AT some point the South African government is going to have to talk politics with representatives of the nation's black majority. The sooner the better. Pretoria has been trying without much success to bridge the gap between whites-only rule and interracial power sharing by luring black conservatives and moderates to its planned national advisory council.
But the backing off from that again this week by moderate Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the new push by the African National Congress to gain status as the sole representative of South Africa's black majority are reminders that it is high time for Pretoria to move ahead and release popular ANC leader Nelson Mandela from jail. The behavior of former ANC chairman Govan Mbeki since his release from jail five weeks ago must not be allowed to cloud the issue.
Chief Buthelezi, who leads 6.5 million Zulus among South Africa's 26 million blacks, insists it would be ``suicidal'' to negotiate with a government that does not accept the reality of a black majority. He says he will not talk national politics with Pretoria until Mr. Mandela's release.
The ANC, long banned in South Africa, said at its Tanzania conference that it wants to increase its global diplomatic and financial backing. The ANC contends it is the legitimate representative of the majority of South Africans. Such groups as the Pan-Africanist Congress and the Inkatha may contest the point, but the ANC is the oldest, most important, and probably the most widely supported black nationalist group in the region.
The ANC is making its case at a timely moment. Canada, for one, has been weighing a beef-up of sanctions against Pretoria; withdrawal of diplomatic recognition of Pretoria is an option. The Soviet Union, Romania, and East Germany now recognize the ANC. Few others are likely to come aboard, but the United Nations may yet be convinced of the ANC's case; South Africa's UN credentials were lifted in 1974. Also, the ANC's new thrust adds to existing pressures on Pretoria to move more swiftly.
South African officials say their decision to release Mr. Mbeki, in jail 23 years, was a routine humanitarian act. Pretoria has been quick to describe his reasonably restrained and predictable actions since then as a sign that his release was a ``failure.'' Mbeki remains a member of the South African Communist Party, has not denounced the ANC, and continues to press for Mandela's release. Pretoria may never have intended Mbeki's release as a forerunner to Mandela's release, as is widely assumed; perhaps Pretoria was only trying to buy itself more time with the West.
Yet surely the South African government does not want Mandela to die in jail or police custody, as Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko did. That could present authorities with many more problems than letting him go. Eventually Pretoria must conclude that racial government is no longer possible and that talking with legitimate representatives of the black majority is the only way to move South Africa forward. Why wait?