THE African National Congress and the South African government appear close to agreeing on United Nations assistance for the repatriation of about 30,000 exiles, Western diplomats say. An accord would represent a breakthrough both in the faltering negotiation process and in overcoming South Africa's pariah status in the international community.
After a Monday meeting in Cape Town between ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela and President Frederik de Klerk, the government announced that the process of granting exiles indemnity and immunity against prosecution for ``political offenses'' would begin immediately.
But submitting to UN involvement inside South Africa through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a sensitive issue for both the government and the ANC.
For the government, it would be the first concession that the world body had any role to play in aiding a domestic political settlement. Pretoria has long held that such intervention could undermine the country's sovereignty and legitimacy.
UNHCR insistence on ensuring that the returnees are not subjected to any form of repression or discrimination conjures up the image of intrusive UN peacekeeping forces in the eyes of some Pretoria officials.
Elements within the ANC have also resisted full-scale UNHCR involvement, worrying that the ANC might lose control of the repatriation process. ANC officials are adamant that the first returnees should be skilled ANC personnel who can aid in rebuilding the party organization.
Since February, about 60 ANC officials have been granted special indemnity to take part in negotiations in South Africa. In addition, an estimated 160 people a month have turned up at the ecumenical South African Council of Churches (SACC) seeking assistance. They often have no political affiliation and have returned home on their own initiative.
The formation in May of the National Coordination Committee on Repatriation (NCCR) - a nonpartisan body consisting of rival black groups like the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress, the Azanian People's Organization, and church representatives - was a landmark event. Formed under the guidance of the SACC, the NCCR is the first forum in which political rivals have agreed to cooperate. NCCR officials estimate that between 30,000 and 40,000 exiles will return to South Africa in the next year or two - of which about 20,000 will be ANC members. They say that initially $60 million will be needed, and then as much as $140 million more, for follow-up care. The NCCR has already begun setting up reception and resettlement centers.
Since February, when Mr. De Klerk indicated exiles could return, the ANC has tended to blame the government for blocking UNHCR participation. But in recent weeks, the ANC seems to be warming to a limited UNHCR role that Pretoria, too, would find comfortable.
``We all know that in the end the UNHCR must be involved,'' said an ANC official. ``They have the resources and the experience, and they have the money.''
The prospect of a government-ANC-UNHCR accord follows six months of separate bilateral contacts in Geneva between UNHCR officials, South African diplomats, and ANC officials. During the process, Pretoria has come under increasing pressure from its United States and West European trading partners to accept UNHCR involvement in the repatriation of exiles.
``A successful repatriation of exiles could speed up the political process,'' said UNHCR spokesman Geoff Crisps. ``It is an important symbolic act and a concrete manifestation of change.''
In the Swiss capital last week, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Thorvald Stoltenberg met with Thabo Mbeki, ANC foreign affairs secretary.
According to ANC officials, Mr. Mbeki made proposals that could accelerate a compromise between Pretoria's longstanding objection to UN involvement and UNHCR insistence on a follow-up role within South Africa.
The Pretoria government has accepted that it has a role to play in the repatriation and integration of exiles, but has failed to say how it intends to fund that effort. Some officials believe that a UNHCR role would solve the problem of financing the repatriation while it advances South Africa's quest for international recognition. They support a UNHCR role as ``travel agent'' - issuing travel documents and delivering returnees to major airports and border points.
But ``the whole point of our involvement is to guarantee the safety of people once they return,'' said Mr. Crisps. ``We would be reluctant to take people to the border, say goodbye, and wash our hands.''
ANC officials said the UNHCR role had already been established as a limited one in government-ANC negotiations. ``If they [the UNHCR] offered the travel-agency option - to bring our people to entry points - we would accept that,'' said Jackie Selebi, chairman of the ANC's Repatriation Committee.
UNHCR officials point to the repatriation program in Namibia, where about 43,000 refugees were airlifted into the country by the UNHCR within a six-week period in mid-1989. The $45 million program was widely regarded as a success.
In August, the South African government and the ANC had reached an agreement that granted indemnity for most categories of exiles. It was due to begin on Oct. 1 and be completed by April 30, 1991. But when the ANC put forward the first 3,000 names last month, it was presented with individual forms asking each exile to declare offenses he or she had committed.
``We have given to the government all the necessary information regarding each exile,'' said the ANC's Mr. Selebe. ``But we are not prepared to force our people to make confessions.''