THE African National Congress's ultimatum to President Frederik de Klerk - to halt political violence by May 9 or face the end of dialogue - marks a new phase in the strained process of interracial negotiations in South Africa. "I think it is more saber rattling than a serious threat to break off negotiations," says political scientist David Welsh of Cape Town University.
But ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela said it was the most serious threat yet to negotiations. "This is a very serious matter and I certainly hope the government will treat it as such," he said at a news conference Friday.
The ANC move has shaken the precarious process of interracial dialogue and is causing concern in diplomatic, political, and church circles. It comes three weeks before the expiration of the April 30 deadline set by the ANC at its militant December conference for the release of political prisoners and the granting of indemnity to exiles.
The new ANC demarche, and the manner of its delivery, also suggests a possible crack in the relationship of trust which has been established between Mr. De Klerk and Mr. Mandela since they first met 16 months ago.
"It seems a departure from the cozy chats between the two which were always able to resolve sticking points in the past," says Professor Welsh.
The showdown - conveyed in the form of an open letter to De Klerk - also marks a further setback for the January peace accord between Mandela and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party.
In its letter the ANC suggests that Inkatha - in collusion with the police - was manipulating the violence to inflate the image of Inkatha and its leader "from that of a minor to the rank of the third major player on the scene."
'Troika' reports denied
At Friday's news conference a grim-faced Mandela quickly denied reports he, De Klerk, and Chief Buthelezi where ready to cooperate in a form of "troika."
Buthelezi responded to the ANC move with "shock and disappointment. How can I deal with people like this?" the Inkatha leader asked rhetorically.
The tough ANC line reflects the militant mood among its rank and file and growing anger within the organization that it has lost the strategic initiative on negotiations with De Klerk since it relinquished its "armed struggle" in August last year.
Morale within the ANC has reached an all-time low in recent weeks following sustained criticism from its grassroots that it is unable protect its members in the face of escalating township violence. The violence, viewed as fueled by a collusion between elements within Inkatha and the security forces, has frustrated the ANC's efforts to establish political structures in the townships.
In the open letter the ANC set new demands relating to the recent political violence which has claimed more than 400 lives this year. It demanded that De Klerk sack his Defense and Law and Order ministers, take legal steps to disarm vigilantes of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, and disband all counterinsurgency units.
It also demanded that policemen implicated in crowd shootings be charged, the use of live ammunition in crowd control be outlawed, men-only hostels and labor compounds be scrapped, and an independent probe into misconduct by security forces be set up.
"It appears that the ANC is becoming desperate to regain the political initiative," said a Western diplomat. "But they will have to do better than this."
Some political analysts said the ANC had reacted clumsily by setting a deadline for the sacking of Minister of Defense General Magnus Malan and Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok.
"By calling for their dismissal, the ANC is almost certainly ensuring that both Malan and Vlok will stay on," says Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, director of the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa. "This is a really amateurish and ham-handed way to deal with a very serious issue. What the ANC does not seem to realize is that international sympathy has changed, and no one is going to buy the line that the violence is all De Klerk's fault."
This view was borne out at a four-day conference of the Aspen Institute in Cape Town this week attended by 17 United States Senators and Congressmen.
According to one delegate at the confidential conference, delegates heard Mandela make a stinging attack on De Klerk over the government's alleged role in the violence. De Klerk responded with a robust counterattack, and the consensus among delegates was that the South African President had just won the day.
"I think De Klerk had the edge on Mandela by about 40-30," said the delegate.
Look within community
Last week Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu called on black leaders to look within their own community to resolve the violent conflict. After addressing the Aspen conference, Archbishop Tutu, who was the country's most influential advocate for economic sanctions, called for a review of the strategy on sanctions against South Africa.
Last week, Methodist Bishop Peter Storey urged church and community group involvement in a constitutional conference to counterbalance political leaders' obsession with power.
President de Klerk responded cautiously to the ANC's ultimatum and urged it not to try drawing political gain from township violence. He said it appeared the ANC was "moving the goalposts in order to cover up serious problems within its own ranks."
"The government is deeply concerned about the continuing violence," De Klerk said, adding that he was trying to establish a joint forum with Mandela and Buthelezi to address the violence.
The right-wing Conservative Party said that if the government bowed to ANC demands it would be tantamount to treason and result in a breakdown of law.
Political analysts said it was difficult to see how the ANC could emerge from the showdown with increased prestige or authority.
"I can't see the ANC action derailing the process," says Dr. Slabbert. "But there is no doubt that negotiations have entered a bumpy patch."