THE contribution of the international community to the near-miraculous settlement with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) on April 19 will be debated for some time.
The world's undeniable role in the traumatic birth of a new South African nation is not always easy to quantify. As the country approaches the most critical moment in its transition to democracy - next week's elections - South Africans are too consumed with the momentous event to evaluate the role being played by an anxious and emotionally involved international community.
A case in point is the extraordinary mission by a high-powered team of international mediators led by former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington. The mediators arrived here on April 12 at a moment's notice when told that the South African parties had agreed on the terms of reference for international mediation.
They were given a warm and respectful welcome by representatives of government, the African National Congress (ANC), and Inkatha at a five-star - if somewhat surreal - reception at Johannesburg's Carlton Hotel.
Dr. Kissinger, who last visited the country in 1976 to persuade South Africa's white rulers to accept majority rule in neighboring Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), entered into the spirit of the occasion by paying tribute to the leaders of all three parties for their roles in South Africa's extraordinary transition.
Kissinger praised ANC President Nelson Mandela as one of the great men of his epoch and Chief Buthelezi for his opposition to apartheid and his role in securing Mr. Mandela's release. ``What is happening here is important, not just for South Africa but for all mankind,'' he said.
Forty-eight hours later, the mediators had packed their bags and were on their way home, conceding that the time was not right for international mediation. They expressed sadness that they had not been able to play a role, but left little doubt that the reason for their inability to help was Buthelezi's insistence that the postponement of the country's first all-race election scheduled for April 26-28 had to be addressed by the mediators.
A surreal atmosphere surrounded the whole mediation venture.
Western diplomats had actively downplayed the mediation effort in the belief that it could not progress until Inkatha accepted the inevitability of the election date.
When the mediators arrived, diplomats, international observers, government officials, and even some ANC members were bewildered. Yet they had no option but to play along, which lent the occasion all the trappings of an intricate charade.
But was it?
History might show that the mediators played a crucial role in unlocking the political deadlock. The mediators, despite their hasty withdrawal, left behind an advisor who is credited with playing a key role in the historic breakthrough on April 19. Professor Washington Okunu of Kenya, a close associate of both Kissinger and Buthelezi, played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in bringing the three sides together.
Mediation on constitutional issues will continue after the election, including Inkatha at both the national and regional level.
But South Africans will see it as their own victory. When the news of Inkatha's participation broke on the radio, the announcer summed up the nation's mood: ``The IFP is in. The negotiators achieved what international mediation could not. It's amazing what South Africans can do sometimes.''
His remarks were followed by an avalanche of ecstatic callers from every shade of political opinion.