JOHANNESBURG — THE first public clash between President Frederik de Klerk and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi over federal autonomy for Natal province sets the stage for a realignment in South African politics.
The two leaders, who have shared the quest for a federal constitution in South Africa, crossed swords over Chief Buthelezi's surprise bid for semiautonomy in Natal Province - which includes the fragmented KwaZulu homeland - with control over its own affairs in a federal South Africa.
Mr. De Klerk has supported decentralization in talks with the African National Congress (ANC), but Buthelezi's announcement that he will begin canvassing support for a separate constitution for Natal, regardless of national talks, poses a direct challenge to the president's authority.
"It is significant in that it is the first time that De Klerk has put himself in a position where he is publicly aligned with the ANC against the IFP," says Tom Lodge, professor of politics at Witwaters-rand University in Johannesburg.
"But I don't think [Buthelezi] is in a position to block the political process because he will win - at most - 10 percent of the vote in national elections."
On Wednesday, De Klerk responded to Buthelezi's announcement while top government officials were ending the first day of talks with ANC leaders.
He said: "I am concerned about the impression of unilateral action which has now been created by the KwaZulu government's latest initiative. Such action has the potential of bringing the KwaZulu government into direct confrontation with the government, with other parties in South Africa and in Natal, and with the international community.
"It is imperative that this should be avoided."
De Klerk hinted that if Buthelezi did not toe the line, Pretoria could withhold KwaZulu's $1.6 billion budget.
Within hours, Buthelezi responded by regretting De Klerk's "negative reaction" to his initiative.
Buthelezi vowed to forge ahead with his referendum and did not respond to De Klerk's request for a meeting. The Zulu chief, along with his right-wing supporters, is due to meet De Klerk next Thursday.
De Klerk is facing growing division in the ranks of the ruling party over the mounting tensions with Buthelezi. Many of his supporters are opposed to a break with Buthelezi.
"I think De Klerk had no option but to respond to Buthelezi's initiative because it was a direct challenge to his authority," the Western diplomat says.
Western diplomats concede that the rift between De Klerk and Buthelezi could pose a serious threat to negotiations if it developed into an all-out confrontation between Buthelezi and right-wing allies, on the one hand, and De Klerk and the ANC, on the other.
Unveiling his plan Tuesday, Buthelezi said that he would submit the constitution to the KwaZulu/Natal Joint Executive Authority, a regional forum consisting of representatives of the KwaZulu homeland and the ruling National Party.
He said that after consultations with the government he would seek further legitimacy for the constitution by submitting it to a referendum of Natal voters.
"Buthelezi has pitched his initiative in such a way that it could be either a way of increasing his leverage in the negotiating process or preparing the ground for the future secession of Natal," a Western diplomat says.
But Buthelezi's proposal that the semiautonomous state of KwaZulu/Natal should have its own militia, and that any central defense force would have to ask permission from the state's governor to send troops there, has drawn sharp fire from Buthelezi's political critics.
De Klerk recently doubled to 2,000 the number of South African Defense Force (SADF) troops in Natal Province in a bid to stem escalating political violence between the ANC and Inkatha.
"As long as De Klerk is in power there is no doubt that the troops would be loyal to him," says R. W. Johnson, a political scientist at Natal University. "But if an ANC government came in, the loyalty of the troops would be less certain."
Professor Johnson says that Buthelezi had at last made a skillful political maneuver that would find support in Natal Province among whites and Indians - support that goes beyond his limited political base in the Zulu-dominated IFP.
"It is true that the constitution he has unveiled is intended for an independent state," Johnson says. "But the fact is that it is going to put De Klerk and the ANC in an awkward position to be denying Buthelezi's call to hold a democratic referendum on his proposals in Natal Province.
"There is no doubt that his proposals have support beyond the ranks of Inkatha in Natal," Johnson says.
The National Party-controlled Natal Provincial Council officials has expressed approval of Buthelezi's constitution and the idea of putting it to a referendum.
"It is conceivable that De Klerk could soon face a regional split in his party with Natal legislators hiving off to join Buthelezi in a regional deal," Johnson says.