South Africa's war of nerves: ANC leaders use potent language; an anti-white mood smoulders. There is still time for De Klerk to act, but not much, says John Carlin

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Hell hath no fury like Nelson Mandela scorned. Two and a half years ago, after his release from prison, the leader of the African National Congress embarked on what he understood to be a political love affair with F W de Klerk, a joint endeavour, built on mutual trust, whose objective was the peaceful establishment of a just and democratic 'new South Africa'. Today Mr Mandela feels jilted, betrayed. In a speech on Monday he lamented having spearheaded what he called a propaganda campaign on Mr de Klerk's behalf when he described him during 1990 as 'a man of integrity'.

The tune has changed. At an ANC rally four days after the Boipatong massacre, Mr Mandela described the president as a murderer. In the same way that the Nazis had killed people simply because they were Jews, Mr de Klerk, his National Party and their Inkatha allies were killing people simply because they were black, he said.

No one in the ANC leadership is more intemperate these days than Mr Mandela in his condemnation of the government and the security forces. No one had a more forceful influence on the ANC's decision to call off negotiations with the government and to embark on a campaign of 'mass action', the aim of which is to persuade the government to end the violence and accept majority rule. Communist hardliners who sit in on the ANC's national executive meetings speak in awe of the militancy of 'the old man'.

What persuaded Mr Mandela that Mr de Klerk is pursuing a double agenda? Two things. The belief that Mr de Klerk is, at the very least, turning a blind eye to the war in the townships, conducted over the past two years by the intelligence branches of the army and police and their Inkatha surrogates at a cost of 7,000 lives. And his belated understanding that Mr de Klerk's political priority is not justice for all, but the preservation of the power of the white minority.

Mr Mandela cites allegations pointing to a sinister, security force hand behind the township wars. More specifically, he denounces Mr de Klerk's failure to act on his promise in May last year to fence off, and eventually phase out, the single men's hostels that Inkatha warriors have used as their township barracks. Mr Mandela also draws attention to legislation passed in 1990, with Mr de Klerk's blessing, relaxing restraints on the carrying of 'traditional' weapons in public. The Boipatong killings - like dozens of similar massacres - were carried out by hostel-based Inkatha men carrying spears, axes and knives.

In essence, Mr Mandela's message has been: Do you not think the government would have acted differently if white lives were being lost, not black ones? Has not Mr de Klerk, by his inaction, made plain his contempt for the value of black life?

As to the view that the government's strategy is to hold on to power after the end of apartheid, that was confirmed beyond all doubt in Mr Mandela's mind when the constitutional talks broke down on 16 May. It became evident that Mr de Klerk's rejection of 'majority rule' in favour of 'power- sharing' amounted to a plan to entrench a system of minority vetoes. Mr de Klerk's bottom line is that blacks will not run the country on their own.

The consequence is that the ANC and the government have abandoned the negotiating table for the trenches. Mr de Klerk spoke the truth last week when he said that South Africa was at a crossroads. One road led to negotiations, peace and stability; the other to poverty and endless conflict.

All the talk among politicians these days is about 'bloody confrontation', 'anarchy' and 'civil war'. Compounding the general anxiety is what one European diplomat called 'the Archduke Ferdinand factor'. The body politic, he observed, has become too fragile to withstand a major outrage. The assassination of a senior ANC figure, or a bomb killing white children in Pretoria, would unleash the security forces and the township radicals, with a ferocity never yet seen.

So how can South Africa return to the road of the peaceful negotiations Mr de Klerk says he seeks? It would help if the ANC were to tone down its rhetoric. However justified the accusations against the government, the heat in ANC leaders' speeches is translating into an increasingly warlike mood in the townships, and there is a new factor as well - a budding anti-white sentiment. All the talk, too, of 'mass action' bringing down the government is both impractical and, from the ANC's point of view, possibly counterproductive. The 'Leipzig option' is simply not on. The difference from the old East Germany, Soviet Union, Poland or Romania is that the power structure in South Africa is not crumbling. The security forces, the bureaucracy, business and at least five million whites are united in their resolve to preserve the old order.

It is perhaps this knowledge that explains the curious complacency still visible on the faces of government officials. If 'mass action' fails, the ANC will lose prestige and support, shifting the power balance back to the government and boosting the chances - Mr de Klerk's dream - of a 'moderate', National Party-led alliance in an all-race election.

But the risks of such a war of nerves are considerable. It is the new racism among the township youth - expressed on banners at recent rallies and in assaults on white journalists - that holds the greatest threat of tragedy. The most extraordinary thing about South Africa down the years has been the manner in which the ANC's message of 'non-racialism' has seized hold of black minds. But if, at a time of dashed hopes, the wars in the townships continue, the call to take the violence into white areas will become uncontrollable.

It is up to Mr de Klerk to steer the country back on to the road to peace. It is not difficult - if he is prepared to pay the political price. The ANC says it will go back to the negotiating table if a list of demands aimed at ending the violence is 'sufficiently' met. Controls on hostels and on weapons, and some visible police zeal against officers identified as troublemakers, would go a long way to satisfy ANC pride and appease the masses.

Why has Mr de Klerk not taken these 'perfectly reasonable measures', as Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes them? Partly because the political price would be to antagonise Inkatha, which Mr de Klerk has identified as a key ally in his strategy to hold on to power, and partly because he does not have full control over the security forces, whose support is also critical.

Mr Mandela wrote to Mr de Klerk before his release from prison in 1989 and stated his belief that negotiations would have to reconcile black aspirations with white fears of being swamped. A compromise is still possible if the government can water down its greed. What is required is for Mr de Klerk to live up to the vision Mr Mandela, and much of the world, had of him in February 1990. Those who believed two years ago that he had experienced a Damascene conversion have been proved wrong. The only hope for South Africa is that he will experience it now.

(Photograph omitted)