GOVERNMENT and black political leaders resume talks here today in a last-ditch bid to agree on a swift transition to majority rule before black left-wing militants and white right-wing extremists sabotage a political compromise.
The renewed negotiations follow two weeks of political drama, arrests, and deaths of leading political figures in South Africa that have fundamentally altered the balance of forces, eroded the political authority of both President Frederik de Klerk and African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela, and played into the hands of radicals seeking to polarize an already volatile situation.
"I think the most urgent priority now is a joint and acceptable police force, which can act decisively and legitimately to contain lawless elements on both the left and right extremes," a Western diplomat says.
"The threat - as both Mr. Mandela and Mr. De Klerk well know - is that South Africa stands at the edge of the abyss, which is anarchy," writes Ken Owen, the editor of the mass circulation Sunday Times of Johannesburg and a columnist who has a reputation for being sensitive to the the country's fluctuating political pulse.
"They know, too, that if they are to survive, they must now strike a deal," Mr. Owen wrote in his weekly column yesterday.
According to the present timetable, agreement must be reached by the end of May and a multiracial Transitional Executive Council must be installed in June.
The first democratic ballot would be held by March or April 1994.
Top officials of the ANC and ruling National Party concede that if they do not reach agreement by the end of May, the whole negotiating process could be discredited and the ability of the present government to maintain law and order could collapse.
"If we do not deliver in that time, the whole negotiations process will become discredited," ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa told the Sunday Times.
De Klerk - who has been widely criticized for his half-hearted response to the assassination of popular South African Communist Party and ANC leader Chris Hani on April 10 and the events that followed it - warned in Parliament last week that the next six weeks would be the most decisive period in the country's history.
"We dare not allow a handful of violent people ... to turn this country into a Yugoslavia," he said.
The vast gulf between black and white was highlighted in Parliament last week.
De Klerk refused to support a motion to suspend proceedings for three hours on the day of Hani's funeral as a mark of respect.
But on April 23, Parliament adjourned for 25 minutes, flew the national flag at half-mast, and heard a series of tributes after the death of right-wing Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht, who was the leader of the official opposition in the white-dominated Parliament.
The new political crisis has been precipitated by a rapid sequence of events that has threatened the emerging political center as represented by moderates in the ANC, the main group representing black South Africans, and the ruling National Party, the main group representing whites:
* The assassination of Hani unleashed a wave of anger from militant black youths who, although alienated from the ANC mainstream, followed Hani's instructions.
* The arrests of a senior official of the right-wing Conservative Party, Clive Derby-Lewis, and his wife, Gabrielle, have sent shock waves through right-wing politics and revealed the extent to which right-wingers are working in secret cells to thwart the advent of majority rule.
* The sudden death of Treurnicht, who had provided a moral and political umbrella for the divided forces on the right, removed a moderating influence on right-wing militants.
* The death April 24 of ANC National Chairman Oliver Tambo, a close confidante of Mandela's and the man who initiated the current negotiating process, is another blow to the ANC. Tambo, who is credited with having kept the movement together through three difficult decades of exile, is regarded by the militant youth as the greatest leader of the ANC.
* Recent speeches by Winnie Mandela, the estranged wife of the ANC president, and ANC Youth League President Peter Mokaba have openly challenged the current leadership and called on the militant youth to take over the leadership of the ANC and oust the government by revolutionary means.
* The massacre of 21 black residents in the strife-torn township of Sebokeng April 18 had the hallmarks of a "third force"-type attack, in which white extremists use black surrogates to destabilize the townships in a bid to undermine the ANC and the talks.
* The mob killing of South African TV reporter Calvin Thosago in Sharpeville April 23 brings to 40 the number of journalists attacked or shot at since Hani's assassination.
One of the main obstacles to progress at the negotiating table is the deadlock between government and the ANC over joint control of the security forces until an election is held.
The events following Hani's death vividly illustrated that the government is no longer able to maintain even the most basic law and order at such events without the active cooperation of the ANC.