SOUTH Africa's National Party government and the African National Congress (ANC) appear headed for their most serious confrontation since the ANC was legalized more than two years ago.
The ANC, strengthened by the adoption of its first detailed policy manifesto over the weekend, has won wide grass-roots backing for its plan to shift its demand for majority rule from the negotiating table to the country's streets and factories.
Attitudes have hardened dramatically in both camps during the past week; and Afrikaans-language newspapers, which usually reflect government thinking, are predicting that a showdown between the two major parties to the negotiations is inevitable.
At the end of a four-day policy conference Sunday, ANC President Nelson Mandela warned: "If the government does not cooperate they must be prepared for turmoil in this country."
Speaking with visible anger during his visit to the violence-wracked squatter settlement of Phola Park, south of Johannesburg, Mr. Mandela warned that it was a matter of time before the violence raging in black townships across the country spread into white neighborhoods.
"People are not dying because they are a threat to security," Mandela said. "They are dying because they are black."
He did not deny that there had been a souring of relations between himself and President Frederik de Klerk, but made clear that this was over the credibility of the government's claims of impartiality in township violence that claims an average of seven to 10 lives every day.
President De Klerk, who left Sunday for a visit to Russia and Japan, warned before his departure that threats would not contribute to a negotiated settlement. "We need to ensure that the commitment to peaceful negotiations can be tested and is not merely lip-service hiding a double-agenda," he said. De Klerk backs talks
De Klerk, who will be out of the country for eight days, said that there was no alternative to negotiations, and he called on all leaders to accept responsibility for bringing violence to an end.
"De Klerk - encouraged by the collapse of sanctions and a new international mood - seems confident to put his best offer at the negotiating table to the test of public opinion," says a Western diplomat.
The ANC policy conference ended on a militant note here over the weekend with a comprehensive plan of "mass action," work strikes, and national protests by mid-July if the government did not accede to the ANC's demands for majority rule.
"It seems that the ANC has finally realized that the government is not willing to give up power and has turned to mass action to give them leverage at the negotiating table," says Eugene Nyathi of the Center for African Studies in Johannesburg.
"This is accepted elsewhere in the world - Eastern Europe for instance - as a very democratic action," he adds.
The conference adopted a detailed policy manifesto that indicated a shift toward nationalization, and included restrictions on access for foreign investors to some sectors of the economy and borrowing limits.
The policy manifesto also takes a hard line by rejecting a federal political system that is favored by the National Party and its allies. The ANC, which has conceded the need for strong regional government, claims that the government favors federalism because it sees it as a mechanism for frustrating majority rule.
Relations between the ANC and the government deteriorated rapidly after the failure of the last round of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) two weeks ago.
The government wants to enter an open-ended period of powersharing before committing to the principle of majority rule in the second phase of the transition. The ANC argues that the government's insistence on an effective minority veto in a constitution-making body indicates that the De Klerk administration wants to retain white minority rule.
"While negotiations are not dead, the whole momentum will now swing towards a public test of strength," said an ANC official at the end of the conference here.
"We either move forward together as South Africans or we fight it out in the streets." `Power on the ground'
ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa reflected this mood in his closing remarks to the conference Sunday: "The failure of CODESA ... has afforded us an opportunity we cannot allow to pass. The challenge now is to plug in once again to our power on the ground and to spearhead a massive coalition to force the regime out of power."
But Western diplomats and political scientists doubt the ANC's ability to spearhead an Eastern Europe-style peaceful revolution and fear the consequences of mass protests on already escalating township violence.
"Both sides will have a better grasp of their strength [at the end of such a showdown]. It could even represent a new beginning ... but at an unacceptably high price which could have been avoided," said the Afrikaans-language daily, Beeld (Image), which usually reflects a position slightly to the left of government.