SOUTH Africa is poised for a major shift in political power from the white minority Parliament to an interracial negotiating forum known as the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, or CODESA.
The shift would represent the first stage in the relinquishment of power by Parliament, which has been in white hands since the Union of South Africa was established in 1910. President Frederik de Klerk is expected to spell out his vision of the relationship between Parliament and CODESA when he opens what may be the last session of Parliament in Cape Town tomorrow.
"As a working institution Parliament has been marginalized for some time," said Andre du Toit, a political scientist at the University of Cape Town. "Now we are poised for the institutionalization of the real power shift that has been taking place for some time."
The first acknowledgment that CODESA was superseding the role of Parliament came earlier this month when a parliamentary committee deferred consideration of a bill permitting a multiracial referendum until it had been considered by CODESA. Parliament provides for separate white, mixed-race, and Indian minority representation, but excludes blacks.
It was announced yesterday that Parliament will not sit on Mondays and Tuesdays in deference to Monday sessions of CODESA's five working groups, which are drafting proposals for a transitional government as well as a new constitution.
The working groups, which held a preliminary meeting Monday - four days before Parliament opens - will begin on Feb. 6 and are expected to report in March in time for a second full session of CODESA in early April. Cabinet ministers and senior legislators will now divide their time between Parliament and CODESA.
CODESA - which includes major black groupings like the African National Congress (ANC) - is mandated to draft proposals for an interim government and investigate the black demand for an elected Constituent Assembly to draw up a new constitution.
In the Declaration of Intent adopted at the first meeting of CODESA, the government committed itself to implement CODESA'S decisions.
"While legislative power will continue to be vested in Parliament, it will now be influenced by the Declaration," said Zach de Beer, Democratic Party leader and outgoing chairman of CODESA's steering committee.
"It would be criminal folly for a white-dominated Parliament to use its power to do anything contrary to the wishes of the majority," he said.
Amid these shifts, the white establishment is becoming increasingly anxious that Mr. De Klerk - who launched his political reforms two years ago - is losing control of the political process.
In recent months there have been a series of political shocks for whites:
* Some formerly whites-only state-run schools have been thrown open and are nearly 100 percent black.
* The government has effectively admitted that it can no longer enforce the whites-only national-service draft.
* The economy - already strapped by recession - is being further hindered by the ANC's continued ability to block much-needed foreign loans.
* A soaring crime rate in white neighborhoods.
Uncertainty about the political road ahead has brought a measure of paralysis to administrative government. Budget allocations and policy decisions are on hold awaiting the outcome of CODESA'S crucial deliberations.
"There is not a lot De Klerk can do in the field of unilateral initiatives," says a business executive who asked not to be named.
"He has reached the unenviable position where he must constantly acknowledge the power of his adversaries by consulting them on every policy decision."
The last time government attempted to push through a unilateral policy decision was over introduction of the value-added tax system in October last year. That decision led to a massive two-day strike by anti-apartheid groups, and the uproar has not yet been resolved.
"It is remarkable how government authority has eroded in the past six months," says a Western diplomat. "The ANC knows this, and all it has to do now is keep the legitimacy of the present regime under suspicion."
Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, a respected political analyst who heads an interracial negotiating forum at the local government level, says he expects De Klerk to opt for a referendum to seek wider legitimacy for CODESA's decisions on interim government. The present constitution would then be suspended or changed to allow for a transitional government, Dr. Slabbert predicts.
But Parliament will provide the only constitutional means for the right-wing Conservative Party, which is boycotting CODESA, to raise objections to decisions of the interracial advisory body.
The Conservatives, who constitute the official opposition in the House of Assembly, are divided on whether or not to participate in negotiations, but hard-liners still have the upper hand.
When De Klerk addressed the first session of CODESA on Dec. 20, he endorsed the concept of an elected transitional government for the first time but did not elaborate on how blacks could be represented in Parliament without proceeding to majority rule.
Next month the ruling National Party faces a key election in the Transvaal voting district of Potchefstroom, where De Klerk attended a university that produced many Afrikaner liberals.
"If we lose the Potchefstroom seat to the right-wing Conservative Party, it could mark the point at which De Klerk can no longer claim to speak on behalf of the majority of whites," says a worried National Party official.
In political circles, De Klerk's dilemma is compared increasingly to that of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev before his resignation.
"Like Gorbachev his greatest popularity is outside the country and that should be a warning sign," says another Western diplomat.
"You can do all the right things and still lose it," he says. "I think De Klerk is losing it."