SOUTH African President Frederik de Klerk's rebuff of an African National Congress threat to call off talks could force the ANC to make critical choices about the future. ``There is an ambiguity on strategy and tactics between the ANC leadership and its rank-and-file which has become untenable,'' says independent analyst Frederik van Zyl Slabbert. ``Depending on how these fault lines in the ANC are resolved, it could help bring matters to a head and thus speed up negotiations.''
The earliest possible date for full interracial negotiations is May 1, but it seems unlikely they will be held until after a full congress of the ANC next June. Some analysts believe they won't begin until 1992.
The ANC could face a new challenge when Mr. De Klerk announces further reforms at the opening of Parliament in February. In doing so, he is likely to strengthen the hand of ANC moderates in relation to rank-and-file radicals who dominated the ANC's consultative conference last weekend.
While reaffirming its commitment to a negotiated settlement, the ANC conference set an April 30 deadline for the government to clear four remaining obstacles to full negotiations. Government negotiators have already agreed to the April 30 target date.
Hours before De Klerk spoke Tuesday, the government activated a law that will allow the overwhelming majority of the estimated 20,000 South African exiles to return to the country - removing a key obstacle to negotiations.
Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, who hosted the ANC's headquarters in exile for more than a decade, praised De Klerk at a Tuesday meeting with Foreign Minister Roelof Botha in Lusaka.
In a televised address to the nation Tuesday night, De Klerk challenged the ANC to choose between supporting peaceful negotiations or returning to conflict.
``It is disappointing that at its recent conference the ANC appeared to have reverted to outdated rhetoric and policies that fan the flames of confrontation,'' he said.
De Klerk vowed not to be deflected from his reformist course and pledged even tougher methods to maintain law and order. He said that the ANC's commitment to ``mass action'' was unacceptable.
At its conference, the ANC also decided to approve the creation of ``defense units'' - facilitated by its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe - to protect township residents from attacks.
Mr. Slabbert, who has close ties to both De Klerk and leading ANC officials, says this was a ``huge tactical blunder'' by the ANC which had agreed to suspend its ``armed struggle'' in August. If implemented, defense units would encourage right-wing groups to do the same and would be a recipe for mayhem, he says.
Slabbert says De Klerk was increasingly worried about Mandela's ``ability to deliver.''
``To be honest, I don't know ... quite what Mandela wants,'' he says. ``One moment he appears to be a negotiator and the next an insurrectionist.''
An ANC official, insisting on anonymity, says De Klerk's speech showns up the huge gap that still exists between the two sides. ``De Klerk has a different agenda,'' says the official. ``The ANC still stands for a transfer of power, and De Klerk talks about powersharing to prevent domination.''