NEGOTIATIONS on a transition to democratic rule in South Africa are facing a major test in the wake of police charges of arms smuggling by members of the African National Congress (ANC).
The allegations of arms smuggling in strife-torn Natal Province by the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), were expected to dominate key talks that began yesterday between senior delegations of the ANC and the National Party government. They also dominated talks Tuesday between the government and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) officials.
The ANC and the government are involved in sensitive talks over joint control of the security forces and integrating the ANC military wing into a new national army. IFP leaders want an agreement on disbanding Umkhonto before they take part in a multiparty conference scheduled for the end of February to prepare for multiparty talks in March.
There have been tensions in the past between the ANC leadership in Johannesburg and its militant branches in Natal, and some ANC officials fear a damaging breakaway by elements in Natal Province.
The ANC and Inkatha are involved in a low-grade civil war in Natal that has claimed more than 10,000 lives. The regional conflict between opposing Zulu factions in Natal is a major obstacle in the quest for a negotiated national settlement.
If the smuggling allegations are proved correct, they will represent a breach of an agreement entered into with the government in September and December 1991, whereby the ANC agreed to suspend its armed struggle and halt infiltration into the country of cadres and weapons.
Before the row erupted, diplomats had expected yesterday's talks to focus on regional government and power sharing. ANC negotiators had expressed the hope that the meeting would finalize outstanding differences between the parties on these issues.
But government officials have now demanded a full explanation from the ANC on the alleged arms smuggling by its members in Natal.
Western diplomats, fearing another breakdown in the negotiating process, have urged both sides to resolve the impasse at the negotiating table and not to allow the crisis to further stall progress toward an interim government.
"It's a serious issue because it goes to undertakings that have been reached well in advance of the negotiations that are now going on," United States Ambassador to South Africa Princeton Lyman said in a Monitor interview yesterday. "They [the allegations] do indeed threaten the negotiations.
"It's precisely for that reason that it is important that this issue be dealt with in the negotiation process and not be used as a basis for breaking off the talks," the ambassador said.
But some diplomats questioned the timing of the discovery and said it raised doubts about the government's sincerity in keeping negotiations on track.
"The government has known for some time that the ANC has lost control of elements of its military wing," another Western diplomat said.
"While clearly this is a matter that has to be resolved, it can't have come as all that much of a surprise to them."
Foreign Minister Roelof "Pik" Botha briefed foreign diplomats Feb. 3 on the arrest of two ANC members following the discovery two days earlier of a vehicle containing rocket launchers, automatic weapons, and hand grenades near the Swaziland border with South Africa. A regional Umkhonto commander was subsequently arrested in Natal Province.
Mr. Botha said initial questioning of the three men revealed that the arms were to be deployed in the war against the IFP in Natal.
At a crisis meeting between government and ANC officials Feb. 4, ANC officials insisted that neither the leadership of the ANC or that of the military wing had had any knowledge of the plan. The government appears to have accepted the ANC assurances.
On Feb. 5, Justice Richard Goldstone - who heads a standing commission of inquiry into political violence - announced a probe into the police allegations to begin on Feb. 15.
ANC officials pledged full cooperation with the probe and carried out an internal inquiry into the claims. Mathew Phosa, a senior ANC negotiator who headed the internal investigation, interviewed the three arrested men in the Transvaal town of Middelburg last week and confirmed they were ANC members.
Mr. Phosa insisted, however, that the ANC's national executive and its regional executive in southern Natal, one of three Natal regions, were not involved in the arms smuggling.
On Tuesday six more men were arrested by police in connection with the arms smuggling incident. ANC southern Natal regional chairman Jeff Radebe confirmed that at least two of the six were ANC members.
Following the additional arrests, Judge Goldstone on Tuesday postponed his inquiry into the arms smuggling discovery at the request of the Transvaal attorney general. It would have been the first investigation by Goldstone into subversive activities within the ANC.