A SERIES of unpredictable events over the past four weeks has precipitated a meeting of minds between the ruling National Party and the African National Congress (ANC) that points to a political settlement and the first democratic elections in South Africa by the end of next year.
But the detente between the country's two major political players has sparked a new onslaught from critics on both extremes of the political spectrum.
"I think we have reached the point where the convergence of interests between the government and the ANC is more powerful than any attempts by political outsiders to prevent a political deal," says a Western diplomat close to behind-the-scenes talks.
The threat on the left comes from the military wing of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), the Azanian People's Liberation Army. The APLA has raised its political profile by launching a bombing campaign against white civilians in an apparent bid to sabotage the emergent political reconciliation.
On the conservative side, Inkatha Freedon Party leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi has entered an alliance of convenience with white right-wing parties in a bid to force the political debate to accept the principle of regional autonomy before negotiations for a new constitution begin. Chief Buthelezi's vision of autonomy includes regional militias that would supersede the authority of the national Army in their regions of origin.
The turning point in the political process came with the ANC's adoption last month of a document endorsing a period of power-sharing as a transition to majority rule. The switch in strategy marked a departure from the ANC's previous insistence on immediate majority rule once a new constitution was adopted.
Significantly, the document gave assurances that the ANC would accept a gradualist approach to changing the civil service and military and honoring the principle of full compensation.
"I think it would take an act of massive duplicity by either the National Party or the ANC to disrupt the understanding that now exists between them," says Tom Lodge, professor of politics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
The landmark ANC decision was followed this month by a three-day summit between the government and the ANC where there was clearly a meeting of minds.
South African Communist Party chief Joe Slovo, who spearheaded the power-sharing initiative within ANC ranks, noted after the Dec. 2-4 summit that the atmosphere had changed dramatically. "For the first time I can say that the government seems serious about negotiations," he said.
Since that meeting, ANC and government leaders have toned down the rhetoric and been actively seeking common cause in their public statements. ANC President Nelson Mandela, in an interview on state television Dec. 6, stressed the achievements of negotiations over the past three years and urged South Africans to continue with the process. He also, by implication, accepted co-responsibility for the high levels of political violence.
"If we're going to stop violence, we will have to stop finger-pointing and look at what we are doing ourselves," he said.
Mr. Mandela also made it clear that the time for mass protest and confrontation had passed as long as the present rate of progress with negotiations was maintained.
A week later, while addressing a black audience in the remote Western Transvaal town of Vryburg, Mandela was asked when blacks could expect to benefit from a much-vaunted redistribution of wealth.
"After liberation - when we have gained political power - you are still going to continue to live in poverty, without houses, without medical facilities, and without adequate education because we must properly organize the grass roots to ensure that you have good jobs, you have decent houses, you have good education," he responded. Closing the rhetoric gap
Western diplomats say Mandela's statement was of particular significance because of the wide gap that existed between expectations raised by the rhetoric of ANC leaders and the limited capacity of an interim government to deliver rapid improvements in the quality of life to the black majority.
"It reflects a broader change that has taken place in the organization over the past few years," Professor Lodge says.
"The ANC has stopped being mesmerized by unruly youngsters at rallies because they have realized that militant youth do not win elections - most of them are under voting age - and that they did not necessarily represent anyone but themselves.
"The ANC is beginning to realize that people want the prospect of stability and peace and that sober words go down better than wild and woolly rhetoric," Lodge says.
This has been evident in recent speeches and interviews by ANC leaders. "I am convinced that peace forces in this country are too strong for them to be diverted from their main goal of the installation of an elected interim government of national unity," Mandela said in an interview with The Sowetan, the daily newspaper with the largest circulation among blacks.
Even last month's disclosures by Judge Richard Goldstone, head of an independent inquiry into political violence, that elements of military intelligence were still involved in a covert campaign to weaken the ANC and thwart democratic reforms created no more than a brief hiccup in the rapprochement.
And the bold purge of subversive elements of the South African Defense Force, which was initiated by President Frederik de Klerk over the weekend, further strengthened relations between the ANC and the National Party.
"De Klerk has finally conceded what we have been telling him for more than two years ... that there is a third force within the military which is actively undermining the transition to democracy," says one ANC official on condition of anonymity.
A Western diplomat, who has held talks with top ANC officials in recent weeks, says that ANC leaders were increasingly concerned about the prospect of Mr. De Klerk losing out in a confrontation with the security forces.
"My impression is that they are actively protecting De Klerk's position as an interlocutor," the diplomat says. Cutting a deal
Eugene Nyati, an economist who heads the independent Center for African Studies, articulates a scenario heard increasingly in black intellectual circles outside the ANC orbit:
"The ANC is in a hurry to cut a deal because the current leadership is middle-aged and suffering from liberation fatigue. The political deal will go through but it will not hold for more than two or three years," he says.
Mr. Nyati says that within two or three years of the new deal blacks would begin to realize that they were not going to accrue the expected material benefits from the new order.
He says the emerging deal would be heavily weighted toward whites and would not be underpinned by an economic deal that provided for a restructuring of the economy. By 1997-98, he says, black disillusionment will have eroded Mandela's moral authority and a more radical second-tier ANC leadership will come to the fore.
"Then a new power struggle will take hold and the whites will be forced to make the first real concessions."