National Party end up with fewer than three cabinet ministers - 5 per cent of the poll is the constitutional requirement to qualify - then it is the white population that might become restless. This would not translate into mass mobilisation, but the feeling of being swamped by the black majority might inhibit investment and generate a new capital flight.

As for Inkatha, Chief Buthelezi has prepared the ground to cry foul should he perform badly. His constant bickering since polling began and his veiled threat on Wednesday to pull out of the polls have been interpreted as pre- emptive excuses for failure.

His capacity to provoke terrible bloodshed was demonstrated conclusively last week by the manner in which the political violence ended in KwaZulu-Natal virtually within hours of his announcement that Inkatha was taking part in the elections.

It is just as important that no party perform spectacularly better than expected. It would be preferable, and a number of ANC leaders recognise this, if the ANC did not pick up more than the two- thirds majority necessary single-handedly to rewrite the constitution.

Should the National Party get more than 30 per cent, the muttering in ANC circles this week about ballot-rigging by the white bureaucrats could become a roar.

A more ticklish question concerns KwaZulu-Natal. All the polls - and there have been many in the last six months - have pointed to the ANC picking up the majority of the Zulu vote. But few have given them more than 50 per cent outright once you factor in the white, Coloured and Indian electorate.

Should Inkatha cause a big upset and win the province, the ANC 'comrades', who are not lacking in guns, could emerge as the new spoilers. If Inkatha come a close second, which is what the realists in the conservative Zulu camp expect, that should cool nationalist passions.

There are plenty of possible permutations. An Inkatha- National Party alliance could assume control of the provincial parliament, as could a coalition of the ANC and the liberal Democratic Party. Whatever the outcome, a fine balance, satisfying the pride of all parties, is going to be required to keep this most volatile part of South Africa from simmering again.