SOUTH AFRICA faces a critical three weeks in which moderate leaders of the ruling National Party and the African National Congress are making an all-out bid to resolve differences and pave the way for an interim government by February.
There are growing fears in political and diplomatic circles that unless the two major parties can reach an accord before a special parliamentary session Oct. 12, hard-liners in both camps could be drawn into an escalating spiral of conflict and bloodshed.
The massacre of at least 28 African National Congress (ANC) supporters by security forces in the nominally independent tribal homeland of Ciskei Sept. 7 appears to have shocked both parties into new efforts to revive political negotiations that had deadlocked in mid-May.
ANC leaders tried during the weekend to prevent a second march by ANC militants in the Zulu-dominated homeland of KwaZulu, and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi warned of bloodshed worse than the Ciskei massacre if the march took place.
"The aftershock of the Ciskei massacre has opened a window of opportunity to return to the negotiating table," a Western diplomat says.
"Everything now hinges on whether sufficient consensus can be reached on the violence issue to allow the proposed summit between President Frederik de Klerk and ANC President Nelson Mandela to take place before the end of the month."
After a week of behind-the-scenes talks between chief ANC negotiator Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC secretary-general, and his National Party counterpart, Constitutional Development Minister Roelf Meyer, the two are close to an accord that would pave the way for a De Klerk-Mandela summit before the end of the month.
Mr. Ramaphosa has twice postponed a trip to Europe, hoping that agreement can be reached to allow a summit before Mr. Mandela leaves for a two-week visit abroad on Sept. 30.
It would be the first meeting between Mr. De Klerk and Mandela since political talks foundered in mid-May. The personal relationship between the two men has not been restored since a public row at the first session of the interracial negotiating forum, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, in December last year.
In an interview in the Star of Johannesburg newspaper last week, Mandela said he would agree to the summit if De Klerk addresses three central ANC demands on violence: the release of remaining political prisoners, the outlawing of traditional weapons, and the fencing off of men-only township hostels that serve as an urban power-base for the Zulu-dominated IFP.
Mandela's offer represented a significant compromise on the ANC's original 14 demands, still favored by some ANC militants.
At a meeting on Friday, ANC and government negotiators reached consensus on hostels and traditional weapons, but failed to arrive at an accord when the government again tried to link release of political prisoners to a general amnesty for those guilty of politically motivated crimes in the past.
The ANC insists the issue of a political amnesty should be negotiated once an interim government is in place.
A Western diplomat, who has closely followed the talks, says he is hopeful that the impasse over amnesty can be resolved by an ANC agreement-in-principle on a general amnesty, while the government could agree to defer to an interim government to work out the details.
"The stakes are too high for the proposed summit to founder on the amnesty issue," the diplomat says.
Such a pact would be swiftly followed by renewed bilateral negotiations between the two parties aimed at reaching consensus on enabling legislation for an interim government to be adopted at a special session of Parliament in Cape Town Oct. 12. The legislation could be activated at a later time once all parties had agreed on the form of powersharing in an interim government.
The draft legislation would enable De Klerk to appoint blacks and non-legislators to the Cabinet, establish multiracial committees to oversee the transition to democracy, and provide for nominally independent tribal homelands to be reincorporated into South Africa.
The latter step would remove unpopular homeland leaders - like Ciskei's Brigadier Joshua "Oupa" Gqozo - from office unless homeland residents opted in a referendum to retain their nominal independence.
Government officials have indicated their reluctance to pass even the enabling legislation without the prior approval of the ANC.
"We have legislation prepared," De Klerk told a media conference in Pretoria Thursday. "We have yet to decide whether we are going to go ahead with it or not."
Mandela denied that there was a conflict between radicals and moderates but said he worried that such a conflict could develop unless negotiations were resumed soon.
He said that, in the past, black youth had clearly identified the government as the enemy, but that this was not longer the case.
"Their enemy now is you and me, people who drive a care and have a house.... It is a very grave situation," Mandela said. He also expressed concern that the economy would be destroyed unless the deadlock was broken soon.
ANC militants have been on the ascendancy since talks deadlocked in mid-May. The Ciskei protest march was engineered by ANC leaders identified as radicals.
Mandela defended the ANC decision to march to Bisho, the capital of Ciskei, but conceded that the judgment of ANC militant Ronnie Kasrils - to defy a magistrate's order to march beyond the Bisho stadium - "might not have been a correct one."