SOUTH Africa's fledgling government of national unity is facing its first major test over disclosures that former President Frederik de Klerk ceded territory to King Goodwill Zwelithini, the Zulu monarch, on the eve of the country's all-race election.
Mr. De Klerk, now deputy president, conceded yesterday that he signed a controversial law on April 25 ceding control of 3 million acres of tribal land, but denied that it was a ``secret deal,'' as alleged in the Johannesburg Mail and Guardian newspaper.
President Nelson Mandela, who held talks yesterday with Inkatha Freedom Party leader and Home Affairs Minister Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, has said he had no knowledge of the deal and regards it as a most ``important and sensitive issue.''
The deal transformed King Goodwill from a constitutional monarch with ceremonial powers into one of the world's biggest landowners and the most powerful figure in KwaZulu/Natal.
``This is the first issue that could break the new government of national unity,'' says Robert Schrire, a Cape Town University political scientist. ``There will be strong ANC [African National Congress] feelings of bad faith, and it is going to be a tough one for President Mandela to solve.''
After yesterday's meeting with Chief Buthelezi here, Mandela said he was optimistic a solution could be found. He did not elaborate. ``I am satisfied with the progress we have made. It now depends on our two organizations [the ANC and Inkatha],'' he said.
Buthelezi scoffed at speculation that the land deal had been the sweetener that persuaded him to take Inkatha into the election on April 19. ``There is nothing new in this ... there is no hanky-panky,'' he said yesterday. ``All communal land was always protected. It was to prevent it from becoming state land.''
Buthelezi, who joined the ballot after a sustained boycott on April 19, and De Klerk insist the legislation was debated in open session of the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly, the semi-autonomous homeland parliament that ceased to exist on April 27.
Ownership of the tribal land, which was transferred from the government to the defunct KwaZulu homeland three years ago, would have returned automatically to the state if the controversial law had not been rushed through the KLA.
Instead, King Goodwill, who was at the center of the last-minute deal that brought Inkatha into the election seven days before the poll, is now the sole member of a trust that owns the land conservatively valued at $200 million.
Geoff Budlender, director of the Legal Resources Center, which is involved with land restitution and development, says De Klerk needs to explain two facts: the extraordinary speed with which the offending legislation was drawn up and passed; and the unusual circumstances of homeland legislation being drafted by Pretoria
De Klerk said he had gotten legal advice on the validity of the law before signing it and believed he had no option but to do so.
``This law gives the king enormous power, which he can use to create a new system of patronage,'' Mr. Budlender says. There were legal ways to reverse the measure, but these would depend on a political decision, he says.
Professor Schrire says the challenge Mandela now faces is how to return the king to a purely ceremonial status without a political rift in the government of national unity. ``The question is: Will Buthelezi use this as his first test of strength to show who calls the shots? If so, he could break the government of national unity from day one.''
Schrire says he believes De Klerk signed the bill during a period when both he and Mandela were exhausted. ``I think it is something which Buthelezi cleverly slipped in as a routine and technical matter and was aided by part of the bureaucracy in Pretoria. But I don't think there was anything sinister as far as De Klerk's or Mandela's role is concerned.''
But ANC officials, who insist they had no knowledge of the deal, are enraged by what they see as a secret deal between De Klerk and Buthelezi at the ANC's expense. Their anger has been exacerbated by the allocation of the most junior posts to ANC members in the KwaZulu/Natal Provincial Assembly, where Inkatha won a narrow outright victory in the election.
ANC Cabinet members have refused to take up their seats in the KwaZulu/Natal Provincial Cabinet until allocation of posts is addressed.
There is also a row brewing over the site of the provincial capital. Inkatha wants the capital to be located at the remote northern Zulu capital of Ulundi rather than at the major urban centers of Durban and Pietermatitzburg, traditional seats of provincial government. Buthelezi has proposed a referendum in the province to settle the issue.
ANC militants are disgruntled about the last-minute deal that brought Inkatha into the election. They argue that, stripped of his Zulu tribal base, Buthelezi and Inkatha would have gradually waned as a political force. Advocates of the deal argue it dramatically reduced levels of violence and holds promise of lasting peace in the province.