PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk and African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela are considering a last minute request from United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to avert a showdown over a planned general strike next week, according to Western diplomats.
De Klerk was expected to announce a major concession in the negotiating process whereby the government would drop its insistance on an interim constitution and accept that elections for a constitution-making body would be the next priority, the sources said.
This new approach could considerably shorten the duration of the transition and break the current political impasse. In the terms with the existing Parliament while an elected constituent assembly drafted a new constitution.
Anti-apartheid leaders have protested Pretoria's decision to move 5,000 security forces into the townships ahead of the planned strike. But government officials insist the operation is meant to restore essential services to neighborhoods on the brink of anarchy.
Church leaders made a last-ditch effort to calm rising tensions yesterday as security forces took control of 16 strife-torn black townships around Johannesburg ahead of a general strike Monday.
The church leaders, who have spent the past three days meeting political, business, and trade union leaders, are brokering a "code of conduct" aimed at ensuring that the two-day general strike and week of protest action is as peaceful as possible. The code is expected to be published today.
But they came up short in their effort to revive a failed accord between trade union and business leaders that would have limited the extent of the strike in return for business support for a political program that broadly dovetailed with the objectives of the African National Congress (ANC). Possible negative effect
The breakdown of law and order and essential services in the black townships has led church leaders to warn that the general strike could erupt in violence and spiral beyond the control of political leaders.
"We are convinced we are dealing with more than a temporary breakdown in the negotiating process," the church leaders told President Frederik de Klerk Wednesday.
"Right now the hopes raised by that process are being squandered in a morass of violence, suspicion, and despair.
"Black people are angrier than we have ever experienced and white fear is increasing," the church leaders warned.
After 10 days of in-depth discussions with political, church, trade union, and business leaders, UN special envoy Cyrus Vance is due to return today to New York. He visited South Africa on a Security Council resolution to seek ways to end political violence and restart negotiations.
Western diplomats, who were briefed by Mr. Vance Wednesday, said he was playing his cards close to his chest, but they predicted he would recommend a modest UN role as observers on dispute resolution committees of the National Peace Accord.
"This would strengthen a South African institution which is the product of negotiation and which has not met expectations thus far," one diplomat said.
The ANC has been pushing for a broad independent UN monitoring team to strengthen the government-appointed Goldstone Commission of Inquiry into intimidation and violence. Final push
The week of protests is the culmination of a six-week campaign aimed at forcing President De Klerk to end political violence and concede the principle of majority rule before political negotiations, which stalled in May, resume.
Diplomats expressed mixed feelings about what impact the strike would have on the political impasse. But the protest campaign has drawn limited public support so far, and De Klerk seems confident that the government can emerge strengthened from the showdown with the ANC and its allies.
"The government does not seem unduly alarmed," a diplomat says. "It seems to be hoping that those who have been pressing for mass action will emerge from the showdown humbled and that black leaders will be in a better position to reassert their authority over their followers."
"If it goes off peacefully [the strike] could serve as a sort of referendum for the anti-apartheid movement," another diplomat says.
"But if it is exploited by sinister forces within the security forces or spins out of control in the townships it could have a counterproductive effect."
Brian Atwood, director of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, says the leaders of the three main political organizations - the government, the ANC, and the Inkatha Freedom Party - must reestablish control over their constituencies. He is in South Africa to launch the second phase of a voter-education program.
"There is a desperate need that they find each other again," says Mr. Atwood, who has held talks with representatives of the major parties as well as with Vance. "There isn't very much time.... I would say three to four weeks at the outside."
Diplomats express hope that once the week of protest is over, anti-apartheid leaders will push to restart negotiations by mid-September. "But the ball is still in De Klerk's court regarding the role of the state in political violence," one diplomat said. "He is the only one who can break that impasse."