A meeting in SA is the message

NELSON MANDELA and Mangosuthu Buthelezi, presidents of the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party, met yesterday. And that, in itself, was the most significant thing that happened.

At a press conference yesterday evening the two leaders, egged on by their mediator Archbishop Desmond Tutu, each insisted on four different occasions that 'the very fact' that they had met indicated a breakthrough of sorts had been achieved. Another expression they used almost as frequently was 'sticking points', various of which remained despite wide-ranging discussion. In particular on the question of an election date, to which Chief Buthelezi refused to commit himself despite attempts at compromise by Mr Mandela and delegates accompanying him.

The meeting, which lasted 10 hours, was the first between the two leaders for two and a half years, a period which has seen the violence between their supporters - fuelled frequently by elements in the security forces - continue unabated. At least 10,000 people have died in the eight years of conflict between the ANC and Inkatha.

As happened in the first meeting, on 29 January 1991, Mr Mandela and Chief Buthelezi deplored the killings, smiled and shook hands for the cameras, referred to each other as 'my brother' and said the time had come to bury the past. They spoke of 'progress' and they made general commitments to urge their supporters to stop carrying dangerous weapons. They also said they planned to speak together to their supporters from the same platform. And they underlined their belief in the principle of free political activity.

But Chief Buthelezi said: 'I don't think either of us believe the violence will disappear overnight.' He was eager, he added, not to raise any false hopes. As to the question of holding South Africa's first democratic elections on 27 April next year, as proposed by the ANC and the government in multi-party negotiations, to this he could not agree. A federal constitution had to be in place first.

Ominously, he warned that the lesson of the elections in Angola, to which the loser - Jonas Savimbi - responded with a resumption of war, showed that the vote in itself was no panacea.

The ANC, according to insiders at the talks, offered the Inkatha leader a semantic compromise. Would he agree to a joint statement endorsing the election date pending agreement on constitutional matters? No, he would not.

Tomorrow is the deadline negotiators at the multi-party talks have set themselves for ratification of the 27 April date. There is a special urgency on this matter because on 4 July Mr Mandela and President F W de Klerk will be sharing a platform in Philadelphia with President Bill Clinton. It had been Mr Mandela's hope that, with an election date clinched, he would be in a position to use the occasion to call on the US and the rest of the international community to call off sanctions against South Africa. Doubts over the election might make the ANC leader pause.

The trial of Janus Walus, and Gaye and Clive Derby-Lewis for the murder of the ANC leader Chris Hani was postponed at the Supreme Court in Johannesburg yesterday until 4 October. Despite strenuous objections from the state prosecutor, the judge decided after two and a half hours of argument to accede to the defence request for the postponement.

Dangerous myth, page 26

(Photograph omitted)