Leading Article: The costs of confrontation

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NELSON MANDELA and the African Nation Congress are pursuing a high-risk strategy with their mass action programme, which began with a two-day strike. Yesterday's worse-than-usual violence was only one of several predictable consequences. The main objectives of the industrial action are to strengthen the ANC's negotiating position when constitutional talks with President F W de Klerk's government resume; and to protest against the violence in the townships and the role of the security forces in promoting or tolerating the 'black-on-black' slaughter that has claimed thousands of lives.

The ANC and eight allied political organisations broke off the constitutional talks on 23 June. The issue at the heart of the dispute was the size of the majority that would be required to adopt the new constitution, and in particular those clauses relating to the powers of the proposed nine regional authorities. The governing National Party held out for 75 per cent, reckoning that it could muster a blocking minority of 25 per cent to kill proposals that threatened the whites' position. The ANC offered 66.33 per cent, increased it under pressure to 70 per cent, then reverted in disgust to two-thirds.

The underlying reasons for calling the week of mass action are clear enough. Two and a half years after being promised a new South Africa, most black South Africans find their living conditions and the economic situation are, if anything, worse; the killing afflicting the townships is more pervasive than anything that went before; and they still do not have the vote. The recent Boipatong massacre was the last straw.

But the wisdom of the chosen tactics is doubtful. The government has already conceded several of the ANC's demands for the resumption of talks: for example, three controversial security force units are to be disbanded; migrant worker hostels, sources of much of the violence, are to be reformed; and tougher steps are to be taken against the carrying of weapons (including the Zulus' 'traditional' weapons). Additionally, the government has agreed that United Nations observers should monitor this week's confrontation between the ANC and the security forces; and Cyrus Vance, a former US secretary of state, has been appointed as the UN's special envoy to South Africa. Bringing negotiations for a settlement under international scrutiny is close to Mr Mandela's heart.

Yesterday's response to the strike call was impressive. But it will be devalued politically by evidence that intimidation by ANC bully- boys was a factor in persuading workers to stay at home. The security forces were given another opportunity to be tough (several strikers died at their hands); and, as expected, the split between radicals and pragmatists within the ANC's ranks was emphasised.

By the end of the week of action, losses may well appear to outweigh gains. All hopes of underpinning the democratic process will be jeopardised if the economy cannot be salvaged. Additional violence and industrial action will further sap the confidence of potential investors, without whom the future will be bleak. Mr Mandela remains optimistic. But the readiness of the whites to concede majority rule is far from certain. Violence is unlikely to stop until the blacks can vote - and it may not stop even then.