ANC Tries to Placate Rightists

To avoid right-wing undercutting of the democratic transition, South African leaders are mulling a proposed plebiscite on an Afrikaner homeland

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE African National Congress, after two days of talks with leaders of the right-wing Afrikaner Volksfront, is considering a request for a plebiscite among Afrikaners on an Afrikaner homeland, according to sources close to the talks.

The ANC-AVF talks were seen here as the last hope for averting a looming confrontation between reactionary and pro-democracy forces, who have exchanged threats of violence and harsh reprisals since agreement was reached by 21 parties Nov. 18 on the country's first democratic constitution.

Both conservative black and right-wing groups have chosen to remain outside the negotiating process, and the talks were an attempt to rein in those groups that still oppose the democracy plan.

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The ANC and the government are attempting to thwart a possible violent Afrikaner backlash to the transition program by addressing demands for an Afrikaner homeland without compromising or undermining the federal structure agreed to in the plan.

The plebiscite, which unlike a referendum would not be binding on a future government, would be held on Jan. 19, but no further steps would be taken toward setting up an Afrikaner homeland until after the country's first nonracial ballot on April 27.

The ballot would be held only among Afrikaans-speaking whites, who account for about two-thirds of South Africa's 5 million whites. Voting would be based on existing racially segregated voter rolls, but it is not clear what mechanism would be used to clearly define an ethnic Afrikaner.

Recent opinion polls indicate that Afrikaners, settlers of mainly Dutch, German, and French descent, are equally divided into those for and against the new constitution.

The outcome could depend largely on whether pro-democracy Afrikaners would bother to vote in a poll that many may consider too bizarre to take seriously. Talks lead to working group

ANC and AVF officials have remained tight-lipped about their talks, which were held at a secret venue outside Pretoria on Nov. 18-19.

But the parties said in a joint statement issued Nov. 19 that they had agreed to set up a joint working group to pursue matters discussed at the meeting.

The ANC has agreed to respond to the request for a plebiscite on an Afrikaner homeland by tomorrow, according to the Monitor's source.

But an ANC official said he had no comment on the claim or any detailed contents of the talks.

The ANC has ruled out any attempt to set up an Afrikaner homeland before the election, and reacted angrily to revised Volksfront proposals on Nov. 19 because they still contained racist elements, the source said.

The Volksfront team at the talks included for the first time two members of the right-wing Conservative Party (CP), which is more militant than Volksfront leader Gen. Constand Viljoen.

General Viljoen defended his contacts with ANC President Nelson Mandela when addressing a right-wing audience in Pretoria hours before the transtion-to-democracy deal was struck between the ANC, the ruling National Party (NP), and 19 smaller parties.

``If I am moving closer to the ANC in negotiations..., I am not moving away from my own people,'' said Viljoen, adding that Mr. Mandela had told him that he felt closer to Viljoen at each meeting and would reserve seats for Viljoen and CP leader Ferdi Hartzenberg in a future government.

The ANC-Volksfront talks were held against the backdrop of mounting threats of mass defiance and violent resistance by the white right and conservative black leaders gathered under the so-called Freedom Alliance (FA).

Leaders of the CP and Afrikaner Resistance Movement demanded a white election and said they would ignore a multiracial commission due to be set up within two weeks or so to help govern the country until an election.

South African Communist Party Chairman Joe Slovo vowed harsh retaliation if there was any attempt at obstructing the democracy process. `Keep them talking'

Despite major practical problems with a plebiscite, ANC negotiators argue that acceding to the request could defuse the threat of right-wing violence in the run-up to the April ballot.

``The main thing is to keep them talking,'' said one official on condition of anonymity.

A plebiscite would confront right-wing Afrikaners with the problem of defining an ethnic Afrikaner - as opposed to English-speaking whites and Afrikaans-speaking mixed-race people.

It would also engage the ruling NP on two fronts in the run-up to the first nonracial ballot, and political scientists believe it would have little chance of succeeding.

In terms of the understanding reached, the plebiscite would be followed after the April ballot by a new negotiating forum of all those affected by the declaration of an Afrikaner homeland to thrash out its boundaries and powers within the confines of the new constitution.

The talks follow an initiative that began in August with a secret meeting between Viljoen and Mandela. This was followed by five rounds of talks between delegations led by ANC Chairman Thabo Mbeki and Viljoen. The talks, which developed an understanding between the two parties on the issue of a homeland, were terminated as a result of a backlash within Volksfront ranks.

At a meeting between the FA and the government on Nov. 19, it was clear that the regional powers agreed by multiparty negotiators on Thursday - which are concurrent rather than exclusive - did not even come close to meeting FA demands.

``It will be difficult to find a solution,'' conceded chief government negotiator Roelf Meyer after the meeting.

The ruling NP faces a crucial caucus meeting today at which key ministers, who were critical of government negotiators like Mr. Meyer for caving in to ANC demands, are likely to push for further concessions to the Alliance.

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