The eleventh-hour move, coming after the conservative Zulu leader had repeatedly warned he would not participate unless the poll was postponed, will eliminate the threat of Inkatha embarking on a terror campaign to sabotage voting in Natal.
South Africa's chances of achieving free and fair elections and evolving into a stable democracy have significantly increased. Intimidation, however, remains a likely feature in the predominantly Zulu province, where political violence has killed more than 200 people in the past two weeks.
The deal, expected to be made public today, came at an all-day meeting yesterday between Chief Buthelezi, President F W de Klerk and the African National Congress Secretary-General, Cyril Ramaphosa, at the Union Buildings, seat of government in Pretoria. The three, possibly accompanied by the ANC President, Nelson Mandela, will meet this morning to finalise details.
What was not clear yesterday was whether Inkatha would take part in the national poll or, as seems more likely in the light of the technical difficulties involved at this late hour, only in the elections for a provincial parliament in Natal and, possibly, the Johannesburg area. National voting will be from 26 to 28 April.
No official statements have been made yet but, according to sources close to the talks, the Inkatha leader agreed to take part in the elections in exchange for a commitment from the government and the ANC to entrench the position of the Zulu monarchy in the new constitution.
Parliament - the apartheid parliament - is expected to sit one last time in Cape Town in the next week to pass the new arrangements concerning the Zulu king into law. It is expected that the rights, privileges and powers the king will be granted will be in line with proposals made by Mr Mandela at a summit with Mr de Klerk, Chief Buthelezi and King Goodwill Zwelithini 10 days ago. According to those, the king would get an annual state budget; he would have a royal court and a royal council, also state-funded, with formal links to the elected provincial parliament of Natal; he would have authority over all tribal chiefs; and he would have a royal constabulary.
The sources said last night that Chief Buthelezi had not received any pre-electoral concessions on his long-standing demands for greater devolution of powers to provincial governments.
If any dangers still lurk they will surface after the elections. All polls indicate that Inkatha will be defeated by the ANC in Natal, and that the majority of Zulus will not vote for Inkatha. In such circumstances Chief Buthelezi might cry foul in the manner of Jonas Savimbi in Angola.
Why has Chief Buthelezi capitulated? Everything indicates he contemplated remaining outside parliamentary politics after the elections, weighed up the chances his rag-tag - if well-armed - bands would have in a campaign against the South African army and decided to cut his losses.
His isolation has become painfully evident in the past week. The Kissinger-Carrington mediation effort failed because of his stubbornness, deepening the distaste with which he is viewed by former allies in the West.
The business community, also once his friends, issued strong statements repudiating his dangerous anti-electoral stance. One of the country's leading newspapers, Business Day, also called on him to retire from politics while another, the once-loyal Sunday Times, condemned his 'reign of terror'.
'The penny,' one senior member of the government remarked, 'has finally dropped for Buthelezi'. The Foreign Minister, Pik Botha, emerged from yesterday's meeting and, with a big smile, said: 'Sometimes a winning try is scored in injury time.'
Despite the day's developments, 50 miles south in Tokoza township, Inkatha supporters resumed a terror campaign after two months of relative peace. At least 19 died after gunfights erupted
on Sunday night and continued yesterday.
Tokoza and neighbouring Katlehong, near Johannesburg, were the most violent townships between last May and January, when about 1,800 people died as Inkatha supporters, pro-ANC self- defence units and police clashed.
Carnage follows talks, page 12
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