THE decision by the African National Congress (ANC) to endorse five years of coalition rule after South Africa's first nonracial democratic elections next year is a watershed in the quest for a negotiated political settlement.
"The ANC decision is of historic importance," said former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, who handed power to a new government in his country in November 1991 after being defeated at the polls.
"If we fail to grasp the opportunity we will have 20 Somalias in southern Africa," he told an ANC fund-raising conference Friday.
The landmark decision is in line with ANC President Nelson Mandela's commitment - made from prison nearly four years ago - to find a negotiated compromise between blacks' demand for majority rule and whites' demand for minority protection.
The compromise - which could see Mr. Mandela installed as the country's first black president by March next year - is a recognition by the ANC that it failed to topple the white regime by force and the realization by the government that it can no longer rule alone.
"We took the decision - not because the ANC would be afraid of governing the country or because it feared emerging as a minority party in the election - but because what inspires the ANC is creating a society in which we can all be one," says Thabo Mbeki, the ANC's foreign secretary.
"No party or political organization, on its own, can carry through the political transformation of this country - but together we can do it," he said.
The decision - described by diplomats as "power sharing" - was passed unanimously by the ANC's 80-member executive committee Feb. 18 after three days of intense and often heated debate that saw militants speak out strongly against the image of the deal as a gesture to placate whites.
The ANC has rejected the labeling of the deal as power sharing, insisting that a government of national unity and power sharing are not synonymous.
The ANC executive committee's decision reinforced an understanding, reached between government and ANC negotiators Feb. 12, that all parties achieving more than 5 or 10 percent of the vote in an election will be represented in a government of national unity once a new constitution is agreed upon.
The ANC has recommended 5 percent as the threshold for inclusion in the Cabinet, which means that the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the radical Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), the liberal Democratic Party, and a possible alliance of white right-wing parties are all possible contenders.
Polls indicate that the ANC will win 45 to 60 percent of the popular vote and the National Party will win 15 to 25 percent; the IFP will emerge as the third largest party with 5 to 10 percent of the vote. The smaller parties could win up to 20 percent of the vote.
"Given the bitter legacy of apartheid it is remarkable that the organization certain to emerge as the largest political party after the ballot is prepared to settle for something less than majority rule," a Western diplomat says.
The deal will be put to a multiparty conference - scheduled for March - including white right-wing parties and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's IFP, which wants a new constitution - based on devolution of governmental powers to regions - to be negotiated between parties before an election is held.
The deal is also opposed by the PAC and Azanian Peoples Organization, which are demanding full majority rule. The South African Communist Party and elements in the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which have been traditional allies of the ANC, could form a workers' party or alliance after the election to oppose the government of national unity.
One ANC official who took part in the meeting says that resistance to the deal dominated the first day of discussion.
But on the second day the negotiating team advanced their case for the compromise and said that they would be prepared to listen to any alternative that could win a vote by members of the national executive.
"Gradually, those opposed to the deal were persuaded that there was no alternative, and the eventual decision was unanimous," the official said.
The ANC has proposed that certain decisions in the Cabinet should be taken on the basis of consensus or - failing that - a two-thirds majority that is unlikely to amount to majority rule.
"It is difficult to find a compromise between power sharing based on consensus and majority rule," says an ANC official close to the talks. But that is the spirit among ANC negotiators and would probably avoid a white veto.
According to a timetable that has been provisionally agreed upon by the government and the ANC, a multiparty conference will agree on a transitional package by April or May.
A multiracial, advisory Transitional Executive Council will be in place by June and an amended transitional constitution will be in place by September.
The first one-person, one-vote elections - for an interim parliament and a legislative body to draft a new constitution - will be held by March or April next year under a transitional constitution.
A permanent constitution should be adopted by January or February 1995 and a government of national unity installed - without another election.
When the term of the government of unity expired in the year 2000, a second election would be held under the new constitution.