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South Africa's Vote

TRAGICALLY, it comes as little surprise that as the national and provincial elections giving South Africa's blacks the franchise for the first time begin, extremists' bombs are echoing in Johannesburg and elsewhere.

So far, at least 20 people have died - including a provincial-assembly candidate belonging to the African National Congress - and more than 130 have been injured in the blasts. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, the two largest of which were aimed at the ANC: one at national and provincial headquarters in Johannesburg, the other at an allied group in Germiston. Condemnations of the attacks, which have come from across the political spectrum, nevertheless become more ``understanding'' of the bombers' motives the farther one gets to the spectrum's right. Yet the means used in the attacks suggest to law enforcement officials that right-wing extremists are involved; many of them either have served in the military, where they were trained in the use of explosives, or have received such training through paramilitary groups.

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The death throes of the notion of government by racism are apparent not only in the immediate targets of the attacks. The timing also says much. As long as Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, head of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, threatened his party would boycott the elections, the prospect of disruptive violence and black voter intimidation was high. Who needed bombs when blacks were fighting among themselves? But once Inkatha decided to participate, the prospect of black-on-black violence fell, although it hasn't disappeared. Other extremist groups no longer could depend on Inkatha and the ANC to do their work for them.

The intimidation tactics represented by the bombs cannot be allowed to succeed to any degree. The government is taking the right steps in aggressively investigating the bombing and in preparing heightened security around polling places, although car bombs can evade such efforts. Yet increased security also might be misread by some as government intimidation of voters, depressing turnout in some areas. Hence, the critical response to the bombings remains with South African voters, who have an opportunity to demonstrate that the moral and political courage that have brought the country to the verge of majority rule can thwart attempts to retard political progress.

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