THE right-wing Conservative Party, which for a decade has represented about 30 percent of whites determined to hang on to apartheid, is poised to make a clean break with the past and enter political negotiations.
The policy turnabout, which is expected to be confirmed at a meeting of the party's executive committee Thursday, has been engineered by a group of five dissident legislators who threatened to quit and form a new party unless their calls were heeded.
Party leader Andries Treurnicht, who has in the past sided with the hard-line, pro-apartheid faction, last week all but capitulated to the dissidents' demands. The `new right'
The reformist group, known in political circles as the "new right," wants to ditch apartheid and join open-ended negotiations in which special protection for Afrikaners would be sought within a federal arrangement - possibly involving an Afrikaner homeland far smaller than envisaged by party leaders in the past.
Party insiders say that the five dissident legislators have the solid support of at least 10 other Conservative Party legislators. They could win over all but four or five of the party's 39 lawmakers.
Dr. Treurnicht's change of course followed major defections by members of the party's youth wing in sympathy with the dissidents and the expulsion of two legislators who advocated that the party join open-ended political negotiations.
The turmoil within the Conservative Party - and the broader right wing - has opened new opportunities for interracial negotiations, which are expected to resume next month after a two-month impasse.
"There is no doubt that it will be to the advantage of President Frederik de Klerk - and the negotiating process as a whole - if there is a strong organization to his right at the table," says Wim Booyse, an expert on the right wing and director of the political consultancy Risk Afrique.
Western diplomats say that behind-the-scenes negotiations between the government and the African National Congress (ANC) involved a new negotiating forum to replace the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, which deadlocked in mid-May.
The new forum could include a reformed Conservative Party as well as the radical Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), which was expected to hold talks with government officials in Pretoria today.
Disarray on the far right has been fueled by a recent libel action in the British High Court in which a former South African journalist, Jani Allan, unsuccessfully sued Britain's Channel Four television for alleging in a televized program that she had had an adulterous affair with the fiery leader of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, Eugene Terre'Blanche.
The court finding has left Mr. Terre'Blanche fighting for his political life and a figure of ridicule among many right-wing Afrikaners. Hard-line conservatives had regarded the Resistance Movement as a close ally in the struggle to thwart motion toward majority rule. Threat defused
The threat of the white right wing to halt the negotiating process was largely defused in the March referendum when more than two-thirds of whites voted to back President De Klerk's initiatives for a phased transition to majority rule.
"The demise of the right clearly gives De Klerk more flexibility at the negotiating table and makes closer cooperation with the ANC more feasible," a Western diplomat says.
"He could also use right-wing pressure for a confederal or federal structure to advance the government's quest for stronger regional government."
The dissidents, who initially appeared set to break with the party, now appear to have engineered an internal coup d'etat.
"The dissidents are well on the way to winning a victory inside the party," Mr. Booyse says. "It is clear that they won't accept anything less than what they are demanding."
Party insiders now say that it is more likely that a hard-line faction of four or five legislators will quit the party.
"Rapid changes in South Africa have placed the Conservative Party irrevocably on the Damascus road," said an editorial in the Afrikaans-language daily Beeld (Mirror).
The expected reversal of Conservative Party policy is the outcome of bitter behind-the-scenes wrangling between dissidents, led by the recently elected legislator for Potchefstroom, Andries Beyers, and the hard-line leadership led by deputy leader Ferdie Hatrzenberg.
"Treurnicht finally capitulated to avert a split in the party which would have been disastrous for the ailing fortunes of the broad right wing," Booyse says. Pressure on leadership
Booyse says the showdown within the Conservative Party was likely to lead to Treurnicht's resignation; the Conservative leader has led the party since it broke with the ruling National Party in 1982.
"Underlying the policy challenge, there is clearly a leadership struggle between [legislator] Beyers and Treurnicht," Booyse says.
One Conservative legislator said it was possible that Treurnicht could decide to bow out to preserve party unity and isolate the hard-liners on the far right.
But former Conservative legislator Koos van der Merwe, who was expelled from the party in May for advocating the reformist line, says it was a matter of time before there was a break within the party.
"The differences within the party are irreconicable," Mr. Van der Merwe says.
"Dr. Treurnicht is caught between two worlds. His time has come. He should quit."