THE historic meeting between President Frederik de Klerk and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu marks the opening of a tentative phase of pre-negotiations - or talks about talks - in South Africa. ``This is the first time that Archbishop Tutu and the other church leaders have met the South African government to discuss the fundamental issues,'' says political scientist Mark Swilling of the independent Center for Policy Studies.
Archbishop Tutu met former President Pieter Botha on four separate occasions, but the talks made no substantive progress and were often marked by intense acrimony.
Mr. De Klerk, accompanied by Constitutional Development Minister Gerrit Viljoen, met Wednesday with Tutu, the Rev. Allan Boesak, President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Rev. Frank Chikane, general secretary of the ecumenical South African Council of Churches.
It was the first time that De Klerk, who was sworn in as president a month ago, had held in-depth talks with anti-apartheid leaders. And the meeting lasted two-and-a-half hours - three times longer than scheduled.
The church leaders stressed that they were not negotiators but ``facilitators'' to get negotiations under way.
The encounter took place against the backdrop of the announcement Tuesday that the government is to release eight of the country's most prominent jailed black leaders.
``It is no coincidence that the [announcement of the imminent] release of the prisoners occurred hours before the meeting,'' says Mr. Swilling. ``Mr. De Klerk was able to show that he can deliver on his promises, and this has put the ball squarely in Archbishop Tutu's court.''
Although the parties talked past each other at times, they both acknowledged the bona fides of the other in wanting to find peaceful solutions to the country's racial impasse. They agreed in principle to meet again.
But it was clear from a list of six pre-conditions presented to De Klerk that their demands dovetailed broadly with those of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC).
De Klerk acknowledged the role of the church in preparing the ground for fundamental change in South Africa, but said he would talk to various parties in the process leading up to negotiations.
He said the debate was no longer about whether black South Africans should get the vote, but about how the negotiating process to achieve a new dispensation should be structured.
``One of the biggest problems in South Africa is one of mistrust,'' De Klerk said after the talks. `` ... The gulf of mistrust must be breached.''
The first round of what is likely to be a series of talks to prepare the ground for negotiations did not achieve any significant breakthroughs. Its significance lay rather in the fact that it proceeded without any major disagreement about the eventual goal.
Tutu told De Klerk he would not recommend the lifting of sanctions against South Africa until the government agreed to meet six preconditions for talks.
But hours before he spoke, Commonwealth Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal indicated in an interview that there would no longer be a push for tighter sanctions at the summit of Commonwealth leaders in Malaysia next week.
Mr. Boesak is due to leave shortly to attend the 50-nation summit in Kuala Lumpur and brief Commonwealth leaders on the situation in South Africa.
Pretoria appears to have won the battle to stave off further sanctions until the middle of next year, pending progress towards a negotiated settlement.
The preconditions presented by the church leaders are the lifting of the 40-month-old state of emergency, the lifting of restrictions on anti-apartheid workers, the release of detainees held without trial, the legalization of political organizations, the release of political prisoners, and clemency for those on Death Row.
De Klerk said it was a priority of his government to lift or at least ease the emergency, and he reaffirmed his belief in the right to peaceful protest. He has already acted on the release of political prisoners.
The church leaders also gave De Klerk a further list of seven steps which should be taken before mid-1990.
They included the repeal of apartheid laws, allowing exiles to return home, and opening negotiations that would include liberation movements like the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress.
Chikane said that even talking about how to negotiate could not get under way in earnest until De Klerk met the pre-conditions. ``Unless they meet those first six points their policy of negotiation is a nonstarter,'' Chikane said.
De Klerk said the government was involved in a ``step-by-step'' process in which one step had to be completed before the next could be taken. He said the government could not bind itself to a set timetable for changes.
It is clear that the move on the prisoners, hailed by analysts here as a historic breakthrough, stole some of the thunder of the church leaders and produced a more subdued atmosphere for the talks.
``For De Klerk it is no longer a question of chasing moving goalposts with more concessions,'' says economist and author Ronnie Bethlehem.
``He has begun to make a fundamental impact because he has made a distinction between economic apartheid and political apartheid and begun seriously addressing the latter, '' Mr. Bethlehem adds. ``This would seem to be the point at which style becomes substance.''