South African Democracy Talks Foundering over Election Date Disputes over Regional Powers, Threats by Militants Slow Transition

Article excerpt

ON the eve of a deadline for setting a date for the country's first democratic election, negotiations for a transition to democratic rule in South Africa are threatened by another crisis.

Militant youths, as well as township supporters of the African National Congress (ANC), had vowed to render the country ungovernable if negotiators failed to set a voting date by June 3. But the parties said June 2 that the decisionmaking negotiating forum would not meet until June 25 - effectively blowing the deadline.

Nonetheless, Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi's insistence that regional boundaries, powers, and functions should be entrenched before an election remains the difficult obstacle in the talks.

"I don't think the major parties have yet settled the central issue of how political power is to be divided," says Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, a political analyst close to the talks. "In its present form the negotiating process has the potential for infinite delays."

Negotiators at the 26-party multiracial forum are racing against time to reach consensus on a transitional council and a set of constitutional principles that will steer an elected constititution-making body after the country's first democratic ballot, which negotiators have agreed should take place before the end of April next year.

But since multilateral talks resumed April 1, the process has been delayed by an eruption of anger following the assassination of black leader Chris Hani on April 10 and the surprise crackdown last month on the militant Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC).

It now appears unlikely that the forum will reach consensus on an election date by June 3.

Political scientists and diplomats who have recently held talks with President Frederik de Klerk are hopeful that the election date will be resolved within the next week or two and agreement on a transitional package will be agreed by the end of the month.

Mr. De Klerk and ANC President Nelson Mandela hold no major differences on the date, according to analysts, and planned to meet June 2.

Hopes for a long-awaited meeting between ANC President Nelson Mandela and Chief Buthelezi were raised May 30 at a surprise meeting between Buthelezi and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

Mr. Mugabe, who has in the past been one of Buthelezi's most vociferous critics, has agreed to act as a mediator between Mandela and Buthelezi in a bid to help quell escalating political violence in the country, which threatens to render a negotiated settlement unworkable in the strife-torn townships and rural areas of Natal Province. …