SOUTH AFRICA'S three major political leaders and the Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini, are scheduled to meet at a secret location today in a make-or-break bid to hold April elections in strife-torn Natal Province.
Unless the four leaders can find a formula for resolving their political differences through negotiation, Natal faces escalating political conflict and the stepping up of emergency rule, which was imposed on March 31.
More than 100 people have been killed in political conflict between pro- and anti-election Zulu factions since the emergency was declared - the highest weekly death toll in a 10-year conflict that has claimed more than 12,000 lives.
The worsening conflict in Natal is jeopardizing a free and fair certification of the country's first all-race elections scheduled for April 26-28. King Goodwill's demand for a sovereign Zulu state has precipitated a political crisis ahead of the poll.
The immediate purpose of today's summit is for African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela and President Frederik de Klerk to extract from King Goodwill and Inkatha Freedom Party leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi an agreement to cooperate with the setting up of the April poll, despite Mr. Buthelezi's decision for Inkatha to boycott the elections.
Mr. Mandela, who will be meeting King Goodwill for the first time, is expected to make a conciliatory gesture to the Zulu monarch by offering a deal that will secure his position after the April poll and enshrine the Zulu monarch in the interim constitution.
Trust has been shaken
The atmosphere for the long-awaited summit has been soured by the clash on March 28 in Johannesburg between the ANC and Zulu demonstrators loyal to the king, which led to the killing of more than a dozen Inkatha supporters in a day of conflict that claimed 53 lives.
``It all hinges on a matter of trust,'' says a Western diplomat. ``That essential element of the equation appears to be missing, and I fear that the summit could become another counsel of despair.''
King Goodwill and Chief Buthelezi were demanding international mediation to consider their call for greater regional autonomy in KwaZulu/Natal and a delay in the April poll to implement the outcome of the mediation.
But Mandela ruled out any discussion about a delay in the poll when he told an election meeting in Durban Wednesday: ``Let me tell you, there will be no postponement of elections ... either in the province of Natal nor in any of the provinces. We will not postpone our freedom.... We will not postpone our plans to build a better life for all South Africans.''
The leaders will try to finalize the terms of reference for international mediation, which is due to begin next week if the leaders fail to reach a substantive agreement today.
Former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington have agreed to mediate once the terms of reference are agreed upon, but have urged the parties to make a last attempt at reaching agreement themselves.
The top level summit today follows a warning by the Independent Electoral Commission on Tuesday that a free and fair poll in the KwaZulu homeland, a fragmented territory spread across Natal, would be impossible ``in the current political climate.''
IEC chairman, Judge Johann Kriegler, denied on Wednesday media speculation that the IEC report amounted to a call for a delay in the Natal poll. Both government and ANC officials say a delay in the poll could lead to unpredictable and uncontrollable levels of violence and would establish the principle that KwaZulu/Natal requires a separate solution to the rest of the country.
``What has to be changed is not the date of the election but the political climate,'' Mr. Kriegler said. ``We can't let the spoilers spoil the election for those who don't want to spoil.''
Kriegler said that emergency rule had improved conditions for an election, but the ANC in Natal Province said the emergency has failed to meet its mandate.
``Judge Kriegler has clearly signaled that it is up to the politicians to solve the KwaZulu problem,'' the diplomat says.
The ranks of the South African Defense Force, which is being deployed in the province with the ANC's blessings, swelled over the past few days with the arrival of about 2,000 national servicemen.