Leading Article: Back to realism in South Africa

Click to follow
EACH time South Africa's astonishing negotiated revolution has seemed about to be engulfed by violence, realism has broken through. It has done so again at the 11th hour with yesterday's announcement that Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha party will, after all, take part in next week's elections. As a result, the chances of a relatively orderly process are enormously enhanced. Violence is unlikely to cease entirely, but Inkatha will not mount organised opposition, or, if it is wise, contest the outcome.

Thus, in the four years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison, South Africa has moved from the deep antagonisms of apartheid to the threshold of multi-racial democracy. It is an achievement of historic proportions that should inspire every other country in which racial divisions seem insurmountable. South Africa has been lucky to have two men of the stature and vision of F W de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. But even they could not have come this far without the painfully acquired realism of supporters on both sides of the racial divide.

In the end it was realism, too, that ended the opposition of Chief Buthelezi to the election. Once the favoured friend of the white business community and Margaret Thatcher, with hopes of becoming president himself, he had become a dangerous nuisance. As his support ebbed, he had to scale down his demands. By making common cause with white extremists, he had lost moral authority. When he could not deliver regional autonomy he lost the confidence of his nephew, King Goodwill Zwelithini, who saw himself without a job or money. The KwaZulu civil service turned against him for the same reason, not wanting to face penury for the sake of his ambitions.

Finally, after he rejected the mediation efforts of Lord Carrington and Henry Kissinger, the white business community lost patience with him and with the disorder he was provoking. Finding that he could not postpone the election, knowing that he would be beaten by the ANC even in Natal, and with his own movement divided, he had to choose between ending his political career in a campaign of fruitless violence or settling for survival under the wing of the king. He has chosen survival.

That he has done so is less a tribute to his own realism than to the steadiness and determination of Mr de Klerk and Mr Mandela. They saw their entire work under threat from a campaign of organised violence but did not lose their nerve and continued to work together.

Barring mishaps, the road is now open to a democratic election that will produce a legitimate, representative government with the authority needed to start on economic regeneration. With unemployment ranging from about 45 per cent in some areas to 90 per cent in others, and a legacy of deep bitterness to overcome, it will need all the cohesion it can muster. But at least the starting point will be more hopeful than anyone could have imagined a few years ago.