IN a move that could hasten agreement on an interim government in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) has accepted a compromise proposal from within its own ranks to share power with the ruling National Party for a period of roughly five years before pushing for black majority rule.
The conciliatory plan offers a beleagured President Frederik de Klerk an early political settlement that would enable him to finesse the impact of damaging disclosures of government corruption and covert political activities by the military.
The proposal, which had sparked a heated and divisive public debate between ANC pragmatists and militants, was formally adopted Wednesday night by the ANC's 26-person inner Cabinet, the National Working Committee.
"I think the ANC has finally been convinced by the argument that the longer the transition takes, the worse it will be for them," says Tom Lodge, professor of politics at the liberal Universtiy of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. "They're interested in winning elections - sooner rather than later."
The surprise ANC move came hours before Mr. De Klerk took tentative steps Wednesday to flush out a "third force" within the South African Defense Force following disclosures Monday by a judge that the SADF's Division of Military Intelligence (DMI) had been conducting covert operations to discredit the ANC two years after it was legalized.
De Klerk announced early Wednesday that he had instructed SADF chief of staff Pierre Steyn and a senior police general to seize all the documentation of the Directorate of Covert Collection, a subdivision of DMI that is responsible for gathering information about perceived security threats.
They were instructed to determine whether any projects were in contravention of the law or government policy - which forbids the security forces to be used for political purposes - with a view to restructuring the intelligence services, De Klerk said.
De Klerk said he would meet Judge Richard Goldstone - who heads the independent commission on political violence that made the covert-operation disclosures - to discuss the judge's proposal that he be given further authority and resources to fully probe the security forces.
ANC President Nelson Mandela told reporters that he welcomed De Klerk's decision to appoint a general to investigate the restructuring of the SADF's intelligence activities.
But an ANC statement issued about the same time condemned De Klerk's move and said the probe would "come to naught."
"The police and the Army have lost all credibility and cannot investigate themselves," the ANC statement said, demanding an impartial investigation headed by Judge Goldstone.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly Monday, ANC International Affairs director Thabo Mbeki said there were signs that the De Klerk government would soon give Goldstone its full backing. He asked the UN to help bring an end to "criminal activities" by the security forces.
The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the Pan-Africanist Congress have rejected Goldstone's request for wider powers to investigate the security forces and the military wings of all political organizations including the KwaZulu police, which is widely seen as a private army of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's IFP.
Political and diplomatic pressure on De Klerk to agree to the probe intensified Wednesday when South Africa's ambassador to Washington, Harry Schwarz, publicly chided the SADF.
"I am furious and outraged, and I know I speak for the whole embassy when I say how frustrated we feel about this sort of thing," he said. "It has cut the ground from under our feet."
Western diplomats say De Klerk would have to go much further to retain credibility abroad.
"He will either have to give Goldstone the powers he is seeking or military heads will have to be seen to roll," a diplomat says.
The ANC's power sharing proposal, first proposed by South African Communist Party chief Joe Slovo, accepts the need for a general amnesty for the security forces, job security, and retrenchement packages for present civil servants. It envisages "bilateral deals" between the ANC and the National Party on the powers, functions, and boundaries of regional governments in a new constitution.
The proposal envisages a five-phase transition to majority rule.
The first stage would involve power sharing at an administrative level in a Transitional Executive Authority that would draft an interim constitution. This would pave the way for the second stage: elections for an interim government that would also serve as a constitution-making body.
The third stage would involve the drafting and adopting of a new constitution, restructuring of state machinery, and the final dismantling of apartheid. The next phase would be the post-apartheid consolidation of the process of democratic reconstruction.
The ANC document envisages the possibility of a final stage of five years of power sharing once the new constitution is adopted, providing that the losing party did not have the power to paralyze the process of government.
While the ANC envisages the first four phases taking no longer than two years, political scientists warn that the adoption of a new constitution could take three years or more. This would mean a power-sharing phase of between seven and 10 years.
"I think things should speed up now on the negotiations front," Professor Lodge says. "Certainly, one could not have expected more from the ANC. They have given De Klerk a lot more space within which to maneuver with his conservatives.
"The government, on the other hand, is running out of steam and doesn't seem to be able to get anything right at the moment," Lodge says.