The weekend I arrived in Johannesburg, 21 people were killed in the East Rand. There are forces at work determined to disrupt the journey to democracy and it is a matter of great urgency that the negotiators are able to hold on to the 27 April date set for the elections. The time-frame is especially important for Nelson Mandela and President F W de Klerk, who both need to contain their agitated and impatient constituencies.
Security was the issue most often raised with us by people we met. The tensions I witnessed are being exacerbated by lack of a neutral, trusted police force. Some people are sceptical about proposals to create a national peace-keeping force, but in the absence of a commitment by the international community to help to maintain law and order, there seems no alternative.
I met victims of the violence, women and children who had fled their homes to live in a community hall, where they slept on the floor. They had lost all their possessions and depended on donated food and clothing. That day they had had only boiled carrots to eat. One woman, traumatised by the shootings, the fires and the fear, had just delivered stillborn twins. Another had been trapped in her home, which had been set alight. She was severely disfigured. Martha, whose son was shot dead two weeks ago, told us that the people in her township believe the police collaborate with Inkatha to perpetuate the harassment, the random shootings and gun battles that go on daily.
The Peace Action Group in Johannesburg is an independent monitoring organisation trying to assist efforts to create conditions for a peaceful election. They showed us how significant advances in the negotiations are followed by upsurges in violence. This should leave little doubt that there are forces that conscientiously seek to impede, indeed destroy, the process.
I met a young man who had been dragged from his home by the police under suspicion of having firearms. He had been given electric shocks to his neck and had been 'tubed'. (This involves the face being covered with a water-filled inner tyre tube, which creates the effect of drowning.) He had been stripped and hosed down with cold water. He was held without trial for 21 days and then released.
Unsurprisingly, there is a mood of anxiety and concern that after three years of talking there is still violence and rising political extremism. Less than 25 per cent of the white population now supports the ruling party. The far right is gaining in strength and confidence. In a meeting with the Afrikaner Volksfront leader, the former chief of the Defence Force General Viljoen, I was treated to a description of what he called the holy wars they will wage if they don't get their way.
What I have seen in South Africa has unnerved me about the prospects for keeping the election agenda on course. I came face to face with the effects of the filibustering and saw the grinding poverty in a country where there is 50 per cent unemployment, where two million children are not being educated and where, according to Unicef, one in five black children die before the age of five. Five million children die in poverty each year, so there is an inescapable sense of urgency.
I also met many of those who have nurtured apartheid and enjoyed its benefits while never choosing to see the real lives of those who looked after their children, serviced their cities and laboured on their farms and in their mines.
Many of these people accept the inevitability of change and want the stability that will encourage the investment the country so badly needs. Those who seek to destabilise the process should realise that the patience and tolerance of most of the population is being sorely tested. The international community must also recognise the need to assist those parties who long for a peaceful transition to the non-racial democracy that will emerge.
United Nations and other international monitors are needed in large numbers for the next few months. A minimum number of 30,000 domestic monitors will be needed. All will have to be trained. Twenty-two million black peop1e have never voted, an estimated one million people are illiterate and have never even held a pencil. They need to be issued with ID cards and they need to feel confident that their vote is secret. The whole concept of democracy is new to them.
Mr Mandela, who is 76, has never voted. He will follow 18-year-olds into the polling booth. It is a right that was denied to Oliver Tambo, who died before he ever participated in the democracy he worked so hard to create.
The UN and the European Union should immediately offer increased financial and technical assistance. There are many exchanges that can take place. I learnt of the valuable support, for instance, of British police officers in training South Africans for the essential work of community policing.
One young ANC activist told me, 'We are clear. We want all South Africa to board the train of democracy. Without the help of the international community, our train could be derailed.' We have to ensure that the response is made, so that the train which left apartheid behind arrives at freedom safely, and on time.
Sandra Barwick's column returns next week.