SOUTH AFRICA'S transition to democracy has been held up to the world as a near- miraculous example of how to dismantle brutal minority rule using peaceful negotiations between blacks and whites.
But almost two years after the country's historic all-race elections, the specter of violence and one black faction's demands for greater autonomy are resurging as the May 10 deadline approaches to complete a final constitution.
Since last year, the country's third-largest party, the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), has been boycotting the body writing a permanent constitution.
The walkout of the IFP leader, the irascible Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, means a large portion of the population has no say in how the country will be governed and puts a question mark over the effectiveness of such a constitution.
If Chief Buthelezi does not join the process, political killings in the Zulu province of KwaZulu-Natal may continue, politicians worry. Over the past decade, more than 10,000 people have died in political fighting between the IFP and President Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC). Dozens still die there monthly. Having the IFP out of the mainstream would probably mean more instability, politicians say.
''It has become a matter of great urgency,'' said Deputy President F. W. de Klerk last week.
What Buthelezi wants
Buthelezi is demanding international mediation to give more power to his constituents. Buthelezi, who is the interior minister under the current multiparty government, is a master of brinkmanship renowned for his unpredictable behavior. During two years of multiparty negotiations to map the transition to black majority rule, he repeatedly stormed out of talks, threatened civil war, and only joined the April 1994 elections at the last minute.
Some diplomats say he may do something similar again. Certainly, many politicians would rather see him in the system than outside it. But Cabinet members canvassed last week held out only slim hopes of his return.
Cyril Ramaphosa, who was the ANC's main negotiator before the elections and now is chairman of the Constitutional Assembly, said a continued boycott by Buthelezi would be a ''dent'' to the process but not a blow.
The option remains of extending the deadline to finish the constitution, but Mr. Ramaphosa thought it unlikely that would happen.
Instead, exasperation seems to be growing with Buthelezi's spoiling tactics, with Ramaphosa admitting to a group of foreign journalists last week: ''I have reached the point where I no longer know what they [the IFP] want.''
Buthelezi says he's clear about what he wants. He wants international mediation to resolve the role of the Zulu monarchy and more autonomous powers for KwaZulu-Natal. The ANC and the white-dominated National Party (NP) in 1994 promised both of these to lure him back into the elections.
''Mr. Ramaphosa has already said our presence isn't needed. So there's no point, then, of going back,'' Buthelezi says.
With Inkatha representing only 10 percent in the Constitutional Assembly, the party in theory does not have much to lose by staying outside, Western diplomats say.
Some say he is more interested in consolidating the provincial powers of KwaZulu-Natal. The province is to hold local elections soon. Some speculate that he might even give up his portfolio in the national Cabinet and return to head a provincial government, or try to gain more power by changing the provincial constitution irrespective of the national one.
The IFP is by far the most disturbing issue Ramaphosa is confronting. But about 40 issues still need to be resolved and many are controversial: the location of the capital, abortion, capital punishment, and provincial powers.
Coming to consensus
Negotiators have been heartened by progress so far in reaching consensus, particularly between the two largest parties, the NP and the ANC, which between them have a two-thirds majority to pass decisions in the Constitutional Assembly.
In the transition running up to the elections, the white minority fought to maintain its grip on power. Rightist extremists threatened civil war, and the then-ruling NP succeeded in agreeing on a government of national unity until the next elections in 1999.
This time, the calls from white right-wingers for self-determination - or a separate state - have largely gone unheeded as their electoral clout has shrunk. The mainstream NP, too, has capitulated on a major demand to continue the current constitutional system, realizing that those days are past.
A major deadlock was broken in mid-February with both parties making major concessions that augered well for resolving remaining disagreements. The final constitution, once adopted, goes to the Constitutional Court, which has reserved the entire month of June to complete it. Mr. Mandela, as president, will declare when it comes into effect.