JOHANNESBURG — A PEACE initiative by South Africa's President Nelson Mandela to help end Angola's 19-year-old civil war is expected to move into high gear this week. An advance party of Jonas Savimbi's rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) is scheduled to arrive here soon to prepare for a Savimbi-Mandela summit.
According to a diplomat close to the UN-sponsored talks, Mr. Savimbi could be offered the post of vice president in a government of national unity. Such a bid could persuade him to end a bush war that has ravaged the country and claimed tens of thousands of lives since elections in September 1992.
The Angolan peace process collapsed shortly after those elections, the country's first democratic vote, when Savimbi rejected the ballot victory for the governing Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and retreated to his stronghold of Huambo, Angola's second largest city.
Officials from Angola and Zaire are due to meet this week to prepare for a summit between Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and President Mobutu Sese Seko, the beleaguered Zairean leader who provides UNITA with vital fuel and logistic supplies from the north.
President Mandela's intervention, which is in support of a United Nations peace plan close to finality after five months of talks in Lusaka, Zambia, has raised hope in political and diplomatic circles of a solution to a longstanding conflict.
Mandela hosted a four-way summit in Pretoria July 7 with Presidents Dos Santos, Mobutu, and Joaquim Chissano, who is guiding Mozambique toward its first democratic elections in October. It was Mobutu's first visit to South Africa and first substantial encounter with Dos Santos in more than five years.
As the first solid peace initiative by Mandela in an African conflict, the effort is being carefully watched by African leaders and international diplomats as a test of the South African statesman's diplomatic skills.
The meeting on Thursday ``accomplished much more than we expected,'' a Western diplomat says. ``I think the South Africans have handled the initiative brilliantly by insisting that what they are doing is to shore up the UN plan.''
MANDELA insisted at a joint news conference with Mr. Chissano here last Thursday that Savimbi was an important player who had to be brought into the process.
A detailed settlement package - which has offered UNITA four Cabinet posts and seven deputy minister posts - has foundered over Savimbi's insistence on retaining control of Huambo, which was captured by UNITA after a two-month battle in 1993.
Savimbi's status in the new order has also proved to be a major sticking point at the UN-sponsored talks.
The Angolan government is divided over how far to go in its attempts to appease Savimbi. Some elements worry the UNITA leader could use the South African initiative as a device to further delay international sanctions that would force UNITA to close offices in Washington, London, Paris, and Bonn.
Last Thursday's summit followed discussions between the four leaders at the Organization of African Unity's annual summit in Tunisia last month, where Mandela received a hero's welcome as he made his debut as an African leader.
Mandela, who came under pressure to intervene in the Rwandan and Angolan conflicts, said he was reluctant to interfere with existing peace initiatives and had full confidence in the role of African leaders.
But UN Special Representative in Angola Alioune Blondin Beye urged Mandela to play a role in trying to resolve the impasse.
``It must be understood that we are not starting an initiative which is independent,'' Mandela said just before the Thursday summit. ``It is part and parcel of the initiative that is going on.''
Western diplomats, who praise South Africa's cautious intervention, say Mandela's goal was to persuade the MPLA and UNITA to follow the example that defused a probable civil war in South Africa by including the dissident Zulu leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, in a government of national unity.
But some analysts remain skeptical that Savimbi can be persuaded to join the peace process. Even if he can, they doubt whether there is sufficient trust to implement the elaborate peace plan that has been hammered out at UN-sponsored talks in Zambia.
South African Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo is hopeful Mandela's intervention will mark an important start toward peace in Angola. ``Angola is one of Africa's worst tragedies, and we hope the war can be resolved as soon as possible,'' he said last Thursday.