PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk, whose reforms have brought South Africa within sight of its first democratic ballot, will make a last-ditch effort today to bring Inkatha Freedom Party leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi back into the negotiating process.
As the vote approaches, the ruling party and the African National Congress (ANC) are caught in a catch-22. Senior government and ANC officials now accept that they cannot postpone the April 27 ballot without the threat of a massive upsurge of violence, which is already claiming the lives of more than 10 South Africans a day.
But they also accept that to enter an election campaign with Inkatha and right-wing Afrikaners actively trying to disrupt the ballot is to invite disaster and could plunge the country into a prolonged civil war. (S. Africa's new politics, Page 20.)
``President De Klerk regards the meeting as crucial in wooing Chief Buthelezi back from the brink of secession,'' says a senior National Party (NP) official on condition of anonymity. A high stakes meeting
Buthelezi, who is boycotting talks on the election process, rejected last week's historic multiparty accord on a multiracial commission to help rule the country until the election.
He insists that the boundaries, powers, and functions of South Africa's states must be enshrined in a transitional constitution, which must be finalized before the April 27 poll.
``The stakes are so high for [today's] meeting that the outcome could make the difference between a negotiated transition to democracy and years of civil war,'' says a Western diplomat.
One proposed compromise apparently revolves around an NP plan to redraw the boundaries of nine federal states so that Buthelezi would be assured of retaining his power base in the KwaZulu homeland - but not the whole of surrounding Natal Province. ANC negotiators were consulted on the plan but are reserving their position, the diplomats say.
Speaking to journalists during a Cape Town visit Tuesday, ANC President Nelson Mandela expressed confidence that the election would go ahead on April 27, but said the threat posed by right-wingers inside De Klerk's Cabinet - and ultra-right-wingers outside - posed a serious problem.
``My worry is not Buthelezi because President De Klerk can put a measure of control over him,'' Mr. Mandela said. The ANC is not sitting idle but has had a series of talks, some confidential, with the right wing, he added.
Chief government negotiator Roelf Meyer indicated at a National Party conference last weekend that the NP had made proposals to a multiparty committee for stronger powers for the regions that would be binding on an elected constituent assembly.
The plan would also seek to create one federal state in which Afrikaners and conservative black allies would wield effective political powers and thus meet to some degree the right-wing demand for a volkstaat (Afrikaner homeland).
``Both the IFP under Buthelezi and the right-wing Afrikaners are demanding a constitutional dispensation which draws the boundaries of the regions in such a way that they will have a majority in their own areas,'' says Mervyn Frost, a political scientist at the University of Natal. ``The point is fast approaching where this compromise will have to be made or the consequences of breakdown faced.''
The stakes for De Klerk are as high as they have ever been in the series of crises he has had to face since legalizing black liberation movements in February 1990 and embarking on a hazardous transition to a democratic order.
The ruling NP is deeply divided over how to deal with Buthelezi, whose demands for strong regional government coincided with those of the NP before it struck a compromise with the ANC in February this year.
Government officials such as Mr. Meyer, who have already grown impatient with Buthelezi's brinkmanship, are promoting the idea of a nonracial referendum on the transitional constitution - due to be finalized in the next four to six weeks - to call Buthelezi's bluff. Buthelezi hard to read
These officials believe that a nonracial referendum would secure an overwhelming majority (perhaps 80 percent) in favor of the transitional constitution and would marginalize Buthelezi and Inkatha. This would meet the chief's demands somewhat and those of right-wing groups for a measure of self-rule in at least two of the federal states that will make up the ``new South Africa.''
``The problem is that no one knows any longer what Buthelezi's bottom line is or even if he has one,'' an ANC official says. ``He just keeps moving the goal posts.''
If De Klerk fails to convince Buthelezi to return to the talks -
and take part in the election - he faces growing dissent and even the prospect of a damaging split in his party by those who want to throw in their lot with Inkatha.
``We have reached the point of no return,'' says another senior diplomat.