SOUTH Africa's three major political parties have reached a historic accord that has raised hopes for a reduction in political violence ahead of the country's first all-race elections.
``This agreement is a leap forward for peace, reconciliation, nation-building, and an inclusive election process,'' said a clearly elated Nelson Mandela, president of the African National Congress (ANC), at a public signing ceremony in Pretoria on April 19.
``Nothing is more precious than saving lives of human beings,'' Mr. Mandela said.
The agreement means Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's rejectionist Inkatha Freedom Party will take part in both the national and regional polls scheduled for April 26-28.
``It's a total and complete capitulation by Buthelezi,'' says Cape Town University political scientist Robert Schrire. ``He has abandoned both his non-negotiables: a postponement in the election and the achievement of a federal state.
``He looked over the brink of the abyss, and he blinked. He recognized that he was faced with the overwhelming force of the state, and if he continued on his present course, he would be marginalized,'' he adds.
The white-dominated Parliament will assemble for the last time on April 25 to approve amendments to the interim constitution that will secure the future status of the Zulu monarch and change electoral laws to make Inkatha's participation in the poll possible.
Mediation to resolve the remaining constitutional differences between Inkatha on the one hand, and the ANC and government on the other, will resume after the election.
The dramatic breakthrough, which immediately sent depressed financial markets soaring, followed six months of painstaking and increasingly acrimonious negotiations between the ANC/government partnership and Inkatha and its right-wing and conservative partners in the now defunct Freedom Alliance.
Chief Buthelezi, in announcing the agreement, said the breakthrough had been made possible by Professor Washington Okumu of Kenya, a self-appointed adviser to the team of international mediators led by former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who left the country April 14 after an abortive 48-hour mission.
``His personal intervention led to a breakthrough,'' said Buthelezi of Professor Okunu, a long-standing friend of both Dr. Kissinger and the Inkatha leader.
``South Africa may well have been saved from the disastrous consequences of unimaginable proportions,'' Buthelezi said.
President Frederik de Klerk, who has maintained optimism throughout that Inkatha could be brought into the election, said: ``This agreement removes one of the last main causes for tension and violence, and it is my deepest hope ... that all South Africans, whatever their party, will now exercise their free and democratic rights to vote for the party of their choice.''
HE accord came 24 hours after a renewed outbreak of violence in the townships of Katlehong and Tokoza near Johannesburg, where about 20 people have died over the past two days.
Ken Oosterbroek, an award-winning photographer for the The Star of Johannesburg, was killed in cross-fire between the newly deployed National Peacekeeping Force and the hostel dwellers. Pulitzer prize-winning freelance photographer Greg Marinovitch, on assignment for Newsweek, was seriously injured in the battle.
The violence between the NPKF, hostel dwellers loyal to Inkatha, and militant members of ANC-aligned Special Defense Units erupted last week when the South African Defense Force withdrew from the townships.
The accord followed an ANC offer to Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelethini at a summit on April 1, which ensures his position as constitutional monarch of KwaZulu/Natal after the election.
``This has greatly enhanced the chances of a free and fair poll across the country next week,'' says an elated Western diplomat.
But political scientists and diplomats warned that the 10-year-old conflict, which has claimed about 18,000 lives, had acquired a momentum of its own and would probably take years before it subsided completely.
The right-wing Conservative Party, which is boycotting next week's poll, said that massive pressure must have been applied on Inkatha for it to agree to take part in the poll on what amounted to the ANC's terms.
In contrast, the more moderate Freedom Front (FF) of Gen. Constand Viljoen welcomed Inkatha's participation.
``The more parties that take part in the election in support of the principle of self-determination, the better,'' said FF spokesman Stephan Maninger.
The agreement was reached after two days of top-level discussions in Pretoria, which began early April 18 with a crisis meeting between Buthelezi and De Klerk.
Mandela joined the talks early on April 19, and within three hours, the three leaders had reached a comprehensive agreement that ensures Inkatha participation in both the national and regional polls.
The election boycott by Inkatha - in pursuit of greater regional powers for KwaZulu/Natal - had raised political violence to unprecedented levels and was threatening the holding of a free and fair poll in Natal Province.
``All of us have been in this fight... but what we must accept is that this agreement was a collective effort. A bright future awaits our country,'' Mandela said.