Last week, Bishop Desmond Tutu was warning angry blacks that he would leave the country and perhaps even abandon the liberation struggle if there were any more lynch-mob attacks on suspected police informers.
This week, South African President P. W. Botha was refusing the Nobel Peace Prize winner's request for a meeting to find a way to end the violence.
The two events say a good deal about the moral and physical courage of the Anglican bishop and perhaps more about the dismal prospects for peace in that racial time bomb of a country called South Africa.
Tutu is respected around the world as a man of peace and yet held in high regard by South Africa's black militants. That combination of attributes made it pssible for him to elbow his way through an enraged crowd three weeks ago to rescue a man suspected of being a police informer and, last week, to threaten to quit the liberation struggle if lynchings continued.
That same integrity would have made him almost uniquely able to lead the near-revolutionary black population and the white government away from the brink of chaos. He was willing, even eager, to try.
"I have tried; I have failed," he said the other day after Botha decided against meeting with him. Tutu first broached his interest in such a meeting during two broadcast interviews. Botha, perhaps looking to his right flank, said he could not respond to offers made through the media but was prepared to talk to Tutu or anyone else "provided a proper appointment is made."
Tutu, who might have bristled at the rebuff and turned away, instead sent Botha a formal request for a meeting. Botha's office at first announced his wilingness to talk with Tutu but later rejected the bishop's request, adding -- incredibly -- that he would talk only with people who had denounced both violence and civil disobedience.
That new condition eliminated Tutu, who refuses -- disobediently -- to carry the "pass" that South African law requires all blacks to keep with them. The bishop, who already had risked his credibility among blacks by seeking the meeting with Botha, could hardly afford to be seen as begging for an audience. So that, presumably, is that.
But important questions remain. For instance, what does the Botha government have in mind? Surely its refusal to talk to Tutu is a calculated move implying that it sees no point in enhancing the credibility of black moderates. The result can only be to render the moderates irrelevant or, more likely, to radicalize them.
Tutu, and men like him, could have been bridges, making it at least theoretically possible for the two sides to come together. Does the bridge-blasting, implicit i Botha's rebuff of Tutu, mean that the government has given up on a peaceful resolution of the current crisis? Is the scene being set for a full-fledged shoot-out?
And what, if that happens, will be the position of the Reagan administration? The White House, while continuing to assert its opposition to economic sanctions, is at least more vocal in its apparent consternation with Botha's obstinance, particularly with his refusal to meet with Tutu. Will Botha's continued obstinance transform that consternation into active impatience?
What will be Ronald Reagan's reaction if Tutu and other moderates are jailed? Where will America be if the crisis escalates, whether into revolution or all-out repression? When, in short, will this country gather up the political and moral courage to declare just which side it is on? South Africa: Setup for a