HOPES for progress in South Africa have come close to foundering on the violence between rival black groups. The killing has been senseless, given the long-term gains awaiting a majority of South Africans if the nation-building process nurtured by President Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress. But the disaffection felt by many of South Africa's poor makes it hard to keep those long-term goals - full rights of citizenship, participation in government, equitable distribution of the nation's resources - in view. Reactionary elements opposed to the efforts of De Klerk and Mandela have been playing on the desperation of unemployed youths, and on long-held tribal and political animosities, to keep the cycle of violence spinning.
The government's initial response to heightened killing, such as last week's attack on a commuter train that left 26 dead, has been an ``iron fist'' policy of beefed-up police firepower. Though he led calls for a stronger official response to the violence, Mandela has criticized this tactic as a ``license to kill.'' He wants a more thorough investigation of charges that the police have played a role in encouraging violence, instead of stopping it. That's needed if black distrust of the police is to be eased. The arrest this week of a white right-wing radical wanted for stealing weapons is a indication, at least, of police good faith.
Mandela faces a tremendous challenge in controlling young ANC adherents whose whole youths have been spent preparing for ``armed struggle.'' That inclination toward combat now sets black against black. At some point, Mandela must talk peace with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Zulu Inkatha movement. Lower-level preparations for such a meeting have begun.
Adding to Mandela's troubles are impending charges against his wife, Winnie, for her alleged part in the beating and murder of a black teenager accused of being a police informant.
South Africans of every color need to see the healing process continue. Violence disorients, but the goal of a society with guarantees for the rights and liberty of all remains a powerful magnet.