A BROAD spectrum of church leaders has formulated a compromise plan to prevent a breakdown in the relationship between the Pretoria government and the African National Congress. The last-ditch rescue mission, which came as escalating political violence threatened to tip the country's black townships into full-scale civil war, was to be considered today by the ANC's national executive committee and will go before the South African Cabinet on Wednesday - ahead of the expiration of an ANC deadline at midnight on Thursday.
The move by church leaders has also raised hopes of a meeting between President Frederik de Klerk and ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela to discuss a way out of the impasse.
``I think they will meet before Thursday,'' says Johan Heyns, assessor of the Dutch Reformed Church, who was part of the church delegation that met Mr. De Klerk on Friday.
``I am very positive that we will find a way out,'' he says.
Mr. Heyns says discussion at the meeting had focused on, among other things, the need to gain Zulu cooperation for the handing in of so-called ``cultural weapons,'' which often lead to violence at township meetings.
The church leaders are expected to meet Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Inkatha Freedom Party leader, on May 20.
A week ago Mr. Mandela said the following eight days would be ``crucial'' in determining the future of negotiations and De Klerk warned that the country was ``slipping toward civil war.''
The church initiative followed announcements by De Klerk, who faces intense political and diplomatic pressure to resolve the conflict, that he was prepared to offer Cabinet posts to the ANC and other black groups and take steps to end the violence.
``It looks promising,'' says a Western diplomat close to the behind-the-scenes maneuvering. ``But we will have to see whether De Klerk is for real this time on the violence issue.''
ANC officials conceded that the proposals on violence were a step forward, but ruled out ANC participation in a De Klerk Cabinet.
``Anyone in the ANC who was prepared to take part in a De Klerk Cabinet would be committing suicide,'' an ANC official says.
An alternative approach more likely to find more favor with the ANC is for the proposed all-party conference - which would discuss mechanisms for negotiating a new constitution - to have a direct say in Cabinet decisions.
During the past 10 days, more than 100 people have died in political violence in what appears to be an attempt by supporters of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party to prevent the government and the ANC from healing the rift between them.
In the first decisive move to disarm Inkatha supporters of dangerous weapons, about 1,000 policemen and troops responded to an ANC request by searching four men-only hostels Friday night and seizing dangerous weapons. The hostels are dominated by Inkatha supporters and Inkatha officials denounced the police raids as ``unfair.''
Several attacks by armed Inkatha vigilantes in Soweto during the past 10 days have produced a stream of eyewitness accounts of police failure to act against Inkatha.
Television coverage of events that followed the funeral of a Soweto councilor last weekend showed that the Inkatha members were armed with an array of deadly weapons, including hatchets, machetes, and spears.
A top-level church delegation representing the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths emerged from a meeting with De Klerk Friday, hopeful that a breakdown could be avoided.
The Rev. Frank Chikane won approval on Thursday from Mandela for church mediation in the political deadlock.
``I think a showdown can be averted if De Klerk can show between now and the May 9 deadline that he means business with his proposed steps to end the violence,'' an ANC official says, on condition of anonymity.
The ANC has threatened to suspend further talks on convening an all-party conference and negotiating a new constitution unless the government delivers a satisfactory response to its ultimatum.
But ANC officials concede that its moderate leadership could be in jeopardy if it cannot revive the negotiating process before its pivotal national conference in July, when a new leadership will be elected and policy decided.
``The stakes are high for both sides if a compromise cannot be reached,'' a Western diplomat says.
``If current levels of violence continue, De Klerk can forget about attracting any meaningful foreign investment,'' says the diplomat. ``And the present ANC leadership could have its hands tied by the July conference, unless it can show visible benefits from negotiations before then.''
The outline of the compromise was sketched by De Klerk in a speech to Parliament Thursday during the three-day debate on his budget vote.
It involves a comprehensive response to points raised in an ANC ultimatum last month but does not refer to the demand that Defense Minister Magnus Malan and Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok be sacked.