A breakthrough - of the marginal kind. This is what is most likely to emerge from milestone negotiations, due to begin today, between a group of white South Africans and the outlawed African National Congress insurgency movement. The conference is set for the West African city of Dakar, Senegal.
News of the talks has already had the effect of hurling the issue of the ANC - to some South Africans a ``liberation movement;'' to others, a ``terrorist group'' - back onto the political consciousness of white South Africa. In recent months, the government has moved with remarkable success to discredit the ANC, and its use of political violence, among whites here and some politicians in the West.
But the head of the Dakar delegation, former white-liberal parliamentarian Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, has countered that it is ``stupid and senseless'' for whites to dismiss as a ``terrorist group'' an organization backed by many among the country's large black majority. His hope in talking with the ANC, he said en route to the talks, was to thrash out questions concerning the economic, political, and social future of South Africa.
The Dakar conference, merely by taking place, will break new ground. Most of the roughly 60 delegates are members of the Afrikaans-speaking white community that, for decades, has provided the core of support for South Africa's ruling National Party. Never before has such a large group of Afrikaners - including respected academics and writers - joined hands to defy the government's opposition to talks with the ANC.
The conference will also differ in scope from earlier meetings between white South Africans and the rebel group. The Slabbert delegation plans three days of nuts-and-bolts discussions, mostly behind closed doors, on what kind of ``post-apartheid South Africa'' the ANC envisages - and just how the ANC proposes to get there.
Will the organization ever be prepared to meet the government's demand that it formally renounce political violence as a prerequisite for negotiating a new South African political system? Would the ANC's vision of such an amended system allow a place for a free-market economy? What are the implications of the organization's close ties with the also-banned South African Communist Party and with East-bloc governments?
The makeup of the Slabbert delegation, however, poses limits to the degree to which the talks are likely to produce a breakthrough. The white envoys represent a hard-pressed liberal minority, in a nation where most whites favor the government's tough line on the ANC.
The talks follow a white South African election in which the National Party and the extreme-right Conservative Party - both of which denounce the ANC as a ``communist, terrorist'' threat to the country's security - emerged as the major victors. The main loser was the Progressive Federal Party, which Slabbert ran until resigning in early 1986 on the grounds that white parliamentary politics is irrelevant to South Africa. One reason the PFP did poorly in the vote was that the ruling party succeeded in portraying it as ``soft'' on the ANC.
A PFP parliamentarian has stressed, however, that the party did not formally endorse the trip.
If the Slabbert team manages to draw public reassurances from the ANC on issues likes political violence and ``communism,'' the whole fabric of South Africa's political debate could be altered. The government would be thrown on the defensive. But sources from within the delegation and from within the ANC are dampening expectations of a breakthrough of this magnitude - noting, among other things, that with many ANC sympathizers in jail under a year-old state of emergency, the timing is wrong for the ANC to make concessions. ANC leader Oliver Tambo will not be attending the talks.
Journalists in South Africa operate under official press restrictions.