PRESIDENT Frederick de Klerk's hard-line response to African National Congress (ANC) terms for resuming talks with his government appears to have signaled the virtual collapse of a 22-month truce between the country's two major adversaries.
"I think we have reached a low point in what is a rapidly deteriorating relationship between the two major players," says a Western diplomat monitoring the situation on a daily basis.
"The mood in the black townships is already very ugly, and the government's highly polemical response to the ANC has merely fanned the ill will," he says.
Western diplomats and academics who have resisted the involvement of the international community now concede that a UN role may be necessary to prevent a descent into deeper conflict and economic collapse.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu expressed concern Friday about the ANC's campaign of mass protest, launched June 16, to pressure the government for more movement in the negotiations. "I am worried," he said. "I am not entirely persuaded that the ANC and its allies would always be able to ensure that those demonstrations are peaceful."
ANC President Nelson Mandela on Saturday ruled out talks with the government at this stage: "They are not yet ready to transfer power to the majority in South Africa. They are still clinging to minority rule."
Mr. Mandela had insisted Friday that the government meet ANC demands on political violence before an emergency summit could be held. The ANC calls for international monitoring, outlawing all dangerous weapons, and suspending police found to have been involved in violence.
In a considered response to ANC demands presented on television last Thursday, Mr. De Klerk held the ANC responsible for sabotaging the negotiating process. He said he would continue to insist on open-ended powersharing and would not submit to demands for majority rule.
De Klerk made repeated references to the ANC's link with the South African Communist Party (SACP), suggesting that SACP militants were driving the "mass-action" campaign.
"The government response was extremely polemical and gave a false characterization of the ANC's role in negotiations," says the Western diplomat, adding that De Klerk's denials that the security forces were promoting violence were no longer credible. "It seems like a combination of misjudgment and over-confidence on De Klerk's part."
De Klerk's critics note that he met with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), and other black allies who favor a solution giving regional autonomy to ANC rivals, before giving his response. This has revived suspicions that De Klerk believes a multiracial National Party - in alliance with conservative blacks - could challenge the ANC in an election.
Some observers say that behind De Klerk's confidence lies a strategy to call a non-racial referendum to put his offer of powersharing to the test. "It would be a high-risk strategy," says another Western diplomat. "But if he gets the timing and question right, he could just pull it off."
In the written response to ANC demands, De Klerk included some minor concessions on the functioning of an elected interim government and constitution-making body. He has gone part way in agreeing to international monitors by appointing a former chief justice of India and a British academic to an independent commission on violence and a police investigation into the massacre of 41 black South Africans in Boipatong township June 17.
David Walsh, professor of political science at the liberal University of Cape Town, says it appears that the time has arrived for an international role to get the parties back to the table. "There is no doubt that the current situation is very serious," he says.
UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who has held talks with the representatives of the ANC, the National Party, and the IFP in the past week, has said the UN is prepared to mediate.
In addition, Ameka Anyaoku, secretary-general of the 50-nation Commonwealth of former British colonies, held talks with political leaders in Johannesburg Friday, and three European Community foreign ministers are expected to visit this month.