THE militant Pan-Africanist Congress opened talks with the South African government March 2 that are likely to lead to the suspension and ultimate phasing out of the PAC's "armed struggle" to end white rule.
The talks in Gaborone, Botswana, are the first face-to-face encounter between representatives of the South African security forces and commanders of the semi-autonomous Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (APLA), the PAC's exiled military wing.
The PAC, which splintered from the African National Congress in 1959, has followed a more rigidly non-collaborationist stance than the ANC and has focused its political campaign on demanding the return of land to the black population.
The leader of the PAC delegation, PAC legal and constitutional affairs secretary Willie Seriti, insisted that the APLA commanders were merely a component of the PAC delegation. PAC officials say their participation in negotiations is only to discuss arrangements for a democratic election and a method of drafting a nonracial constitution.
The talks were delayed by a day when the APLA members failed to turn up in time for the talks March 1. It appeared that they had been delayed because they refused to travel from their headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe, via Johannesburg, where they feared arrest because they have not been granted immunity from prosecution.
Law and Order Minister Hernus Kriel, who headed the South African delegation, expressed anger at the APLA delay and said that they could not have been arressted if they had remained within the Johannesburg transit lounge.
But Mr. Kriel expressed guarded optimisim about the outcome of the talks after informal contacts with PAC members while they waited for the APLA delegation March 1.
"They are more likely to decide to phase out the armed struggle than to forego it completely," says Johannes Rantete, author of an authortative study on the PAC published by the independent Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg.
The African National Congress (ANC) suspended its 30-year armed struggle in September 1990, and it is now close to an agreement with government that would provide for multiparty control of the security forces during the transition to democracy. This would involve the integration of ANC military wing personnel in the new army and the disbanding of the ANC's military wing.
"The PAC political leaders are trying to clear the way to be part of the negotiation process because they realize it would be very difficult to maintain their influence if they were shut out," Mr. Rantete says. "But they know they have to compromise and the sacrificial lamb is APLA.
"It is surprising that they have persuaded APLA commanders to attend such talks," he says.
Rantete says it is possible that the government had offered the PAC leadership a political incentive along the lines that APLA guerrillas could be included in a new South African army if they suspended the armed struggle.
The two sides will also discuss matters relating to the transition to democracy and the role of the international community in the transition.
The PAC was the first of the anti-apartheid groups to insist on an international presence in South Africa and has welcomed UN and international monitors. But they want the international role upgraded.
The talks are also the first public contact between the Pretoria government and the PAC since the government called off bilateral talks with the PAC in November last year following a series of APLA attacks on civilian targets in the Eastern Cape in which white and black civilians were killed and maimed.
The significance of the resumed talks is highlighted by the proposed multiparty planning conference due to be held in Johannesburg on March 5 to prepare for full-blown multiparty negotiations later this month.
If the government and the PAC reach agreement on the phasing out of its armed struggle, it is likely that the PAC will attend the planning conference.
The presence of the PAC at the talks is considered important to the success of efforts to reduce violence levels and include as wide a spectrum of parties as possible in the framing of a transition to democracy and the drafting of a new constitution.
The PAC was close to discussing the suspension of its armed struggle when APLA, partly on its own initiative, embarked on an intensified campaign of urban terror in November last year. The wave of violence had subsided by the end of the year but opened deep divisions between the PAC's political and militarist factions, which are at odds over the desirability of negotiating with a regime it has been unable to defeat by military or other means.