Leading Article: South Africa's grim best hope

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ONCE AGAIN, politically-motivated violence of the most ruthless kind has thrown a shadow over South Africa's bloody march towards democracy. In a very religious country, Sunday's attack on a mainly white congregation in a pleasant, liberal suburb of Cape Town was calculated to provoke maximum outrage, hatred and mistrust. Measured against that yardstick, the killing of some 50 blacks over the weekend around Johannesburg and in Natal was all too normal a toll, but none the less horrifying for that.

It is widely suspected that the sinisterly professional attack on the Cape Town church was carried out by a group bent on shaping public opinion just before yesterday's tabling of a draft interim constitution. This goes some way - against the initial wishes of the African National Congress - towards creating the sort of federal structure sought by the mainly-Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party and its leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi; but not nearly far enough. To Afrikaner extremists, who want an independent Boer state, it is certain to be unacceptable.

Under yesterday's proposals the main legislative body will be a democratically and proportionally elected 400-member National Assembly, with no guaranteed seats for minority groups. The smaller Senate will be chosen by popularly- elected provincial legislatures, and will choose the President. The powers of each regional government will be determined by the central government; and regional constitutions may not be in conflict with provisions in the Interim Constitution.

The transition to democracy will be in two phases. First, a transitional executive council will prepare for elections on 27 April 1994. The newly elected parliament will adopt the final constitution in its first two years, after which there will be a second general election. Inkatha's big fear is that it may, as opinion polls currently suggest, secure only between 3 and 5 per cent of the vote nationally, and might therefore not rate a seat in a 20-strong Cabinet. That is why it wants the constitution finalised before next April's elections. The white far right bitterly opposes the whole concept of majority rule, which it sees as a threat to Boer values and privileges.

In the run-up to the country's first democratic elections in April, there will be a race between the majority in the centre, consisting of whites who trust President F W de Klerk and blacks who trust Nelson Mandela and the ANC leadership, and those on the far right and left fringes. The unholy alliance of Inkatha and far-right extremists seems bent on raising intimidation and mayhem to a level that puts the viability of the elections in doubt. The militant left cannot be trusted, either.

The big question is whether the police and armed forces will defend the majority against a minority with which they are largely in sympathy. It was the police and armed forces who enforced the laws of apartheid and crushed those who opposed them. The same police have already shown a temperamental reluctance to treat with the same severity those whites determined to avert a black government.

Almost as large a threat comes from the false hopes likely to be engendered by the electoral process. Millions of hitherto disfranchised voters will be expecting the country's first democratic government to transform their standard of living and provide jobs. But it will be able to do no such thing, and investment will remain low, until political violence drops to much lower levels. Only the certain dreadfulness of a full-scale civil war seems likely to prevent such a conflict from taking place.