THE South African Parliament convenes today to approve a package of changes to the interim constitution, but the hopes of securing peaceful elections rest in a smaller, more highly charged forum.
The country's two major black rivals, African National Congress President Nelson Mandela and Inkatha Freedom Party leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, are scheduled to meet tomorrow in a last-ditch effort to avert a boycott of the elections by the Zulu-based Inkatha, a move that political analysts say could lead to a massive escalation of pre-poll violence.
In a three-day session, Parliament is expected to approve changes to the interim constitution that political scientists and Western diplomats say meet 29 out of 33 Inkatha demands and tilt the document toward a federal state in which the powers of central government would be offset by semi-autonomous provinces.
The ANC and government offered the concession on Feb. 14 after a four-week impasse with the Freedom Alliance (FA), a coalition of white right-wing and conservative black groups including Inkatha that is demanding Afrikaner and Zulu homelands.
In recent weeks it has become apparent that Chief Buthelezi intends to boycott the country's first all-race elections on April 27-29 rather than risk a humiliating defeat by the ANC in his own stronghold of KwaZulu/Natal - the name given to Natal province and the fragmented Zulu homeland.
Western diplomats and peace monitors concede that an all-out boycott by Inkatha supporters in Natal Province could lead to an escalation of the low-grade civil war between Inkatha and ANC supporters there, which could result in a substantial stay-away by black voters.
The massacre of 15 youths in Natal on Feb. 19 and the death of at least 30 others in political violence over the same weekend has led to a flurry of political activity. The Zulus, more than half of whom live in Natal province, are the country's largest tribe, numbering around 9 million.
``The stakes are higher than in any of their previous meetings,'' said a Western diplomat. ``It could make the difference between a free and fair poll in Natal and an inconclusive result in the province which would reflect badly on the whole election.''
Mr. Mandela and Buthelezi have traded insults and recriminations in recent months. Relations between them have deteriorated rapidly from mutual respect, when Mandela was freed four years ago, to an all-time low.
But King Goodwill Zwelithini, whose traditional status of neutrality as the Zulu monarch makes him more acceptable to the ANC, offers what could be the last hope of averting a full-blown civil war between rival Zulu factions in the strife-torn province.
There is a history of friction between Chief Buthelezi and his nephew, the King, dating back to 1975. The King has made several unsuccessful attempts to usurp power and break the hold of the Inkatha over traditional Zulu institutions. He has repeatedly been thwarted by Buthelezi and his KwaZulu regional authority, which owes its existence to the Pretoria government.
But in recent years the King has cooperated with Buthelezi and on Feb. 14 stepped squarely into the political arena by demanding a sovereign Zulu state. Since it became clear in mid-January that Buthelezi had failed to negotiate a dispensation that would secure the future of the Zulu monarch, he drew the King into constitutional negotiations and has rhetorically deferred to him as the sole authority who can decide whether his subjects take part in the April ballot.
Buthelezi has consistently argued against Inkatha taking part in the election but is facing increasing pressure from within his own ranks to change his stance. Four rounds of talks between King Goodwill and President Frederik de Klerk since mid-January have failed to reach agreement on the future status of the Zulu monarch, but Buthelezi said on Friday that he was prepared to regard an undisclosed government offer as a bases for further talks.
There have been indications in recent weeks that several key royal advisers are eager to assert their independence from Buthelezi and have urged the King to play a more assertive role in the political negotiations. In a surprise move Feb. 23, King Goodwill told his subjects on the Inkatha-supporting Radio Zulu that he is now in control of the talks, that he reaffirmed his neutrality, and that he was negotiating on behalf of all Zulus.
This rekindled speculation that King Goodwill could become the instrument whereby government and the ANC finesse the problem of Buthelezi's intransigence and lay the foundation for a constitutional monarchy in Natal/KwaZulu.
If the ANC emerges as the majority party in Natal, it has indicated that it would cooperate fully with the Zulu monarch. Buthelezi, who is traditionally the King's chief adviser, could then be displaced by an ANC provincial premier.
Winning Buthelezi's support for a deal that secures the future of the Zulu constitutional monarchy after the election may be the only way of averting a potential disaster in Natal province.
``Buthelezi appears to have calculated that he can acquire more influence by ensuring that elections in Natal fail than by losing the election to the ANC in the province,'' says a business executive who follows the political negotiations. ``The frightening truth is that he might be right.''
There is wide recognition that the two leaders might fail to reach agreement. But the Sunday Times, a Johannesburg-based weekly which has the country's largest circulation, sees a slim margin of hope. ``Mr. Mandela has moved about as far as he can in meeting the Zulu leader's demands, and Mr. Buthelezi is too wounded, too aggrieved, too defensive to risk a generous impulse,'' the newspaper said.