As black factional fighting flared again near Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela met President Frederik W. de Klerk on Tuesday and later declared the peace process imperiled by government reluctance to move swiftly to end the township carnage.
"It is dragging its feet, (and) the peace process is definitely threatened," Mandela told reporters after leading a 22-person African National Congress delegation in three-hour talks with De Klerk in Pretoria.
Mandela added that the ANC might be forced by its supporters to consider a return to the 29-year-old armed liberation struggle, which it formally suspended last month.
"If the government fails to take action, if violence continues to rise and the people continue to demand to be armed, we will find it difficult to oppose that demand, and, of course, the consequences would be very clear to everybody," Mandela said.
The fighting between factions, which pits mostly migrant Zulu workers from Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party against Xhosas and other supporters of Mandela's ANC, has thus far claimed nearly 700 lives in townships surrounding Johannesburg since late July.
It appears to echo the three-year-old internecine war in the eastern province of Natal, Buthelezi's home base. Battles between Zulu followers of Inkatha and Zulu followers of the ANC have claimed nearly 4,000 lives in Natal.
Although both Mandela and De Klerk renewed their commitment to the process of a peaceful, negotiated end to black oppression on Tuesday, they remained at odds over the cause of the violence near Johannesburg and in Natal.
Top-level government officials delivered a rare public criticism of Mandela this week, and chief government negotiator Gerrit Viljoen said that the ANC "must cease claiming total innocence for themselves and their followers, and laying blame on their opponents, or the police."
The ANC, the largest and most influential black political group in the country, has accused the police of siding with Inkatha, a charge that the police deny. Numerous accounts of witnesses to the violence in Johannesburg-area townships suggest that some policemen may be assisting Inkatha against the ANC, the government's old enemy.
On Tuesday, at least 24 people were hacked, shot or burned to death in battles between migrant Zulus and township residents in Katlehong, Vosloorus and Tokoza townships southeast of Johannesburg. Police officers and troops under white commanders exchanged gunfire with black combatants in the townships, police said.
Mandela has claimed that elements of the police who oppose De Klerk's peace initiatives are stoking the black fighting to subvert the peace process.
"I wish to state very clearly and very emphatically the government has the capacity to put an end to this violence if it wants to, and I want them to use that capacity," Mandela said Tuesday.
"The amount of casualties suffered by our people and the failure of action by the government threatens the peace process," he added.
The ANC delegation told De Klerk that it had launched a concerted effort to end the violence in Natal, including several short-lived peace agreements with Inkatha leaders in some areas. But it said that none of its strategies would work unless the government security forces began acting impartially.
The ANC leaders said that the government could end the fighting in Natal only if its security forces took over from the self-government Kwazulu homeland's police force, which is under the command of Buthelezi. The ANC also recommended that police commanders in Natal establish open lines of communication with ANC leaders.
De Klerk, saying he was deeply concerned about the escalating violence, promised to consider the ANC's recommendations. The president added that the government already had taken steps to increase police patrols in Natal and improve socioeconomic conditions there.
De Klerk also said "the growing sense of urgency in the country . . . demands a commitment by all representative leaders to peacefully work out the constitutional future of the country." The remarks were an apparent reference to Mandela's refusal to meet Buthelezi.
Mandela said that the ANC would give De Klerk time to respond to its suggestions.
"Despite (the government's) past record of making statements they have not carried out, let us give them a chance," he said. But "the government cannot be allowed to talk peace and negotiation and at the same time conduct war against us."