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Let the Talks Resume

TALKS on the future of South Africa are mired in the country's confused present. On Sept. 26, African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela and South African President Frederik De Klerk met and agreed to resume negotiations. Following that moment of clarity, however, clouds again piled up.

At the September meeting, Mr. De Klerk responded to ANC demands for concrete actions to quell violence. He told Mr. Mandela the government would curb the carrying of so-called "cultural weapons" by members of the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party. He also said that workers' hostels, so often the focus of violence in black townships, would be fenced in. And more "political" prisoners, including some convicted of murder, have since been released.

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These steps brought an immediate backlash. De Klerk's black conservative allies, led by Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, charged him with appeasing the ANC. Chief Buthelezi and other black homeland leaders worry that they'll be on the sidelines in future constitutional talks between the white-led government and Mandela's group, which has the loyalty of a majority of blacks.

Buthelezi and the others have cause to worry, since their territorial and political power bases will largely disappear in a democratic South Africa.

De Klerk realizes that his indispensable partner in devising a transition to democracy is Mandela. Until the National Party and the ANC get talks back on track, South Africa's economic descent will only sharpen. Foreign investment is badly needed, but it requires positive political signals.

For now, the signals are mostly negative. The ANC marched on the white parliament this week. De Klerk had called the special session months ago in hopes of making final plans for transitional rule and nonracial elections. Instead, while ANC protesters decried the white legislature's continued existence outside, De Klerk inside vowed to protect white minority rights in any future system.

The battle lines are as stark as ever. De Klerk and Mandela must waste no time in crossing them to get back to constructive negotiations, regardless of who choses to follow them.

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