A TENTATIVE peace accord between the ruling National Party and the African National Congress could herald the emergence of a new coalition at the center of South African politics. ``It was an instant love affair,'' said Heribert Adam, a visiting professor at the University of Cape Town. ``It is now clear that the government's first prize is a deal with the ANC,'' he said. ``Only if it fails to achieve that would it go the route of alliance politics with groups like Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Zulu-based Inkatha movement.''
The accord was reached at the first formal encounter between the ANC and a South African government since the ANC was founded 78 years ago. It was a personal triumph for both President Frederik de Klerk, who initiated a process of fundamental change three months ago, and ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela, who engaged South Africa's rulers in talks for three years when he was still behind bars.
The agreement was announced on the eve of Mr. De Klerk's departure Tuesday on a tour of Western Europe during which he will meet nine heads of state.
Three days of talks between the country's two main adversaries have transformed the political chemistry and accelerated the rapidly converging interests of the two parties.
``I sensed at the meeting that we were - all of us - surprised at how foolish we had all been,'' said ANC Foreign Secretary Thabo Mbeki. ``I think everybody understood that this discussion ought to have taken place many years ago.''
Some analysts believe that a sort of ad hoc coalition between the two parties is already emerging.
``We no longer have unwilling parties being pushed toward the negotiating table,'' wrote Mervyn Frost, a political scientist at Natal University. ``What we have is a de facto coalition government. ... The National Party and the ANC already share policymaking power.''
A joint National Party-ANC steering committee has been operating for several months and further joint working committees were set up.
The accord focuses on a joint commitment to end violence and created joint working groups to resolve the obstacles to formal talks - the release of political prisoners, the return of exiles, and the repeal of arbitrary security laws.
Although the wording of the agreement is cryptic, ANC delegates expressed optimism that the nationwide emergency would be lifted within weeks - excepting strife-torn Natal province - and a general amnesty for political prisoners and exiles decreed.
In return, the ANC has undertaken to look ``very hard and earnestly'' at suspending its 29-year-old ``armed struggle.''
The parties did not set a date for further talks to formalize a mutually binding cease-fire, but a May 21 deadline was set for arriving at a mutually acceptable definition of political prisoners.
Mr. Mandela said at a news conference that the ANC would no longer call for an intensification of economic sanctions and looked forward to a time when ANC leaders could drop their call for the maintenance of existing sanctions.
The significance of the accord lies less in the circumspect wording of the document than in the warm relationship of trust that developed between the two delegations.
Ironies abounded during the three-day encounter between leaders of two groups, which have plotted to destroy and assassinate each other in the past.
ANC delegates established first-name relationships with government security agents who guarded them at the Lord Charles Hotel in the foothills of the scenic Hottentots Holland mountains about 30 miles from Cape Town.
The government footed the $28,000 hotel bill and government ministers socialized warmly with the ANC delegates in a marquee adjoining the historic Groote Schuur residence of former South African leaders on the slopes of Devils Peak mountain.
The new-found relationship between the two parties was symbolized by the first joint news conference addressed by De Klerk and Mandela. De Klerk described the accord as ``an important breakthrough in the peaceful process which we want to take place in South Africa.''
Both men lauded the warm and friendly atmosphere in which the talks took place, but Mandela said the real test would lie in carrying out the agreement.
``It is the realization of a dream for which we have worked patiently and consistently over the last three years,'' Mandela said. ``At the end of these discussions, not only are we closer to one another - the ANC and the government - but we are all victors. South Africa is a victor.''
The two leaders - whose destinies have clearly become intertwined - often deferred to each other and carefully chose their words to balance the demands of their divergent constituencies with their converging interest in making dialogue work.
But Mandela did not mince his words when asked if apartheid was ``dead or dying.''
``Twenty-seven years ago when I went to jail, I had no vote. Twenty-seven years thereafter, I still have no vote and that is due to the color of my skin. You can then decide whether apartheid is dead or not.''