THE struggle for political power here began in earnest over the weekend as the major parties jockeyed for position at South Africa's first-ever interracial national convention.The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) - as the negotiating forum is known - marked the end of unilateral white rule and the beginning of power-sharing. "I would say it's the start of a long beginning," says political mediator Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, who chairs a similar forum at a local government level. Seventeen of the country's 19 parties - represented by some 220 delegates - signed Codesa's founding charter, a declaration embracing classic liberal democratic values such as multiparty democracy, a bill of rights and an independent judiciary. The Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party refused to sign, citing technical objections, leaving them isolated and closer to the political position of the right-wing Conservative Party, which boycotted the talks.
Buthelezi's withdrawal Inkatha leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who pulled out on the eve of the talks, appears to have been marginalized, but some analysts see his move as politically shrewd. "Buthelezi clearly doesn't want to accept equal status with other leaders of tribal homelands," says Dr. Slabbert, adding that Buthelezi may be waiting to enter a forum which reflects the popular support parties enjoy. Slabbert points out that the African National Congress (ANC) made a major concession - and perhaps was tactically unwise - to accept equal status at the Codesa sessions with homeland and minority parties which are likely to be reduced to splinter groups in an election. The Inkatha delegation led by national chairman Frank Mdlalose will remain within Codesa. Significant shifts by both the ANC and the ruling National Party were partly overshadowed by a bitter clash between their leaders over the unresolved issue of political violence. But President Frederik de Klerk indicated for the first time that he is prepared to negotiate - as soon as possible - an elected interim government that would rule the country while a new constitution is being formulated. This marked a major departure from the government's previous position. The scene is now set for intense political wrangling over the form and duration of an interim government, which, Mr. De Klerk said, would depend on how long the Codesa negotiations last. He said the talks could take anywhere between three and nine months or longer. His apparent offer to hold a one-person, one-vote election - before the interim phase - surprised and confused his opponents, because it defuses the ANC's demand for a Constituent Assembly while raising the prospect of a drawn-out transition period before a new government is elected under a new constitution. The ANC has always insisted that an elected body write the constitution; now De Klerk is proposing an interim elected body that would both manage the transition and draw up the new constitution. Constitutional Development Minister Gerrit Viljoen told the Sunday Times of Johannesburg yesterday that the interim government could last at least five or even 10 years. The ANC favors appointing an interim authority with a lifespan of no more than 18 months while an elected Constituent Assembly draws up a new constition.
A 'white veto' The ANC has accepted the authority of the current minority Parliament as the body which must rubberstamp whatever new deal emerges from Codesa negotiations. But it opposes De Klerk's insistence on a national referendum in which the white vote would be counted separately. The president says that a majority of whites must approve the new constitution, and wants to count their votes apart from the votes of non-whites. If a majority of whites rejected the changes he would have no option but to return to the negotiating table to start again. "This amounts to a white veto," says an ANC official. "And if you accept a white veto, you are back to apartheid." ANC leader Nelson Mandela said he was prepared to consider De Klerk's proposal as long as it was not an attempt to perpetuate the status quo. But ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa appeared to be more wary of De Klerk's proposals. "We suspect that it is an attempt to co-opt us into the present government," he said. The symbolic moment of transition from the old order to the new was marked by a bitter clash between Mr. Mandela and De Klerk broadcast live on television and radio nationwide. De Klerk became the first white head of state to be publicly dressed down by a black leader in a multiracial forum. The 45-minute face-to-face encounter has had an electric effect on the nation. It also appears to have largely shattered public perceptions of a cozy personal relationship between the two leaders. De Klerk sparked Mandela's fury by using the Codesa platform - and his privilege as last speaker - to launch a scathing attack on the ANC's refusal to hand in weapons currently stored in arms caches around the country. The ANC suspended its "armed struggle" last August but refuses to abandon this option as long as De Klerk fails to bring the security forces under control. In his opening speech, Mandela had avoided attacking De Klerk or the government despite several unresolved issues between them. The two leaders had several meetings in the week before the Codesa talks and Mandela said De Klerk had given no indication that he would raise the violence issue publicly. Mandela chided De Klerk for his bad behavior, accused him of bad faith, trickery, and abusing his position. The ANC leader made allowances for the fact that De Klerk was "a product of apartheid" but told him: "Even a discredited, illegitimate, minority regime must observe certain moral standards." Horns sounded in black townships around the country in noisy approval of Mandela's biting personal attack on De Klerk. Whites reacted to Mandela's attack with emotions ranging from surprise to outrage at what they saw as his calculated attempt at character assassination. "I have spent two years trying to convince my voters that Mandela is a man of peace and reason," says a senior National Party legislator. "I might as well not have wasted my time." Supporters of the right-wing Conservative Party - who staged a protest outside the talks venue - were outraged. Right-wing extremists claimed responsibility for five bomb attacks on multiracial targets before the talks. Even white liberals who chided De Klerk for raising the sensitive violence issue criticized Mandela for getting too personal and "going over the top." "I think it was very necessary for Mandela to intervene," says Slabbert. "De Klerk made a bad mistake," he says. "He is very vulnerable on the violence issue. But Mandela's response would have been even more effective if he had not been so personal."
A grim-faced De Klerk De Klerk, who sat grim-faced throughout the attack, was audibly hyperventilating with emotion as he responded, but did not attack Mandela personally. "We were very badly hurt by his remarks," concedes Foreign Miniter Roelof "Pik" Botha, adding that government had decided not to hit back in the interest of the negotiating process. De Klerk and Mandela made up with a warm handshake on the second day of the talks indicating that their heated exchange had not damaged the negotiations. ANC and government security officials - still deadly enemies in some black townships - worked side-by-side to secure the massive World Trade Centre near Johannesburg's Jan Smuts airport. In his opening speech, Mandela noted that the political process would be irreversible "after Codesa," but he disappointed government officials - and some Western diplomats - by failing to give the signal for the lifting of remaining sanctions. "I don't think the ANC or anyone else can short circuit the process now," says Slabbert. "It's now a question of how and when the government gives up more power and the ANC takes on new responsibilities."