South Africa's shrinking political center has embarked on a do-or-die struggle in this Indian Ocean city. The head of the country's largest black tribal community opened a conference yesterday to negotiate a regional power-sharing formula with whites -- a move that other black political leaders have shunned as a ``sell-out'' to whites.
Zulu chief Gatsha Buthelezi's hope is that South African President Pieter W. Botha will -- in reply to this regional initiative -- go much further with moves to bring blacks into politics on a national level. President Botha's National Party has sent an observer delegate to the conference.
The cosponsor of the conference is the Natal Province government, which has already joined Chief Buthelezi in moves to share executive authority in the region. The parley is being held in closed-door sessions.
Buthelezi keynoted the meeting with a rebuke to black radicals, and an implicit warning to the white-ruled government to seize on his effort at compromise before it is too late. He said if the endeavor failed, it ``will in fact have failed the people of South Africa as a whole.''
The conference was an act of assertion by moderates -- black and white -- in a nation where violence over the system of apartheid -- segregation of the races -- has threatened to make moderates irrelevant.
The meeting is also part of an escalating struggle between Buthelezi and groups such as the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) and the legal United Democratic Front (UDF) -- the main black nationalist political forces in the urban townships.
Last weekend, busloads of Buthelezi supporters clashed with ANC and UDF loyalists who met in Durban to debate resuming a nationwide boycott of black schools.
The ANC and UDF rejected invitations to the conference now taking place in Durban. The goal of the conference is to draft a proposal for a joint legislative authority for the white-ruled region of Natal and Buthelezi's KwaZulu territory. KwaZulu is an element of apartheid, consisting of several dozen islands of Zulu-ruled territory scattered throughout Natal as part of a moribund scheme to redefine South African blacks as citizens of tribal ``homelands.''
The conference is expected to last at least several months -- meeting an average of about once a week. More than 30 political groups representing all races in the region are participating.
Buthelezi declared: ``There are those who are saying that two apartheid-created bodies could not dismantle apartheid.''
He said these groups say that ``the time for dialogue, the time for reconciliation, and the time for negotiations, is past.
``They believe that the only thing that is left to do is to maim, burn, and kill each other in order to bring about change in this country. We say such a moment has not come as yet,'' he told conference delegates at the Durban city hall.
Proving prospects for peaceful change is, however, likely to be an uphill struggle, given the continuing violence between blacks and whites in South Africa and the widening political rift between major black leaders and the government. During the last 19 months violent protest has claimed nearly 1,400 lives.
Botha has pledged a program of gradual race-policy reform. He has invited blacks to join a national ``statutory council,'' promising them a consultative voice on relevant new laws.
But he has rejected demands for a simple one-man-one-vote system in a country whose roughly 4.5 million whites are outnumbered by some 20 million blacks. And, he has so far stopped short of endorsing Buthelezi's bid for a joint legislative body, even on a regional level.
Right-wing whites have opposed even Botha's reform ideas, and have denounced the KwaZulu-Natal initiative.
In remarks at a reception after yesterday's formal opening of the conference, Buthelezi said he felt Botha might yet latch onto the Durban initiative -- given the government's desire to have Buthelezi join the proposed ``statutory council.''
The KwaZulu chief has left that option open.
He initially said he'd consider the offer, then backed off, and more recently has opted for silence. The country's other main black leaders have rejected the council idea outright.