A NEW wave of black militancy is threatening the transition to democracy as negotiators begin a crucial eight-week phase that will determine whether the country's first democratic ballot will go ahead on April 27 of next year.
A move by the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) on Saturday to call a nationwide strike on Nov. 15 in support of workers' rights in a new constitution appears to have taken both the African National Congress (ANC) and the government by surprise.
At the same time, the leader of the nominally independent homeland of Transkei has expelled the South African ambassador and offered military training facilities to the liberation armies of the ANC and the militant Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) following a raid into the territory Oct. 7 that claimed the lives of five black youths.
And the ANC's policy of opposition to capital punishment is being challenged by ANC officials' spontaneous endorsement of the death sentences imposed Friday on two right-wingers convicted for the April 10 murder of popular ANC leader Chris Hani.
The shock move by COSATU - a close ally of the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) - is being interpreted as a bid to establish the union federation's authority in a future ANC-led government.
COSATU General Secretary Sam Shilowa, who was elected at a conference last month, said the strike would go ahead unless multiparty negotiators scrapped a proposed clause in the constitution that guarantees the tenure of civil servants after the April 27 ballot. Such guarantees formed a key element of a power-sharing deal between the ANC and the ruling National Party in February this year. COSATU is also demanding the removal of a clause from the bill of rights that empowers employers to lock out striking workers.
The ANC has played down the role of mass protests in recent months to promote reconciliation and allay white fears of black rule.
At a conference last month, more than a dozen trade union leaders - including former General Secretary Jay Naidoo - quit COSATU to take their places on the ANC's list of candidates for the country's first democratic election. The incoming union leaders are characterized by their militancy and their prominence in the SACP.
Tensions between the ANC and COSATU have developed in the past year over the degree of state intervention in a post-apartheid economy and the role of the trade union federation in restructuring the economy.
Several militant trade unions in the federation have proposed that COSATU and the SACP should break with the ANC after an election and consider the formation of a socialist-oriented workers' party to challenge the ANC from the left and ensure that it addresses workers' demands.
At the September conference, ANC President Nelson Mandela assured COSATU that an ANC government would respect the rights of workers, and he endorsed a plan which would ensure that 20 trade unionists were elected to Parliament as part of the ANC team. In the past two weeks, however, there have been indications that the ANC leadership has had second thoughts about making such a guarantee.
``I think this defiant stand by COSATU in threatening a general strike at such a sensitive moment should be seen against this background,'' says a Western diplomat who follows labor issues.
The COSATU move is also seen in diplomatic circles as a response to the formation of the right-wing Freedom Alliance, an awkward coalition of white right-wingers and black conservatives, which has shifted the political focus to Afrikaner demands for a self-determination.
Increasingly, political players worry that the maneuver by the Freedom Alliance could force President Frederik de Klerk to carry out his threat to hold a referendum on reform before an election is held.
The ANC is divided on the referendum issue, with the majority arguing that it would lead to a delay of the April 27 poll, thus risking a grass-roots rebellion and increased political violence.