THE government-imposed emergency rule on six violence-wracked black townships early yesterday as it sealed an accord with the African National Congress and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party on steps to end political violence in South Africa. Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok announced the crackdown on Soweto's four main neighborhoods and five townships south of Johannesburg hours after President Frederik de Klerk and ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela ended a five-hour meeting at a secret venue near Pretoria.
``A lot of progress has been made at the talks,'' says a senior Western diplomat. ``I don't think there will be any dramatic break.''
Wednesday's De Klerk-Mandela meeting represents a last-ditch bid to stave off the suspension of tentative dialogue between the ANC and the Pretoria government which began 12 months ago.
The talks came just before the ANC deadline expired yesterday for the government to respond to its ultimatum on violence. The black trade union federation Cosatu has threatened a general strike if the ANC demands are not met, and 250 political prisoners are staging a hunger strike.
According to an ANC official familiar with Wednesday's meeting, the two sides, which continued to meet yesterday, are working out the details of a broad agreement which will result in all parties attending a conference on violence in Pretoria May 24, jointly-sponsored by church leaders, the government, the ANC, and Inkatha. Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi agreed to attend the conference only if Inkatha was named as a key sponsor, a Western diplomat said.
Speaking at the Pretoria Press Club, Mr. De Klerk said he was optimistic. ``We have reached a stage where, if we solve a few outstanding problems, we are very near to a situation where real negotiations can begin,'' he said.
It appeared, for the first time since last February, that it was De Klerk, rather than Mr. Mandela, who was feeling the most pressure from Western governments to end the violence.
In recent weeks Western diplomats have made it clear to the government that they do not accept the line that black groups are to blame.
``It has been fairly plain sailing for De Klerk since February last year,'' says a Western diplomat. ``It's going to get much tougher from here on.''
The talks centered around Mandela's demand that the government act decisively to disarm armed Inkatha members, drastically improve policing methods, particularly crowd control, and eliminate or convert men-only hostels, which have become epicenters of township violence.
ANC officials said Mandela began the talks in a tough mood and was unlikely to settle for any agreement that did not ensure the ANC's goals. ``There is no doubt that on the issue of violence it is Mandela himself who is the hawk,'' one of his advisers says.
More than 120 people have died in the past 10 days in the worst violence since the ANC was legalized 15 months ago.
The security measures will include the deployment of more security forces, a stricter night-time curfew, road-blocks, and a 14-day ban on open-air meetings.
The ANC reserved comment on the measures, but an ANC official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that if the crackdown was carried out in the same way that police acted in white areas ``it might be acceptable.''
Ironically, the security crackdown came two days after the government published details about limiting police powers to arbitrarily detain people.
The talks breakthrough followed a meeting Tuesday night between De Klerk and Chief Buthelezi. Diplomats said Buthelezi agreed on steps to outlawing the carrying of weapons, but there were still differences of the precise definition over what constituted a dangerous weapon.
In terms of the draft compromise, De Klerk will announce steps to prevent the carrying of weapons, will underwrite more acceptable policing, and initiate a process to replace men-only hostels with family accommodation.
Two weeks ago the ANC executive reduced the seven key points in its ultimatum to the three immediate demands - weapons, police methods, and hostels - which are now the focus of the talks.
The United States, British, and German governments have played a central role in pushing De Klerk to end the violence, Western diplomats say. At a tense meeting of ambassadors and senior diplomats in Cape Town last week, German ambassador Immo Stabreit confronted Mr. Vlok and told him: ``Rather than talk about peace, why don't you do something about it.''
Britain's top diplomat, Under-Secretary of State-elect Sir David Gilmour, has been meeting with top government and ANC officials this week. And Last Friday, Mandela had telephone conversations with US President Bush and British Prime Minister John Major, in which he briefed them on the ANC's position on violence and the least it expected from De Klerk.