PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk has begun to canvass support from the African National Congress for a political compromise to neutralize the white right wing and meet some of its demands.
This was clear from Mr. De Klerk's low-key speech to the opening of Parliament Friday in which the only surprise was a cautious offer to the right wing that the principle of "self-determination" be put on the negotiation agenda.
The right-wing Conservative Party has so far refused to negotiate, insisting on the right of "nations," or volkere, to govern themselves. The Conservatives define the Afrikaners as a nation.
On this basis, the party rejects the concept of an "undivided South Africa," which it sees as selling out the principle of white sovereignty. A waning majority within the party wants guaranteed white rights in government structures throughout the country, while a growing minority is seeking to negotiate a limited white homeland.
If De Klerk's political maneuver on self-determination succeeds it could either divide the Conservative Party or bring most of the party into talks, driving a wedge between it and extremist paramilitary factions. The growing threat of widespread right-wing violence could also persuade the ANC of the need for a compromise short of majority rule.
"You could say that De Klerk is playing the right-wing card," says a National Party official on condition of anonymity. "He has got to the point where he has to use the real threat of a right-wing rebellion to convince the ANC that it is in their interests to support a coalition model instead of straight majority rule."
Conservative leader Andries Treurnicht shunned De Klerk's compromise, insisting the government had abandoned self-determination by agreeing at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) to an "undivided South Africa."
"The invitation to participate in CODESA on that basis makes no sense," Dr. Treurnicht said. But one Conservative legislator, speaking anonymously, admitted to the Monitor that De Klerk's offer would deepen right-wing divisions. Jittery National Party
De Klerk told Parliament that placing self-determination on the agenda had been approved in principle by leading parties making up the CODESA - including the African National Congress (ANC) and Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).
"One can sense the jitters within the ranks of the National Party," says Kobus Jordaan, a liberal Democratic Party legislator. "I think De Klerk realized that it was time to consolidate his position within the white community."
De Klerk faces a crucial whites-only election Feb. 19 in the Transvaal voting district of Pothefstroom, De Klerk's university town and a symbolic bastion of National Party support. The prospect that he could lose the seat to the Conservative Party is causing anxiety in National Party ranks. Such a loss would bolster the Conservative claim to speak for whites.
In his speech, De Klerk sketched the outline of the political transition, saying he would count white votes separately at a multiracial referendum - probably later this year - to ensure majority white support for a transition-government deal negotiated by CODESA.
Remarking that this amounted to a "white veto," ANC President Nelson Mandela also said "it is ridiculous ... to embark on negotiations and then go and consult a particular ethnic group whose response might be negative."
But it is unclear whether the ANC would try to sabotage such a referendum. Treurnicht says De Klerk and his government must resign if they lose the referendum. De Klerk says he will go back to the negotiating table if he loses the referendum to work out a deal whites will support. Buthelezi wild card
"Only Parliament - as constituted at present - has the power to amend the present Constitution," he said, indicating that he would be prepared to enter one-person, one-vote elections for a transitional government if sufficient guarantees for coalition and consensus government were accepted. The ANC favors a short-lived administrative interim government to oversee elections for a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution.
De Klerk has made it clear that he prefers the CODESA to draw up an interim constitution for an elected transition government with a new parliament that includes the black majority.
IFP Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi has been courting Conservatives in recent weeks, portraying them as the authentic voice of whites. After a meeting with Treurnicht in mid-January, Chief Buthelezi warned that the CODESA talks would get nowhere without the Conservative Party.
There have been signs in recent weeks that Buthelezi is considering an informal alliance with the Conservative Party. Inkatha declined to sign a declaration of intent at the first sitting of CODESA in December, which bound the parties to an "undivided" South Africa.
Inkatha officials said this could preclude negotiations for a federal state. But the Democratic Party, which proposes a federal state, was willing to sign.
"I think Buthelezi wants to hold open the option of a looser arrangement like the Commonwealth of States in the former Soviet Union," a Western diplomat says.
The official organ of the Conservative Party, Die Patriot or The Patriot, this week published an article proposing an alliance with Inkatha.