JOHANNESBURG — PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk's plan to end rising political violence in South Africa's black townships appears to mark a shift in the government's approach to a problem long identified by anti-apartheid groups as the major obstacle to negotiations. Mr. de Klerk, who met April 22 with British Prime Minister John Major on the first leg of a three-nation European visit, announced measures April 18 aimed at curbing the violence that is causing an average of five deaths a day.
De Klerk announced a two-day summit of political, church, and community leaders to be held in Pretoria May 24 and 25 to discuss violence and intimidation in the black townships. He also said a commission of inquiry into halting the violence would be appointed soon.
This was one of the demands made by the African National Congress (ANC) in an ultimatum in which it threatened to suspend talks with the government unless its demands - all aimed at ending violence - were met by May 9.
The ANC initially rejected De Klerk's plans for a round-table conference on violence as ``unnecessary and diversionary,'' but then amended its position, saying the proposal would be carefully considered by allied church and community organizations and regional ANC groups.
``At last, violence is no longer being treated by government as some minor irritant in far-away black townships,'' says a member of the ANC executive.
But Western diplomats said it might take more than conferences to heal the rift developing between De Klerk and ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela.
``Mandela is very bitter,'' a Western diplomat said. ``He has nothing good to say about De Klerk and is convinced that he has a hidden agenda aimed at destroying the ANC.''
The right-wing Conservative Party has said that it will not take part in the talks if the ANC and the South African Communist Party are involved, and the militant Pan Africanist Congress has dismissed the initiative.
On the eve of De Klerk's departure for Britain, Ireland, and Denmark on April 19, officials stressed that his plans to curb violence would feature in his talks with leaders of those nations and meetings with businessmen and bankers in London. His advisers are increasingly concerned the sustained violence in the country is counteracting international perceptions of political reform in South Africa and undermining foreign investor confidence.
``There is an urgent need for De Klerk to convince people abroad that he is in control and to swing attention away from the violence toward South Africa's investment needs and the positive changes that have been made,'' says an official.
The ANC response to De Klerk's plans will depend also on how far the government goes in meeting the April 30 deadline for the release of political prisoners and the granting of indemnity to political exiles. The ANC is committed to review its participation in talks with the government unless the issue of prisoners and exiles is resolved by April 30. By April 22, the government had released 535 political prisoners out of some 850 applications and indemnified 3,927 exiles out of some 5,056 applications.
There are signs that there has been a qualitative shift between De Klerk and those elements of the security forces that are bent on preventing an interracial political settlement.
``I think the ANC ultimatum will be very helpful to De Klerk in pushing through a solution to violence,'' said Willem de Klerk, elder brother of the president and the author of a recent book on his brother.
``I am worried about the role of the security forces - not at the top but on the ground level - in undermining the political changes. That is why the ANC ultimatum is an important development. I think it could create some negotiating room for De Klerk,'' says the elder De Klerk, a professor of communications at the Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg.
In announcing his initiative, De Klerk appeared to concede that law-and-order enforcement alone was no solution - even in the short-term. ``Much more than security action is required to end the violence,'' he said. ``The cooperation of all political, church, and community leaders in South Africa is required to end the violence. ''
``I think De Klerk has won a major internal battle on the issue of violence,'' said a Western diplomat. ``He has at last put it at the top of the government's agenda. It remains to be seen whether this can heal the breach between him and Mandela.''