A NEW proposal that the ruling National Party and the African National Congress (ANC) should share power for five years after the drafting of a democratic constitution has brought South Africa closer than ever before to a negotiated political settlement.
But the plan also has intensified strong opposition from Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose Inkatha Freedom Party rejects any bilateral deal between the government and the ANC.
Western diplomats worry that deep-seated hostilities between the ANC and Inkatha could become a major obstacle to a negotiated national settlement.
The proposal - which would endorse the principle of majority rule with checks and balances but stop short of full democracy - was made at a three-day meeting of ANC and government negotiators that ended Friday in Cape Town.
The plan now must be approved by the top decisionmaking bodies of both parties. It would then be taken to a multiparty conference - scheduled for next month - for discussion and ratification by other parties.
So far, the proposal has had a mixed reception. Western diplomats, political scientists, the business community, and the English-language media have broadly welcomed the plan. But it was sharply criticized by the Zulu-based Inkatha, the radical Pan-Africanist Congress, and right-wing white parties.
"The National Party has made the pragmatic choice to abandon a losing anti-ANC coalition with the Inkatha Freedom Party and instead aim at establishing a strong center with the ANC - against traditional ideological leanings," says Professor Heribert Adam, a sociologist from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, who is a visiting lecturer at the University of Cape Town's Graduate School of Business.
The key to the proposal is that semi-autonomous regions would play a role in the drafting of the new constitution through representatives elected in the first democratic elections.
Once the new constitution was accepted, the ANC and the government would share power in a multiparty Cabinet in which the parties would be represented according to the proportion of votes they won in the ballot. Parties that won at least 5 or 10 percent of the vote would earn representation in the Cabinet.
The government regards this last point as central to securing power sharing.
The ANC sees it more as an attempt to promote unity through a transitional government of national unity. The ANC prefers a voluntary arrangement; the government wants the principle written into a transitional constitution.
ANC President Nelson Mandela enters a three-day meeting with the ANC national executive committee today to seek approval for the proposal. Some ANC leaders have expressed grave reservations about the plan.
Inkatha leader Chief Buthelezi said over the weekend that it would take the combined force of the South African Defense Force and the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, to force him to accept the proposal.
Buthelezi is strongly opposed to an elected body - dominated by the ANC - having the final say in drawing up a new constitution. He insists that boundaries, powers, and functions of regions should be determined by a multiparty body.
Following that threat of war, both President Frederik de Klerk and Mr. Mandela denied press reports portraying the plan as a "deal" between their parties.
Mr. De Klerk, speaking in a television interview Sunday with British broadcaster Sir David Frost, said that it was essential that Inkatha should be part of the final agreement. Its views would be canvassed at a three-day meeting between the government and Inkatha that begins tomorrow.
"I think Inkatha must be brought into the negotiation process," De Klerk said. "I think it's fundamental. Otherwise, we might be looking for trouble in South Africa. We don't want to go the Yugoslavian way.... We believe final agreement must be reached at a multiparty conference, representative of all parties in the country."
De Klerk confirmed that Mandela could become the next state president after elections scheduled for March or April next year, and added that he would be prepared to serve in the Cabinet of a future government based on a new constitution.
Buthelezi and Mandela are due to meet sometime next month to discuss solutions to the undeclared civil war in Natal Province. That conflict, which has turned large parts of Natal into a virtual war zone, is a political power struggle between Zulus loyal to the ANC and the more traditional supporters of Buthelezi.
"There is no doubt that Buthelezi's big moment is arriving," says Mervyn Frost, a political scientist from the University of Natal in Durban. "But he is going to have to play his cards very carefully now in order to secure the best deal he can."
Tom Lodge, a political scientist at the liberal Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, says Buthelezi's leverage is waning.
But US Ambassador to South Africa Princeton Lyman argues that it would be "very dangerous" to attempt to bypass Buthelezi.
"Our position has been that he is a signifcant figure who must participate in negotiations and that to try to reach an accommodation without consensus with Inkatha would be very dangerous and unfair," Ambassador Lyman told the Monitor.
"He has the supporters and will not simply be pushed aside," he said.