Johannesburg — Armed with sun hats, T-shirts, and bumper stickers - and buoyed by the first hints of central-government interest - a band of political moderates is trying to force the pace of racial compromise in South Africa. The political product at the center of their publicity campaign is called the Indaba. A Zulu word meaning, roughly, ``discussions,'' it refers to a regional debate ending late last year. The talks produced a detailed draft constitution with which its organizers hope to set up a joint, checked-and-balanced, multiracial government for Natal Province and the intertwined black tribal ``homeland'' of KwaZulu.
The campaign promoting this political plan - which some regard as a potential model for all South Africa - is mushrooming. A monthly Indaba News has grown to include separate English, Zulu, and Afrikaans editions - with an estimated total circulation of 250,000. Indaba officials are fanning out to address public meetings in towns and cities - and to staff publicity stalls at agricultural fairs.
Printed matter - including copies of the Indaba's proposals - is being churned out at a rate of nearly 2 million articles a month.
Envisaging universal adult suffrage, the Indaba implies installment of a regional ``prime minister'' drawn from the area's large black majority. Yet he would need the backing of minority communities to pass laws. Minorities would have absolute veto over laws affecting their ``language, cultural, religious, or other [community] rights.''
The ``selling of the Indaba'' has become, in effect if not intention, a test of what South Africa's central government means by its own pledge to negotiate a system of equitable power sharing with blacks.
Though the draft emerged from talks among the region's major moderate political groupings - 80 percent of whose delegates voted yes - it cannot be carried out without a central-government OK. This is also needed for an interim plan to submit the Indaba to a regional referendum.
President Pieter Botha's government seems of two minds on how to respond. Its initial urge was to throw cold water on the proposals. A Cabinet minister did so last year, saying the proposals gave insufficient guarantees to minorities.
Local analysts speculated his concern focused on the fact that in the ``minorities'' chamber of the proposed bicameral parliament, the Afrikaans community from which most central-government officials hail could be outvoted by an alliance of blacks, ethnic Indians, and more-liberal whites. This could limit Afrikaners' minority veto to purely cultural-community issues.
As in South Africa as a whole, more than 70 percent of the joint population of Natal and KwaZulu is black. Thirteen percent in the area are of Indian extraction, 11 percent whites, and 3 percent are mixed-race Coloreds.
More recently, however, the government has refined its view on the Indaba, saying it was a positive exercise that could prove a basis for further talks.
In Parliament last month, Constitution Development Minister Chris Heunis also indicated for the first time, an acceptance ``in principle'' of some kind of shared legislative system for Natal and KwaZulu.
Mr. Botha himself is focussing on a plan to negotiate central power sharing with South African blacks, voteless in national affairs. A negotiating council proposed nearly two years ago has yet to begin work, in part, due to a lack of prominent black leaders willing to participate.
Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a prime mover in the Indaba, has said he won't join power sharing talks until African National Congress patriarch Nelson Mandela and other jailed black politicians are freed. But he has said he will talk with Botha about the Indaba: talks some officials feel could help undercut militant black rejection of any dealings with the government.
The architects of the Indaba, meanwhile, find themselves on South Africa's middle ground - rejected, at least initially, by the government as too radical; but boycotted by key antigovernment groups on the grounds that the bid for a ``regional'' compromise undercuts calls for a unified, majority-ruled South Africa.
The authors' hope is to activate a pro-Indaba groundswell. ``We are trying to reach out and explain just what the Indaba means, and in effect prepare the ground for a referendum, if the [central] government agrees,'' says one of the organizers of this campaign.
Opinion samplings suggest broad support among some two-thirds of Natal's whites and even wider backing among Chief Buthelezi's well organized Zulu constituents. But particularly in largely rural KwaZulu, many people still seem to have little idea of what the Indaba means. The aim of the current campaign is to explain the Indaba to lay people in the region.
Will this all work? Oskar Dhlomo, a Buthelezi deputy who has played a major role in the Indaba, admits the road is a rough one. Although the draft stirred widespread media attention when it was announced, the Indaba risked ``becoming boring'' to ordinary citizens in the absence of the central government OK required to start implementing the plan.
But, says Mr. Dhlomo, ``If we do not move ahead, we may all regret not having taken advantage of the unique opportunity before us.''
Journalists in South Africa operate under official press restrictions.