THE ruling National Party and the African National Congress (ANC) began three days of intense bilateral talks yesterday in a bid to forge agreement on a transition to democratic rule against the backdrop of rising political tensions and escalating violence.
On the eve of the government-ANC summit, which has as one of its objectives the resumption of multiparty talks, Inkatha Freedom Party leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi surprised other parties by unveiling a constitution seeking to establish Natal Province and the homeland of KwaZulu as a semiautonomous federal state.
"Insofar as this introduces a whole new element into the constitutional debate, it is likely to slow the process," a Western diplomat says.
The ANC described Chief Buthelezi's plan for an autonomous state as a "bolt from the blue" but said it would withhold further comment until studying the proposals.
There is a growing consensus among the major parties in South Africa in favor of a decentralized government in which regions would enjoy substantive powers. But the ANC, while conceding the need for strong regional government, is resisting the ruling National Party's preference for a system in which the powers of federal states would be enshrined in the new constitution.
The government wants the parties to agree on the boundaries and powers of the regions before elections for a constitution-making body, while the ANC wants the elected body to determine such powers.
Western diplomats and political scientists warn that time is running out for political negotiations. They point to an unprecedented terrorist attack in the eastern Cape last weekend, in which four whites were killed and 17 injured. They warn that such violence could lead to severe polarization of the country and a descent into near anarchy, where negotiation would have little meaning.
Law and Order Minister Hernus Kriel said Tuesday that further talks with the radical Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) were in jeopardy unless its leaders clarified their position on acts committed by its military wing, the Azanian Peoples Liberation Army, which reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack.
The government and the PAC are due to hold talks Dec. 8 as part of an intense round of bilateral talks with key political players aimed at reconvening all-party talks to endorse a blueprint for a transition to democracy.
The following day, President Frederik de Klerk will hold talks with white right-wing leaders, Buthelezi, and two homeland leaders who have allied themselves with him, Ciskei's Joshua "Oupa" Gqozo and Bophuthatswana's Lucas Mangope. The informal grouping shares Buthelezi's preference for maximum federal autonomy for member states.
In terms of a proposed timetable for a transition to an elected government of national unity, Mr. De Klerk announced last week that an all-party conference should be convened by March next year, agreement be reached on transitional mechanisms by June, and elections for a government of national unity be held by April 1994.
The ANC and human rights groups insist that elections should be held before the end of 1993.
"If the parties do not reach an agreement on an interim government in the next few months, there might not be another chance," a Western diplomat says. "Political violence could soon reach levels where negotiations and peace accords will be meaningless."
De Klerk's position has been severely weakened in recent weeks by a series of disclosures of government corruption and covert political action by the security forces and signs of growing division in his Cabinet over the apparent side- lining of Buthelezi in the negotiating process.
The Cabinet met Monday and Tuesday for the last time this year ahead of talks with the ANC.
Buthelezi's draft constitution for KwaZulu- Natal, which was adopted by Kwazulu's legislative assembly on Tuesday, is based on multiparty democracy and free enterprise. Its controversial provisions relate to the degree of federal autonomy Natal would enjoy.
"Buthelezi has smelled a deal between the ANC and the government so he's staking his claim to maximum autonomy," says Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, a former white opposition leader who heads a multiracial negotiating forum on local government. "He can't achieve what he wants, but he is making a strong pitch for it to increase his leverage at the negotiating table."
Buthelezi's initiative, which was condemned by the liberal Democratic Party and human rights groups but welcomed by white right-wing parties, stopped short of a secessionist move. The Inkatha leader said the plan was a challenge to other parties to get serious about political negotiations but added that it would have to be approved by a multiracial authority in Natal and the government and be subjected to a referendum before it could be implemented.
A government statement said that the issues raised by Buthelezi should form an integral part of all-party negotiations, but it warned that any impression of unilateral action could disrupt efforts to resume all-party talks.
Mervyn Frost, professor of politics at the University of Natal at Durban, says that the impact of Buthelezi's initiative would depend on how the government and the ANC responded to it.
"It is a shrewd political move," Professor Frost says. "If there is any hint of a centralized move to put him down, it could win him support in Natal. If they acknowledge that the points he has raised are worthy of discussion at the negotiating table it could even assist the process."
Frost notes that the Buthelezi initiative represented his first positive input in the negotiations.
Robert Schrire, a political scientist from the University of Cape Town, says Buthelezi's move amounts to "an act of growing desperation."
"One can't federalize unilaterally. A regional model can't be viable at the national level."