THE South African government is planning its next move to get the African National Congress and other parties to the negotiating table by early April, political analysts say. On state-run television on Feb. 17, President Frederik de Klerk said a multiparty conference was ``closer than many people think.'' And in recent weeks senior government officials have hinted a conference of the major negotiating parties - a concept already approved by Pretoria and the ANC - could be held within six weeks.
The breakthrough came with last week's accord in which the ANC suspended all armed actions and ceased the training of military cadres inside the country. But the two sides could not agree on what to do about ANC arms that were already inside the country.
Although the ANC has refused to link the suspension of the armed struggle with amnesty for prisoners and exiles, both Mr. De Klerk and ANC officials portrayed the accord as an important step closer to negotiations.
``Clearly, the political will to move ahead is there on both sides,'' said a Western diplomat.
Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee said Friday that the government had agreed to speed up the release of prisoners and the granting of indemnity for an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 exiles.
Government officials say about 80 percent of the exiles could benefit from the decision on unqualified indemnity for ANC members who have received military training but have not recently used it. They say they know that ANC moderates are losing ground and need to show a restive black constituency some tangible benefits from negotiation.
``The way we hope to do that is through the multiparty conference,'' said a senior official.
But ANC officials say there can be no progress on what they call an ``all-party conference'' until the government releases an estimated 3,000 political prisoners and exiles are seen to return. The ANC has set April 30 as the deadline for these demands to be met, if they are not met it will reconsider its participation in talks.
Both Mr. Coetsee and other senior officials say the deadline is attainable. ``I think that the government will free significant numbers of political prisoners and indemnify large numbers of exiles well before the April 30 deadline,'' says Khehla Shubane of the independent Center for Policy Studies. ``This will put the ANC under enormous pressure to go along with the all-party conference and, from past experience, they will go along even though it will be difficult for them to do so.''
The government says it has released 262 ``security'' prisoners since last February. Officials say applications for the release of a further 760 prisoners are in an advanced stage. But the Human Rights Commission (HRC), a monitoring body that supplies the ANC with statistics, says it has a list of 1,321 named political prisoners and estimates the total to be around 2,750.
Max Coleman, an HRC trustee, says the impasse occurred because the government would not acknowledge that prisoners convicted of common law offenses, such as arson and murder, could be political prisoners.
The exile situation also appears to be close to a breakthrough following the recent visit of a top-level delegation of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). ``The Cabinet has a far better understanding of the intentions of the UNHCR and, therefore, has more reliable information on which to base a decision in its future role,'' says a government official.
Officials claim that 2,092 exiles have received indemnity for leaving the country unlawfully. According to the Office for Indemnity, Immunity and Release in Pretoria only 3,500 applications for indemnity have been received.