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S. Africa's black leaders near showdown over how to win control. At issue is whether negotiation with Botha regime still possible

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Rival black leaders have begun girding for a showdown over how to win power from the country's white-minority government. The contest burst into the open most recently, during rival May Day demonstrations. At issue is whether there remains room for compromise with the ruling party of President Pieter W. Botha, which has announced a strategy congress for August.

The chief black advocate of compromise, Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi, drew some 60,000 backers for a May Day rally in the Indian Ocean city of Durban. But an estimated 1.5 million black workers were meanwhile mounting the country's largest-ever work stoppage to press for a quicker and more far-reaching devolution of power.

Chief Buthelezi is pinning his hopes on one-month-old talks with the province of Natal, which borders his own territory of KwaZulu and is ruled by more moderate white politicians than those in the national government.

The talks' aim is to agree on guidelines for a joint legislature.

Although the talks have been held behind closed doors, the Monitor has learned that considerable progress has been made toward a draft charter. It would give the 75-percent Zulu majority in the Natal-KwaZulu region a dominant voice in the shared legislature and probably make Buthelezi the area's ``prime minister.''

Conference sources say final agreement seems at least a month away but that delegates have narrowed differences on a compromise. This would award a disproportionate share of seats to whites and other minorities, and require a two-thirds parliamentary majority on selected issues -- essentially a white veto on such questions.

But for Buthelezi, the talks' achievement so far may prove the easy part. He has yet to secure assurances of President Botha's support for such a compromise, crucial to its required approval by the national Parliament. Nor has the chief managed to dampen growing opposition from more radical black leaders.

This was a major point of his May Day rally, nominally called to launch a black labor union to rival the federation that mounted the unprecedented nationwide work stoppage. ``I wish I could send a video of it to Oliver Tambo,'' Buthelezi remarked in an interview. The reference was to the leader-in-exile of the outlawed African National Congress.

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