ANC and Pretoria rope Inkatha into the negotiation corral

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The Independent Online
DELEGATES and journalists at the World Trade Centre, the split-level Johannesburg venue where multi-party talks took place over the weekend, were provided upon arrival with a document setting out the procedure should the need arise for an emergency evacuation.

Point One read: 'Don't panic. Try to be calm. We have planned for such an eventuality.'

In the event, and despite negligible security measures, the conference unfolded without incident, the delegates from the 26 parties present returning home safely on Saturday evening.

The main objective of the two leading parties, the government and the African National Congress, was to see to it that crisis of any sort was averted. Political differences of substance were set aside and, as they had hoped, agreement was reached to meet again before 5 April.

When multi-party talks within the Convention for a Democratic South Africa forum broke off in May last year the tables at which the delegates sat were arranged in the shape of a horse- shoe. This time, upon the advice of American experts, it was decided to arrange the tables in a circle - in the manner of the United Nations General Assembly. This, the organisers were assured, would minimise confrontation.

And so it turned out, with even the Inkatha Freedom Party delegation, widely identified as spoilers-in-chief before the conference, meekly undermining the prediction of their leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, that this event was to be the most important in South African political history.

Inkatha bluster in the days and weeks before the conference had indicated that it would block all further progress unless the government and the ANC performed a complete about-turn and abandoned plans for an historic all-race election within the next year. Inkatha also wanted the notion of a federal state entrenched in the still-to-be-debated post-apartheid constitution.

Finessed by Roelf Meyer, the Minister of Constitutional Development, and Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC secretary- general, Inkatha rolled over. A resolution was passed postponing the inevitable crisis until the next encounter. Every single potential political problem was deferred. The trick, as ANC and government negotiators privately confirmed, is to rope Inkatha, the parliamentary Conservative Party and others fearful of democratic change into the process, thus making it all the more difficult for them to walk out - an option considered likely when the talks began on Friday morning.

If Inkatha walks out at the next meeting, the negotiators said, then it will be that much easier for the two big parties to say 'Well, we did our best to bring them into the fold, now we'll just have to proceed without them.'

Not surprisingly, both Mr Ramaphosa and Mr Meyer, the co-captains of the process, declared themselves to be satisfied with the outcome of the talks. In separate press conferences on Saturday afternoon they echoed each other's words. 'A great success.' 'A great day for South Africa.'

Revealingly, too, each said that they expected the nitty-gritty of negotiations to be hammered out in private bilateral meetings rather than in public muli- party meetings. Several of these private meetings, including one between the ANC and Inkatha, are expected in the coming weeks.

No one was under any illusion that any more than five or six of the 26 parties gathered at the World Trade Centre had any significance, much less support. But each one was democratically granted equal time to speak.

In the interest of order, and to avoid the customary tirades, a traffic lights system was installed next to the main microphone. Green meant the speakers could press on. Yellow meant their time was nearly up. Red meant stop talking. When the yellow light came on for Mr Ramaphosa he omitted a third of the text and raced to his conclusion. It didn't really matter. He remains in the driving seat.