AN upbeat meeting between South Africa's two major black adversaries did not produce agreements necessary to avert a boycott of the country's first all-race elections on April 27, but could calm tensions between rival black factions.
In their fourth face-to-face encounter in as many years, African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi reached no agreements concerning the fundamental constitutional issues still dividing them. But Chief Buthelezi agreed to consider registering Inkatha for the elections in return for Mr. Mandela taking a proposal to the ANC for international mediation to settle remaining differences between the two parties.
``I think the two leaders have avoided the worst-case scenario -
a visible deterioration in relations between them, which would have sent shudders through the nation,'' says Robert Schrire, a Cape Town University political scientist of the meeting in Durban on Tuesday. ``But the first prize has not been attained - the participation of the IFP in the election. Clearly, neither leader wanted to be seen as the spoiler, but their summit might prove to have bought time for the spoilers to mobilize.''
If Inkatha decides to register for the poll it will be included on the ballot paper, which is due to be finalized next week.
Some diplomats believe Buthelezi could continue calling for a boycott as a kind of insurance policy. If, as expected, Inkatha makes a poor showing, he can blame it on the boycott. If they do better than expected, he can say: ``I told you so.''
Meanwhile, the country's white-dominated Parliament, sitting for the last time, passed a package of amendments to the Electoral Act and the interim constitution adopted last November to accommodate demands of the Freedom Alliance (FA), an increasingly tenuous coalition of white right and conservative black groups that includes Inkatha. The amendments to the interim constitution include a double ballot, greater powers for regions, and guarantees of self-determination for minorities.
The future of the FA would be in question if Inkatha broke ranks with the white right-wing and registered for the April poll. The Afrikaner Volksfront, a right-wing Afrikaner umbrella group also in the alliance, appears bent on a boycott despite government-ANC concessions on setting up an Afrikaner homeland after the election.
In a move that allows for even further flexibility on the deadline for political parties to register for the poll, the Transitional Executive Council, a multiracial commission charged with overseeing the country's transition to democracy, yesterday gave President Frederik de Klerk the power - in consultation with the Council - to change the Electoral Act without recalling Parliament. This means that Mr. De Klerk could further delay the Friday deadline or even change the April 26-28 election dates without recalling Parliament.
Western diplomats say the option of international mediation is fraught with problems. To have any effect, the parties would have to agree to a specific frame of reference and commit themselves to abide by the outcome of such mediation. De Klerk warned yesterday that there was limited time left for such a measure.
At a news conference after Tuesday's summit, Mandela said ``a foundation for further progress and a possible breakthrough'' had been achieved. Mandela and Buthelezi agreed that the parties should be free to participate in or stay out of the April poll. They both vowed to maintain the dialogue and meet again soon.
``In discussions of this nature, there can be no deadline,'' Mandela said. ``We'll continue searching for solutions even after April 27 if we don't reach a solution now.''