PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk, responding to a new mood in Africa toward South Africa following his referendum victory, sets off for Nigeria today in what could be Pretoria's biggest diplomatic breakthrough in Africa.
Mr. De Klerk will meet Nigerian President Ibrahim Babangida, chairman of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), in what diplomats say will be the most significant endorsement yet of his quest for a negotiated settlement with the black majority in South Africa. It is the first time a South African head of state will visit Nigeria.
"This could be the turning point for South Africa in its relations with Africa," said a Western diplomat.
Interracial negotiations have accelerated in South Africa since March 17, when white voters overwhelmingly backed De Klerk in a referendum on political reform.
But the African National Congress (ANC) criticized the Nigerian government for not waiting until an interim government was in place.
"It is too early to invite De Klerk - even if it is for a good cause," says ANC representative George Nene. "It is worse in a sense that the opinion has not been sought of major players."
Nigerian Foreign Minister Ike Nwachukwu counters that the decision was based on Nigeria's interests. "Our policies will not be dictated by anyone else's interests than our own," he says. Nigeria has given its full backing to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, the interracial negotiating forum.
The meeting follows a summit of the seven southern African frontline states in Harare, Zimbabwe, March 28-29 that hailed the results of the referendum but expressed grave concern about escalating political violence in South Africa.
De Klerk is likely to face tough questions over increasing township violence and his government's apparent inability to curb it. In the past five weeks, about 420 people have died and more than 800 have been injured.
A team of international jurists found March 28 that free and fair elections would be impossible in South Africa until the violence is quieted, and they called for an impartial peacekeeping force to be stationed in trouble spots.
The Nigeria trip also holds the possibility of a meeting between De Klerk and the leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress, Clarence Makwetu. Following the PAC's annual conference April 6, Mr. Makwetu announced that the delegation would soon meet the South African government in Nigeria under President Babanbgida's chairmanship.
The PAC, which has thus far shunned formal contact with government, has repeatedly insisted on a neutral venue and chairman for talks with government. The Pretoria government has played down the prospect of the meeting and no date has been set.
South African officials have identified Nigeria as the center of one of four potential economic blocs in Africa. The others key countries, they say, are Kenya, Egypt, and South Africa. They also see a rapprochement with oil-rich Nigeria as the key to fostering economic cooperation in the continent as a whole.
Nigeria sees the prospect of economic gains in promoting a trade and diplomatic relationship with Pretoria.
De Klerk and Mr. Babangida first met at the Namibian independence celebrations in Windhoek two years ago.
At a conference on post-apartheid South Africa held in Windhoek last September, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, a former Nigerian leader, said that South Africa's admission to the OAU should encourage the international community to open ties with the country.
General Obasanjo said that formal links with South Africa - the signal would have to be given by black South Africans - would mark a new era for the region as well as the continent.
Nigeria is involved in a phased transfer of power from the present military regime to a democratic government.
A Constituent Assembly presented a federal constitution in 1990. Last December, elections were held for state governors in a two-party system.
In October this year, the new constitution will come into effect. Elections will be held in December to choose a president and a National Assembly with a federal transfer of power expected by January 1993.
In South Africa, a national conference is finalizing a transitional package that could lead to one-person, one-vote elections early next year for a transitional government which will rule the country until a new constitution is drawn up.