POLITICAL realism may be getting the upper hand in South Africa. The decision of the African National Congress to adopt a more moderate policy toward negotiating with the administration of President Frederik de Klerk could open the door to more rapid progress toward a multiracial transitional government and democratic elections.
The ANC's move comes after intense internal discussion. Nelson Mandela has represented the middle ground of negotiation and compromise in these discussions, with ANC militants pushing for heightened mass action.
The latter tactic has failed in its immediate goal of toppling leaders in the so-called black homelands.
Mr. Mandela recognizes, realistically, that his organization's best opportunity to secure a grasp on power is through continued bargaining with the white National Party regime in Pretoria. And he rightly concludes that Mr. De Klerk - for all the ups and downs in their relationship since the ANC leader left prison almost three years ago - remains the white leader most likely to cut a reasonable, politically valid deal.
De Klerk, too, is constrained by realism to move toward productive talks. Revelations concerning efforts by the South African military to subvert the ANC have left the president little room to maneuver. Judge Richard Goldstone, who heads the government commission looking into allegations against the security forces, doubtless has more revelations to come - even if De Klerk continues to refuse his request for wider investigative authority.
De Klerk needs political damage control. His best recourse is expedited negotiations with the ANC. He, like the ANC, may have to settle for a short-term resolution that doesn't give him everything he wants in terms of long-term goals - for example, a guarantee of substantial white representation in any future government. Not only political stability in the country, but economic recovery, hinges on progress in negotiations.
ANC and government representatives have secluded themselves for intensive talks in the days ahead. South Africa, meanwhile, will shift into its summer vacation season, when little governmental business is conducted. By early 1993 the negotiators should have a plan for power-sharing.
That plan will be born of political necessity, and it will be criticized from many angles. But the process of negotiations should also bring greater good will - an honest desire to move beyond confrontation.
That, along with realism and pragmatism, will be needed to implement any plan.