ON the eve of a deadline for setting a date for the country's first democratic election, negotiations for a transition to democratic rule in South Africa are threatened by another crisis.
Militant youths, as well as township supporters of the African National Congress (ANC), had vowed to render the country ungovernable if negotiators failed to set a voting date by June 3. But the parties said June 2 that the decisionmaking negotiating forum would not meet until June 25 - effectively blowing the deadline.
Nonetheless, Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi's insistence that regional boundaries, powers, and functions should be entrenched before an election remains the difficult obstacle in the talks.
"I don't think the major parties have yet settled the central issue of how political power is to be divided," says Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, a political analyst close to the talks. "In its present form the negotiating process has the potential for infinite delays."
Negotiators at the 26-party multiracial forum are racing against time to reach consensus on a transitional council and a set of constitutional principles that will steer an elected constititution-making body after the country's first democratic ballot, which negotiators have agreed should take place before the end of April next year.
But since multilateral talks resumed April 1, the process has been delayed by an eruption of anger following the assassination of black leader Chris Hani on April 10 and the surprise crackdown last month on the militant Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC).
It now appears unlikely that the forum will reach consensus on an election date by June 3.
Political scientists and diplomats who have recently held talks with President Frederik de Klerk are hopeful that the election date will be resolved within the next week or two and agreement on a transitional package will be agreed by the end of the month.
Mr. De Klerk and ANC President Nelson Mandela hold no major differences on the date, according to analysts, and planned to meet June 2.
Hopes for a long-awaited meeting between ANC President Nelson Mandela and Chief Buthelezi were raised May 30 at a surprise meeting between Buthelezi and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.
Mr. Mugabe, who has in the past been one of Buthelezi's most vociferous critics, has agreed to act as a mediator between Mandela and Buthelezi in a bid to help quell escalating political violence in the country, which threatens to render a negotiated settlement unworkable in the strife-torn townships and rural areas of Natal Province.
Black townships around Johannesburg, which erupted in a new wave of violence last week, remain caldrons of tension in which the angry and violent rhetoric of the PAC is striking more of a chord with black youth than the more moderate ANC position.
The predominantly white business community is increasing concerned about the worst economic recession in half a century. The ANC's militant supporters appear to be peeling away from the moderate leadership. And De Klerk is losing ground to the right within the ruling National Party.
"De Klerk seems optimistic about the negotiating process," said a Western diplomat close to the talks. "But he is looking more over his right shoulder at the white right-wing threat than he is looking over his left shoulder at the awesome pressures the ANC is facing from its left flank."
"De Klerk's party is in shreds," says political scientist Mervyn Frost of Natal University. "All he has left now is the state apparatus - the civil service and the security forces. If the state machinery defects to the right he will be facing a major rebellion so he has to tread very carefully."
White confidence has been further shaken by recent news that controllers at Johannesburg's main Jan Smuts airport have closed the main approach route for passenger aircraft after police discovered tracer bullets being fired at planes passing over Tembisa township before coming in to land.
Although it has apparently missed the June 3 deadline, the negotiating forum has made substantial progress toward consensus since multiparty negotiations were restructured and technical committees established April 1.
There is broad agreement on a federal government in which the powers of the regions will be entrenched in the new constitution, a set of constitutional principles that will bind an elected constitution-making body, and a multiracial transitional council that will act as the de facto government in the run-up to the first elections.
The Transitional Executive Council (TEC) is due to be set up by the end of this month according to the current time-table for the transition. But the parties have yet to reach agreement on how the executive council will function and precisely what power it and its sub-councils will have.