New power-sharing chief promises `open agenda'

Keenly aware of the obstacles he faces, South Africa's newly designated ``power sharing'' expert approaches his task armed with the most forthcoming negotiating style yet shown toward the country's blacks. In an interview Thursday, Stoffel Van der Merwe vowed to enter talks without any nonnegotiable ``preconditions.'' He said this applied even to Pretoria's view that any accord must be based on ethnically defined ``group rights.''

Although he echoed President Pieter Botha's bar on including the outlawed African National Congress in the process, Mr. Van Der Merwe said ANC sympathizers would be welcome if they disassociated themselves from the ANC's aim to use violence to overthrow the present system. ``Even people that were involved in violence,'' he said, would be welcome, ``if they are not ideologically committed to violence ... [and] they are the kind of people one can persuade.''

``If we can show them there is another way to reach their [political] aspirations, they can be weaned away.'' And ``nothing,'' he said, ``is to be achieved by drawing in a bunch of puppets. They wouldn't be able to deliver the goods... .''

Van der Merwe said the government remains convinced that a one-man, one-vote democracy is unworkable, and that group rights must be the basis of a new system. But the present ``mechanism'' for defining groups - by race - ``is much too stark,'' and those people who reject the concept of group rights would be welcome to bring their views to the conference table.

``Our convictions are not a pre-condition,'' he said. ``Otherwise there would be no sense in talking.'' Asked whether other government leaders would go along with such a tack, he said that since his role involved ``exploration,'' he would occasionally be ``in front'' of official policy. ``I'll get slapped down from time to time.''

But he said there was a unanimous sense in government that an ``open agenda'' is crucial to success.

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