AGAINST a backdrop of escalating political violence, multiparty negotiators have approved far-reaching changes to South Africa's first nonracial interim constitution in a bid to accommodate ethnic Afrikaner and Zulu demands for greater regional autonomy.
But it is still not clear which parties will contest the country's first all-race elections scheduled for April 27-29.
The Freedom Alliance, a negotiating coalition of white right-wing and conservative black leaders, acknowledged that the changes were positive. But it rejected the package on Feb. 22 on the grounds that too much power remained in the hands of the central government, and that the changes failed to guarantee that an Afrikaner homeland (Volkstaat) would be established after the elections.
The conservatives boycotted the Feb. 21 negotiating session, but there were indications that their leaders were under increasing pressure from their rank-and-file members to compromise.
As the negotiators signed off on the interim constitution, South African analysts warned drastic compromises were necessary to avert a national tragedy on the scale of Northern Ireland or perhaps Bosnia-Herzegovina.
``The unhappy truth is that a civil war, once started, is almost impossible to stop,'' says Sarah Pienaar, director-designate of the South African Institute of International Relations.
Ms. Pienaar, speaking as a scholar of Eastern European history, warns that attempts to set up separate ethnic states in South Africa would be risky because of the diverse and scattered nature of the population.
``It will almost certainly lead to ongoing - virtually endless -
civil war and conflict,'' she says.
Natal University sociologist Mary de Haas warned in a submission to a multiracial commission on Feb. 21 that Natal Province could be on the brink of a Northern Ireland scenario.
Ms. De Haas said there are large numbers of weapons pouring into the province. Zulus loyal to the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) are receiving paramilitary training, and KwaZulu police hit squads and right-wingers in the South African Police pose a serious threat.
``Everything points to Inkatha and its right-wing backers being on a war footing in this region - and hence their intractability in the negotiation process,'' she said.
THE massacre on Feb. 19 of 15 youths at Creighton - a small village south of Pietermaritzburg - has raised fears of a renewed cycle of revenge killings in the run-up to the April elections. The group of youths - supporters of the African National Congress - were gunned down on the eve of a voter education program to have been held later the same day.
ANC President Nelson Mandela, without naming Inkatha leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, said the killings were a direct result of calls from Natal leaders to resist the elections.
In what was billed as the last session of the multiracial negotiating body, negotiators on Feb. 21 approved a package of changes to the interim constitution and the Electoral Act. The amendments will:
* Allow a two-ballot voting system to enable separate national and regional voting.
* Include the principle of self-determination for ethnic minorities.
* Allow for the creation of an ``Afrikaner homeland council'' (Volkstaatsraad) to negotiate an Afrikaner homeland after the election.
* Change the name of Natal Province back to KwaZulu/Natal - a term that acknowledges the historical claim of the Zulus to a territory.
* Increase the powers of provinces to raise revenue and allow provinces to determine their own legislatures and executives.
* Amend the constitution to allow for exclusive powers - as yet unspecified - to be extended to provinces.
* Extend an already-expired deadline for the registration of parties contesting the April elections to midnight on March 4.
The upsurge in political violence the weekend of Feb. 19 focused mainly on strife-torn Natal Province, where 42 politically related deaths were recorded in the worst weekend of political violence this year.
Chief Buthelezi said on Feb. 18 that even if Inkatha's demands for greater regional autonomy were met, there was not enough time for his party to campaign before the April elections.