THE South African government has been plunged into a political crisis on the eve of crucial talks May 15 and 16 that are likely to reach an accord on installing the first phase of a multiracial interim government.
Official revelations of massive corruption in a key government department and new disclosures about top-level involvement by security officials in the assassination of civic leaders has put President Frederik de Klerk on the defensive at a critical time in the negotiating process.
The disclosures have made the installation of an interim government more urgent and severely weakened the credibility of key figures in Mr. De Klerk's negotiating team as well as top figures in the security establishment.
"Just when the tide of international opinion appeared to be moving in favor of De Klerk he has again been tainted by the legacy of apartheid," says a Western diplomat. "The way he deals with the new crisis will be crucial to his chances in a future democratic election."
The findings of a judicial commission that the Department of Development Aid, which once controlled the daily lives of millions of black South Africans, had squandered and stolen hundreds of millions of dollars of tax-payers money has sent shock-waves through the ruling National Party.
It has also shaken a white establishment - already anxious about the competence of the black majority to rule - to find that the white Afrikaner government has been involved in corruption that compares with the most repugnant black-ruled regimes in Africa.
"It's the end of the road and the smell of decay is that of a regime - which has been around too long - coming to an end," says Democratic Party legislator Colin Eglin.
"Technically, [the white leadership] must stay in place to complete the negotiation process but it cannot be an effective government," Mr. Eglin says. "It has become weaker and the inevitability of it being replaced takes on a moral dimension."
De Klerk clearly intends to ride out the storm, arguing that the development department was the product of apartheid. Assassination concerns
Of more immediate concern to anti-apartheid activists are the sensational disclosures, in the anti-apartheid weekly New Nation on May 8, that the serving head of Military Intelligence in the South African Defense Force, Gen. C. P. van der Westhuizen, was responsible in 1985 for recommending that three key anti-apartheid leaders be assassinated.
The New Nation published a military signal message in which then-Brigadier Van der Westhuizen recommended in a telephone conversation to a General Van Rensburg of the secretariat of the State Security Council in Pretoria that the three civic leaders be "permanently removed from society."
(The now defunct State Security Council acted as a super-Cabinet under former President Pieter Botha. The secretariat acted as a clearing house for decisions of the council, which was chaired by Mr. Botha and included senior Cabinet ministers, including at least three who are now in De Klerk's Cabinet.)
Two weeks after the message was sent by Van der Westhuizen, the charred bodies of four activists - including two of those identified in the message - were found in thick bush near the coastal city of Port Elizabeth. The killings bore all the hallmarks of political assassination but the circumstances remained a mystery.
One of the murdered men, Matthew Goniwe, a mild-mannered school principal who advocated negotiations long before it was popular in anti-apartheid circles to do so, was seen as a future national leader. His death gave new impetus to a nationwide black rebellion.
Parliament was to have debated the revelations surrounding the deaths of Mr. Goniwe and his three colleagues May 13.
Van der Westhuizen is abroad on vacation and was not available for comment. A military spokesman referred the Monitor to a decision by De Klerk May 9 to appoint a judicial commission to reopen the investigation into the deaths of the four activists.
De Klerk denied, however, that either the Cabinet or the State Security Council had discussed or been aware of the contents of the Van der Westhuizen message.
Brian Currin, director of Lawyers for Human Rights, says that if the signal message is genuine, he will call on De Klerk to order an investigation into the deaths of 64 anti-apartheid activists between 1981 and 1989. Military role
Gen. Bantu Holomisa, the Pretoria-trained leader of the nominally-independent homeland of Transkei, told the Monitor that he received the signal message anonymously through the mail. The military has not disputed the authenticity of the document.
General Holomisa says he was not satisfied with De Klerk's response and was calling for a delegation of international jurists to probe the role of the State Security Council in political assassinations.
"It is quite clear that if two top military officers can discuss an assassination on the telephone and record the contents that you are dealing with a state policy which was sanctioned at the highest level," Holomisa says.
He adds that the investigation must include all those serving on the council at the time, including the present justice minister, Kobie Coetsee, Foreign Minister Roelof Botha, and Minister of State Affairs Gerrit Viljoen. Eliminating activists
"There is mounting, incontrovertible evidence that the state is fomenting violence among blacks," Holomisa says. "The practice of eliminating political activists continues unabated today."
Meanwhile, in a snap debate in Parliament May 11, it was revealed that a former minister of the ill-fated Department of Development Aid, Dr. Viljoen, was warned four years ago by a government-appointed ombudsman to launch a probe into the department. He declined to do so.
Viljoen, who was shifted from his key post of Minister of Constitutional Planning by De Klerk last week and made Minister of State Affairs, is widely regarded as the architect of De Klerk's constitutional reforms.
De Klerk has been widely criticized for holding the judicial report on the Department of Development Aid for six months before making it public.
His critics argue that he has allowed hundreds of corrupt officials to be appointed to other positions in the civil service.