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South African Ruling Party Patterns Proposed Constitution After US

Charter calls for two-house legislature, supreme court, bill of rights

SOUTH Africa's ruling National Party is set to build a nonracial alliance around a constitutional plan that is strikingly similar to the United States Constitution. ``We have come to accept that the rule of law is the ultimate authority of the state,'' Constitutional Development Minister Gerrit Viljoen told the Transvaal Congress of the National Party here over the weekend.

``We will follow the example of federal constitutions like the United States, in which the Supreme Court has the ultimate say,'' Mr. Viljoen said. ``This sovereignty of the court is going to be a vital element in our checks and balances.''

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Transvaal's party was the last of the four provincial parties to endorse President Frederik de Klerk's suggestion that membership be opened to all races.

``Our party now stands on the moral high ground,'' he told about 1,500 delegates. ``We can defend morally and ethically everything for which we stand.''

Party officials said it was not intended to launch a recruitment drive among blacks, but rather to seek political alliances with like-minded people.

``There is a difference between a massive recruitment drive and opening the doors,'' said Foreign Minister Roelof (Pik) Botha. ``We are not seeking to become the sole party.''

Viljoen repeated his belief that an election coalition - in which the National Party formed an alliance with other parties, could allow it to emerge as the majority grouping to challenge the African National Congress (ANC).

Party officials say the possibility of an alliance with the ANC remained, but would depend largely on whether it was prepared to break with the South African Communist Party.

``Viljoen is already looking for the middle-ground votes which the National Party and the ANC will have to compete for in the founding election under the new constitution,'' says Mervyn Frost, a political science professor at Natal University.

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Viljoen's remarks signal a government reassessment of the ANC as the key to forming a stable political center, says Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, an independent political analyst. ``I sense a growing disillusionment on the part of government over whether the ANC can deliver its side of the deal,'' he says. Recruitment statistics show the ANC has been slow in signing-up members and is having problems making the transition from a liberation movement to a political party. Senior government officials have outlined a constitutional framework that breaks with race.

Viljoen told the party's Cape Congress two weeks ago that 12 principles should be entrenched in the constitution. These included a Bill of Rights, a free-market system, private ownership, protection against excessive taxation, management and professionalism of the security forces, the frequency of parliamentary elections, and the right of linguistic, cultural, and religious minorities to have their own schools.

Significantly, the party appears to have dropped its earlier demand for specific guarantees for the white minority - even on a temporary basis as was the case in neighboring Zimbabwe.

Party officials argued instead that the best form of protecting ``group'' rights - like language, culture and religion - was through a bill of rights and special representation for groups defined on the basis of broad political conviction.

Mr. De Klerk, who is also the National Party leader, urged the party rank and file to help build ``alliances or a broad political movement'' around shared convictions and common goals that would transcend racial barriers.

``The party believes that the basis for future cooperation should be laid now - otherwise valuable opportunities will be lost,'' he said. Party officials expressed confidence that De Klerk had achieved a winning image amongst Afrikaners that would triumph over threats by the Conservative Party to halt reform.

``The [Conservative] Party's support of boycotts, civil disobedience, and disruption of order at public meetings militates against all the values which all reasonable people would like to preserve in South Africa,'' De Klerk said.

The dialogue between ANC and the government, delayed by an impasse over the causes of recent township violence, was back on track this week after two government-ANC groups met.

Talks about a new constitution will only begin once the logistics for the release of several thousand political prisoners and return of some 30,000 exiles has been finally settled.

Government officials are confident they will win a referendum - both among whites and the population as a whole - on the basis of a power-sharing constitution produced by interracial negotiation.

The National Party has avoided releasing a constitutional blueprint. But a picture of its intentions emerged in debate and the leaking of a draft plan drawn up by the Afrikaner Broederbond - a secret think tank with influence in government circles.

A notable feature of the plan is the pivotal role of a Supreme Court as interpreter of the constitution and its power to test decisions of the executive and a two-house Parliament similar to the US Congress. It would also act as final arbiter in disputes between Parliament and regional governments in 10 semi-autonomous states. Power would be divided between the court, a rotating executive president with limited powers, and parliament.

Legislation could originate in either house, but would need to attain a two-thirds majority in the upper house - or Senate, where representation would be designed to protect minority interests. Voting in the lower house would be on the basis of one person, one vote on a common roll.

But the central mechanism for protection of minority interests would be entrenched guarantees, devolution of power to regional, local councils (and even neighborhood councils), and proportional representation at all levels of government.

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