JOHANNESBURG — THE government and the African National Congress appear to have taken an important step closer to setting up an interim administration in South Africa by committing themselves to an all-party conference. ``I would be surprised if Nelson Mandela and President [Frederik] De Klerk did not put their heads together on this one before the announcement was made,'' said Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, an independent mediator.
Government officials have welcomed the ANC's call on Tuesday for a conference to discuss constitutional principles, the nature of an interim government, and the type of body which would draw up a new constitution.
``I welcome the ANC's point of view in favor of a multiparty conference in preparation for the constitutional negotiation process,'' said Constitutional Development Minister Gerrit Viljoen.
The ANC move opens the way for the attendance of the ANC's main black rival, the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party.
``We are not setting out any time frames now,'' said ANC deputy President Nelson Mandela. ``But we emphasize the urgency.''
The move implies important compromises for both sides. ``By agreeing on the next stage both sides have put the process before their sectional interests,'' says a Western diplomat.
Until now the ANC has been reluctant to endorse an all-party conference until it had made progress with its call for an interim government and an elected constituent assembly.
``I think the ANC will use the conference to mount the greatest pressure yet on the government to relinquish its monopoly on power and agree to an interim government,'' says Khehla Shubane of the Center for Policy Studies.
Addressing delegates at a trade union congress, Mandela said an interim government would ensure an unbiased election process.
``This is the crucial point at which the ANC would be drawn into joint management of the transition,'' said Mr. Slabbert.
President Frederik de Klerk has said that Parliament, which excludes blacks, would remain the sovereign body regardless of any transitional arrangements. Government officials have rejected the idea of an elected constituent assembly.
ANC officials said the all-party conference was separate from a planned meeting of anti-apartheid groups March 21 which will further the idea of a united ``patriotic front'' to confront the government. Rival anti-apartheid groups criticized the ANC for jeopardizing the ``patriotic front'' by unilaterally deciding on a conference to include the ruling National Party.
``It will sidetrack the call of the oppressed for a constituent assembly based on one person, one vote,'' said Barney Desai, a senior official of the Pan-Africanist Congress, which has so far refused to join the negotiating process.
Inkatha leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi gave a mixed response to the ANC's call, noting that Inkatha favored a multiparty conference but questioned the ANC's motives. ``The ANC wants the ... government to step down so that it can, in effect, take over,'' said Mr. Buthelezi, leaving open the question of Inkatha's attendance.
The right-wing Conservative Party said a conference would be a first step to a ``black dictatorship under the cloak of democracy.''