THE South African government and the African National Congress (ANC) are discussing the terms of a general amnesty that could clear the way for an interim government and elections for a constitutionmaking body, Western diplomats say.
The amnesty proposal could help break the impasse over political negotiations that continues despite statements by President Frederik de Klerk and ANC President Nelson Mandela that they want to return to the table.
In terms of the amnesty, members of the security forces who had taken part in clandestine operations against anti-apartheid activists and in the covert destabilization of the ANC would be granted blanket immunity.
The general amnesty would also secure the release of 420 prisoners the ANC insists were convicted for their political actions.
The plan, diplomats say, could even resolve the impasse over the status of several thousand cadres of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), who remain outside the country until the ANC formally terminates its "armed struggle." The ANC suspended that strategy in September 1990.
The amnesty proposal, which has the backing of the United States and Britain, was promoted by United Nations special envoy Cyrus Vance during his 10-day visit to South Africa that ended last week, the diplomats said.
"Mr. Vance's idea was that there needs to be a clean break with the past that would enable a gear-change to a future-directed dialogue," says a Western diplomat close to the UN initiative. "The idea is to wipe the slate clean and move quickly to establish a new political order in which the parties could share power."
"The internationalization of the South African crisis has produced some astounding results," a Western diplomat says. He adds that the past three weeks have seen a "sea change" in the government's attitude toward international involvement, which presented new opportunities for a breakthrough. "This is a precious opportunity that should not be lost," he says.
As a result of Vance's intervention, the government and ANC have held two high-level meetings during the past two weeks to discuss political prisoners that the ANC insists are political detainees. High-level talks
The government delegations have been headed by Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee. The ANC side has been headed by ANC International Department director Thabo Mbeki, who had been mandated by the ANC's National Working Committee, a sort of inner-cabinet, to "negotiate the release of all political prisoners."
Neither side would comment directly on the amnesty issue.
ANC spokesman Carl Niehaus said it was quite possible that the question of a general amnesty had been "touched on" at these meetings, but that the ANC had no "firm position" on a general amnesty at this stage.
ANC officials have made clear in the past, however, that a general amnesty would be a unilateral action by government.
Current talks between government and the ANC were "too sensitive" to disclose details, says Justice Ministry spokesman Nic Grobler. "But I can say that the question of a general amnesty was raised by the ANC earlier in the negotiating process and it remains on the table for discussion."
Diplomatic sources say that Vance's report to UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali on how to reduce violence and promote a return to negotiations was handed to the Security Council Wednesday.
"I think De Klerk could use this report as a route back to the negotiating table rather than try and meet all the ANC's specific demands," one diplomat says.
The general amnesty, he says, could help solve Mr. De Klerk's mounting problem within the security forces, where there is widespread evidence that certain elements are undermining his political initiatives.
"There are a lot of scared people in the security forces who believe that they will be first in the firing line if a majority government comes to power," the diplomat says. After the strike
In the wake of the successful general strike by the ANC and its allies this week - and well-disciplined and triumphant rallies in the major cities - a buoyant Mr. Mandela told about 70,000 supporters at the Union Buildings in Pretoria Wednesday that the ball was in the government's court.
He insisted that the government should take steps to meet a list of 14 demands the ANC set forth in June after the massacre of 42 people in the township of Boipatong, particularly those relating to ending political violence. "What happens next ... depends on how the government responds to our demands which address the crucial obstacles in the path to negotiations," he told the crowd.
De Klerk, answering questions from journalists outside his Union Buildings office after the ANC rally, said he was prepared to resume negotiations immediately and proposed a two-day bush retreat between government and ANC officials.
Contacts had been taking place between with the ANC over the past week, he confirmed. An ANC spokeswoman said the talks had been confined to discussing the "modalities" for the release of 420 political prisoners.
But a diplomat says both the ANC and, more recently, the government were keen on the idea of a general amnesty as a mechanism to make a clean break with the past. Mr. Mbeki of the ANC and Foreign Minister Roelof Botha met for nearly six hours last Thursday, he says.
The proposed amnesty, which US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Hank Cohen apparently promoted during meetings with government officials earlier this week, would create a new cutoff date for immunity against prosecution for agents of the state and the liberation movements who were acting under instructions or in line with the official policy of their organizations, the diplomats said.
In terms of a bilateral agreement between government and the ANC, a selective amnesty was negotiated which granted immunity to certain categories of exiles for acts committed before Oct. 8, 1990.
That agreement did not apply to members of the security forces.