Zulu chief's support for white independents could help Pretoria

A major black leader has lent an unexpected, backhanded - and perhaps unintended - boost to the South African government's credibility as an engine for reform. On the surface, Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi's statement yesterday endorsed three liberal breakaway candidates from the ruling National Party. The independents represent no threat to the NP's large majority in the 178-seat white chamber, but they seem to have captured the imagination of many longtime NP supporters.

Chief Buthelezi also attacked current ``power sharing'' offers from South African President Pieter Botha as mere camouflage for continued white domination. His statement was read by an aide in the presence of a delighted Denis Worral. Formerly ambassador to London, Mr. Worral is now running as an independent in the whites-only national election May 6.

Local analysts saw the declaration as likely to help the independents in the campaign homestretch - demonstrating a measure of black interest the government has been incapable of delivering. Yet, below the surface, the statement was seen as representing a longer-term boost for Pretoria:

Buthelezi made it clear that he feels any hope for peaceful change rests on using the independents' challenge to nudge the NP to the left as a prelude to meaningful talks - not on what he termed the impossible prospect of voting the present government out.

He signaled that, despite his persistent rejection of Pretoria's proposals for a black council, he is eager to negotiate a deal with the NP if they show credible willingness to deal away ``rights to dominate'' the country's black majority.

Finally, Buthelezi's statement flew in the face of denunciations of the white election by prominent antiapartheid figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Leading NP figures have portrayed the election as a chance to turn back a strong antireform challenge from the far right, even as a ten-month-old state of emergency has begun to turn back unrest from the black left. Then, the officials suggest, the government can move into ``power sharing'' talks with ``moderate'' blacks, who will realize that the government is the only negotiating partner in town.

Buthelezi, a shrewd bargainer, stopped short of suggesting automatic participation in talks with the government. He is aware of opposition to his political approach from prominent members of the outlawed African National Congress, and from many of the black youth activists. In yesterday's statement, he said, ``It is imperative for the future of this country that bolder steps now be taken to negotiate really meaningful reform.'' He said it was essential that Botha realize that ``what he has presented to South Africa and to the world as `reform' is not good enough.''

Still, analysts here expected that government officials would see Buthelezi's reiterated readiness for at least some form of negotiatiated settlement - during a white election campaign denounced by various other black leaders - as a vindication of their muscular bid to retake the political initiative from those involved in the insurgent campaign for black-majority rule.

This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.

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