THE first meeting ever between South Africa's President and its most illustrious political prisoner, Nelson Mandela, is only one of several signs of a new fluidity in the political situation there. Blacks and whites are talking in several arenas. Rival black groups are holding reconciliation talks. And the governing white National Party (NP) is going through an important leadership transition.
There is palpable hope in Washington that the United States and its allies can help move the situation toward negotiations. ``There is a chance here for a breakthrough,'' says a high-ranking US policymaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
``It may be only 30 percent, but it's there. The question is how to nudge the parties to the starting line for talks,'' he says. This official and others questioned now see perhaps a six-month window of opportunity to get things going.
The South African government and the new NP leader, Federik W. de Klerk, are taking a conciliatory line, saying they want to dismantle apartheid. US specialists point to severe economic strains, the failure to destroy the internal anti-apartheid movement, and the need to attract international financial support and investment as pressures for change. But there is a good deal of skepticism among experts here about how deep the desire for reform goes.
``F.W. is still just talking about a race-based plan for reform,'' says Pauline Baker, Africa specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. ``It's not yet clear that he's coming to grips with the need to negotiate with the real black leadership.''
Mr. de Klerk's sincerity needs to be ``tested,'' a senior US official agrees. ``He may be a reasonable reformer or he may be trying to fool the world and end South Africa's isolation.''
The Bush team is actively testing those waters. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen met with De Klerk in South Africa last week. In addition, the South African is expected in Washington later this summer at the invitation of Secretary of State James Baker III.
Still to be decided is whether De Klerk will meet with President Bush. Some officials say that will depend partly on what De Klerk has said and done in the run-up to the visit. Others argue that the value of De Klerk getting directly from the President the US message on the need to abolish apartheid makes a meeting vital.
The US is closely coordinating with its allies the diplomatic pressure for change, as well as opening new channels of dialogue with South African blacks. It plans to back that up with new funds for so-called ``black empowerment'' programs. But it has not finally decided on the mix of carrots and sticks to use in the months ahead.
Ambassador Cohen will reportedly be meeting with exiled leaders of the banned African National Congress during his swing through the region, in addition to seeing anti-apartheid leaders inside South Africa.
Ten days ago, President Bush meet with a delegation from the main internal anti-apartheid group, the United Democratic Front. Azar Cachalia, the UDF's national treasurer, said the President gave the impression that he did not want to repeat the ``mistakes'' of the Reagan administration.
Speaking to a seminar at the Carnegie Endowment, Mr. Cachalia said the UDF message was that it doesn't believe in the apparent ``change of heart'' by South Africa's leaders, and that all types of pressures will be needed to bring the government to its senses.
Cachalia said the South African government has adopted a two-track approach to end its international isolation. On the one hand, it makes encouraging statements about dismantling apartheid, releases some political prisoners, and eases some restrictions. But simultaneously, coercion continues as before at a lower profile. Basic political activity is still criminal, stiff sentences are being handed out, police harassment continues, and vigilante violence and assassinations are increasing.
``We hope the international community will not be blinded by the smoke screen of Track 1,'' Cachalia said. Despite the mistrust, he held out the possibility of movement. Before talking with the government, the UDF and other anti-apartheid groups want the state of emergency ended, political prisoners released, and the ban on political activity lifted. But these are ``negotiable,'' Cachalia contended. The key element is a climate conducive to free political activity. If some of the preconditions are met and the coercive track is not pushed, that could lead to ``talks about talks,'' he said.