HOPES of drawing the right-wing white and conservative black leaders into an inclusive political settlement were dashed Dec. 21 when leaders of the African National Congress and the right-wing Afrikaner Volksfront canceled the signing of a historic accord hours before the signing ceremony.
The agreement - the product of four months of painstaking negotiations between the ANC and the AVF - would have brought the white right into the transitional process in return for a commitment by the ANC to jointly work out the details of an Afrikaner homeland by the end of January.
The five-page accord, which was published Dec. 21 despite the last-minute setback, had the full backing of ANC President Nelson Mandela, who initiated talks with the AVF by meeting its leader, Gen. Constand Viljoen, in August.
At a media conference Dec. 21, at which the signing was to have taken place, General Viljoen read a letter from Mr. Mandela in which the ANC leader said the agreement had been approved by ANC officials and had his personal support.
But the signing was called off hours after a bid by negotiators of the ANC, the government, and a grouping of white right and conservative black leaders, known as the Freedom Alliance (FA), deadlocked in Cape Town two days before the country's first nonracial constitution was due to be passed by Parliament.
The ANC and government have refused to accept a set of amendments proposed by the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) - aimed at creating greater regional autonomy - unless the FA parties commit themselves to participating in a multiracial commission overseeing the transition to democracy in the first nonracial ballot in April.
Viljoen told a news conference on Dec. 21 that he decided against signing the agreement when he learned that a set of amendments to the constitution proposed by the AVF had been rejected.
``Up to now we have exercised a sense of responsibility in regard to our supporters, and we will continue to do so,'' Viljoen said.
``But I am worried because there is a sense of impatience building which might explode unexpectedly,'' he warned. ``Tension in our ranks is approaching breaking-point.''
Viljoen said he was also concerned about a possible split in the FA if the signing went ahead, and that ``the people in Cape Town'' - a reference to government and ANC negotiators - did not take the ANC-AVF initiative seriously.
``I don't want to create the impression that the AVF is becoming disloyal to the FA,'' Viljoen said. ``I don't think we should do anything to split the Alliance.''
Warning of the danger of civil war if a solution was not found to the present impasse, Viljoen insisted that the ANC-AVF talks would go ahead.
``We Afrikaner people are determined to get our Volkstaat [homeland] because we believe that this is the only way to achieve peace,'' he said.
The ANC-AVF talks have already caused tensions within the FA between the IFP and right-wing Afrikaners.
Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who appears determined to delay a decision on whether to take part in the election until next year, fears that an ANC-AVF accord would undermine the IFP.
Chief Buthelezi enjoys the support of leaders of the right-wing Conservative Party - an AVF member - and conservative elements of President Frederik de Klerk's ruling National Party.
Western diplomats who traveled by air from Cape Town to attend the signing ceremony were stunned by the last-minute hitch, and said it appeared that there were serious divisions within the FA, the government, the ANC, and the IFP.
``Clearly, there are two schools of thought within the ANC about whether to proceed to the new South Africa with major parties still outside the process,'' one diplomat says.
Chief government negotiator Roelf Meyer and chief ANC negotiator Cyril Ramaphosa believe that they have gone as far as they can in appeasing the right-wing parties.
But ANC Chairman Thabo Mbeki and his colleague Jacob Zuma, who have led the talks with the AVF, believe it would be disastrous to enter the new South Africa with the right-wing parties bent on disrupting the election.
``The ANC would not like to take over a country under fire,'' Mr. Zuma said.
Zuma said that he agreed with Viljoen that signing the agreement under the present fluid and unpredictable circumstances would not be the wisest course. ``Not signing does not cancel the agreement,'' Zuma says.
He added: ``The content is still agreed'' that a task force to report back with proposals for an Afrikaner homeland by Jan. 20 would go ahead.