PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, president of the African National Congress (ANC), both expressed confidence this week that South Africa's first free and open elections will take place on April 27, 1994.
But their strong stance in the face of persistent violence and constant delays in the negotiating process have not convinced many here, who privately express doubt that the vote can be held as planned.
Western diplomats, UN observers, and political analysts point to evidence that a delay is likely until later in the year.
"The earliest I can see is September 1994," says one diplomat. Negotiators have not agreed on reform of such key areas as the security forces and the media, he points out, and both must be overhauled to ensure free and fair elections.
Crucial also is the need to reduce high levels of political violence, and to accommodate players such as Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), who has withdrawn from negotiations for a new constitution.
The country's multiparty negotiating forum has been using President de Klerk's timetable for the elections. But the schedule is months behind, largely due to the opposition of Chief Buthelezi, who has influenced negotiations to a far greater level than perhaps warranted by his popular support. Opinion polls in South Africa suggest the IFP might win less than 10 percent in a national election. Support is about 30 percent in the stronghold of Natal Province.
Despite this, other parties want Buthelezi to be party to a negotiated settlement, fearing the IFP could unleash extreme violence during the election if he is not satisfied with the new constitution. The Zulu chief is currently mounting a legal challenge to the negotiators' decision on the April election date, made without his support.
Remaining outside the talks, Buthelezi and the IFP have managed to strongly influence proceedings as other parties make concessions to woo them back. Multiparty negotiators now agree that the new South Africa should consist of a federal system in which the regions have their own separate constitutions and powers, one of the IFP demands. The government also has declared that the present black homeland of KwaZulu, ruled by Buthelezi, would be expanded to include the Indian Ocean province of Natal, with a p opulation of Indians and whites, as well as a majority of Zulus.
Yet Walter Felgate, the senior IFP negotiator, is not satisfied. He says his party will not return to talks as long as other groups insist that a constitutional assembly be elected to complete the drafting of a final constitution. A new parliament cannot be trusted to do this task, he says.
Buthelezi has offered an alternative timetable for what he called a "straight run to democracy." He has proposed that, if his demands are met, an election be held by September 1994.
Already, IFP's tactics appear to have put South Africa far enough behind schedule to delay the vote.
On Aug. 11, the ruling National Party began hinting publicly that elections might not be held in April because of the violence - in which IFP supporters are heavily involved - and the current state of negotiations.
Speaking at the party's Natal congress, De Klerk said the killings have put the vote at risk.
Warning that only 37 weeks remain to meet "the target date," he said: "We shall not hand you over to such a new South Africa.... The levels of violence will have to be drastically reduced before any election takes place." He spoke shortly after violence in black townships around Johannesburg had left more than 200 dead since the beginning of the month.
Roelf Meyer, the Constitutional Development minister, warned at the same meeting that the forum had to reach agreement on a draft constitution and a transitional executive council by the end of August in order to hold to the schedule.
The transitional council would have to tackle such difficult issues as control of the security forces, the media, and the establishment of an independent electoral commission. But it cannot come into existence without legislation being passed in the present parliament. Under the election timetable, legislation for a transitional executive council was scheduled to be passed by the end of June.
One diplomat says that while he suspects both the government and the ANC know that they are facing an uphill, if not impossible, battle to hold elections next April, there will be no public acknowledgements for some time.
To announce that the date has been delayed would strengthen IFP's position to gain more concessions. Such a move would also risk reducing the sense of urgency in the negotiations, which need to be kept at a brisk pace to ensure that the vote is held in 1994.
It is likely, the diplomat suggests, that leaders will leave it to the transitional executive council to announce any delay, thereby deflecting criticism away from their individual organizations.
Further doubts about the election date emerged following recent comments by Ismat Steiner, deputy head of the United Nations observer mission in South Africa. South Africa has only two months left to invite the UN to send observers to monitor elections should they proceed with the April date, he said.
The UN would have to be invited by the transitional executive council and the electoral commission, neither of which had yet been formed, and the world organization says it needs six months' notice to prepare itself.
The doubts emerging now about the election date support predictions made last February by former opposition leader, Frederik van zyl Slabbert, who suggested the vote could be delayed until as late as November 1994 because negotiators had underestimated the complexities of negotiations, and partisan interests.