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South Africa's Political Transformation

Having agreed to shed shackles of discrimination in a first-ever free election, South Africa faces the challenge of making democracy work

SOUTH Africa is almost free. South Africans of all colors finally agreed, early this month, to a negotiated settlement and national elections. But the details still have to be elaborated before the precise shape and practicality of the transfer of power can be assessed.

Nelson Mandela, president of the African National Congress (ANC), will soon declare sanctions over, but until elections are held and power genuinely transferred, even the lifting of sanctions will not inaugurate a rush to invest in South Africa.

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The agreement forged by representatives of 26 different political parties and interest groups set South Africa's first-ever full and free election for April 27. The poll will be supervised by a to-be-selected local electoral commission.

Balloting will occur simultaneously at the national and regional levels, probably over more than one day. The rules of proportional representation will prevail at both levels, and thus there will be neither constituencies nor persons elected on local or purely ethnic bases.

Of the 400 Constituent Assembly seats to be chosen nationally by this method, 200 will come as a result of regional results and 200 as a consequence of the overall national returns. There also may be separate campaigns for municipal seats.

During this month's difficult negotiations, the ANC reluctantly agreed to trade undiluted national rule for a federal solution. The new regions will have significant powers, although their precise enumeration and the powers of the central government still have to be decided and their borders drawn.

South Africa long has had four provinces. The ANC, the National Party (NP), and the parties of the white right wing have begun submitting their own blueprints for the regions. The ANC and the NP seem to agree roughly on the carving up of South Africa into seven, eight, or nine regions. But the white right wants an Afrikaner-dominated Volkstaat, or region of its own.

Once the borders are set, there will be bitter arguments about whether the regions will control primary and secondary education (likely), and higher education (doubtful). Will police forces be regionalized? Who will govern the hospitals and health care? What about roads, industrial policy, broadcasting, or the courts? For each of these questions there are as many answers as there are contending parties. Still to be decided are the extent and nature of the regional taxing powers. And what will happen when

an ANC-led central government seeks to overrule decisions taken at the regional level?

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No one really knows how these tough issues of social engineering will be resolved, but preparations for the elections and campaigning cannot go forward until these many questions are answered.

The ANC and the NP, the two dominant contenders, must satisfy themselves and their supporters, but the negotiators must also take into account the hopes and fears of at least two others among the 26 negotiating teams.

Only when the antagonisms of the white right and the anxieties and ambitions of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) have been blunted can South Africa conclude this month's debates over an interim constitution and establish a Transitional Executive Council (TEC).

The TEC is meant to advise the existing government until April's elections. It will represent the major groups at the negotiating table and will ensure effective elections. When it is functioning, a new interim constitution, down to the last regional and civic clause, will have been agreed upon by all parties. @BODYTEXT =

THE Constituent Assembly, and a possible upper house or senate, will, after April, draft a further, final constitution for South Africa. The ANC assumes that if it achieves a resounding national majority it will be able to write clauses more beneficial to Africans than anything to which it agrees this month or next. But that is a gamble.Overriding the intense debates and speculation of recent months is the reality of violence. Ten thousand Africans have been killed in clashes between the IFP and the ANC since Mr. Mandela's release from prison in 1990. Earlier this month hundreds were dying weekly in the black townships east of Johannesburg.

The police claim to be powerless and frightened. There are rumors that a sinister, shadowy "third force" of right-wing whites is perpetuating and directly stimulating Zulu attacks on Xhosa-speaking members of the ANC.

Nothing is that simple, but violence in the black townships is continuously destructive. Are the police and the army reliable? The police appear to be colluding with the militant Afrikaner Resistance Movement and other fringe, but dangerous, groups on the white right. In late June these groups used an armored vehicle to invade the building in which the constitutional negotiators were meeting. The event was televised worldwide. There was no police opposition at the time and few arrests have since been mad e.

There is an atmosphere of vigilantism that bedevils peaceful progress toward the election. Moreover, the IFP has threatened not to accept the interim constitutional arrangements and to accelerate violence in Natal. Most black and white leaders of South Africa intend their country to be free and to be ruled after April, for five years, by a coalition government. The jockeying at the negotiating table, and the killings in the townships, are all part of the calculated pursuit of power by groups of whites an d blacks harboring different and dramatically opposed agendas.

There is no doubt that South Africa will hold elections in 1994 and install a government of national unity. But how stable and peaceful it will be depends on answers to tough questions of principle and on doing what now seems hardly possible - ending the cascading violence in the nation.

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