The South African government, in announcing sweetened terms for power-sharing talks with blacks, has set up a test of strength with opponents advocating full-scale black rule. The government, this past weekend, proposed legislation that for the first time envisages the popular election of black envoys to its proposed council for negotiating power-sharing. The cabinet minister in charge of the issue also pledged an ``open agenda'' in such talks.
He was quoted yesterday as saying the government hopes it can hold the council elections next year, and have the resultant negotiating council begin work by 1989.
But the open question raised by the amended approach is whether the government may end up sponsoring an election which - like similar votes in 1984 for ethnic Asians and mixed-race Coloreds - will be widely boycotted.
The hope, says an official source interviewed yesterday, is that at least some prominent black antigovernment figures can now be persuaded to participate, thus paving the way for a genuine process of negotiation. A concern, he said, is that the proposed election will, as in 1984, provide a rallying point for new political unrest.
That the government move represents a political concession is clear. So far, consultations on giving the voteless black majority a share of national power have been limited to black figures designated or sought out by the government.
The proposed elections, under which nine delegates would be chosen by residents of the black townships in the vicinity of major South African cities, would also represent a break with the concept of restricting black political rights to tribal ``homelands'' - mostly in rural areas.
But the amended approach is also a challenge to the militant black political leadership that has emerged during the past three years of unrest here.
Allied to groups like the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) and the legal, but effectively restricted, United Democratic Front (UDF), these figures have maintained there can be no lasting stability here until the government agrees to a one-man, one-vote system.
Officials portray the proposed election as an opportunity for black-rule advocates to test their contention that they represent an overwhelming majority of black political opinion. The government feels that most blacks would welcome a compromise under which all races share power, but none ``dominates.''
Some political analysts predict more government moves in the months ahead to sweeten platform. There has been no sign Pretoria is about to meet key opposition demands - the release of jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela, and the scrapping of all race-segregation laws. But there have been hints of a softening of residential segregation, and of releasing some detainees.
Earlier this year, there were signs that the UDF, founded on a platform of opposition to the earlier Asian-Colored elections, began debating whether to shift to a strategy of pressing its political demands from within existing structures. But when a prominent UDF figure mentioned this in a newspaper interview, the UDF retreated.
One black activist interviewed yesterday acknowledged that the government's announcement of plans for a black election might well reignite discussion among black leaders over participation. He added that if the government were to release prominent political detainees, this would further encourage such debate. But he predicted the ultimate decision would be against participation.
Journalists in South Africa operate under official press restrictions.