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Battle to woo SA right intensifies: ANC and government axis renews effort to persuade Freedom Alliance to fight through ballot-box

SOUTH AFRICA'S government and the African National Congress (ANC) battled and failed last night to persuade the right-wing Freedom Alliance (FA), led by Inkatha and the Afrikaner Volksfront, to abandon their threats of war and take part in the April elections.

Government and ANC negotiators had said that if they did not reach agreement by midnight, they never would. But the talks broke up last night with all participants saying they would continue negotiations, although an agreement looks increasingly unlikely at this stage.

The 'trilaterals' have been proceeding almost without interruption since the new constitution was drawn up, without the blessing of the FA, last November. The FA wants the constitution changed to make greater provision for regional self-determination, or, they say, they will boycott the elections. The government/ANC axis has agreed in principle to make constitutional amendments but agreement has not been reached on the details.

The talks have been portrayed, especially by the FA, as a local version of the Cuban missile crisis: unless one side blinks, destruction is mutually assured. But, aside from the question of scale, the difference is that neither side knows exactly what the other's destructive capacity is.

Every South African political leader of note has in the last year talked about possible civil war. F W de Klerk and Nelson Mandela have done so with trepidation; Mangosu thu Buthelezi, the Inkatha leader, with the quivering relish of a man who likes to summon up the memory of his warrior Zulu forebears; General Constand Viljoen, the leader of the Volksfront, with the solemnity of a man who knows about war; and Eugene Terre-Blanche, the Volksfront coalition's favourite orator, with the religious zeal of a medieval crusader.

The threat of war is the only bargaining card the FA has, their combined national support standing at 10 per cent of the population, their international support (barring a late entry by Vladimir Zhirinov sky) at zero. How great the threat depends almost entirely on the security forces. As in Russia during the crises experienced first by Mikhail Gorbachev and then Boris Yeltsin, the army and, to a lesser extent, the police hold the key to South Africa's political destiny.

The army high command have undergone something of a transformation in the last 12 months, having been persuaded, in talks with their counterparts in the ANC, that their jobs and pensions will be assured under a Mandela presidency.

But a report in an Afrikaans Sunday newspaper, Rapport, claimed that up to 60 per cent of the security forces would not take action against the right wing if instructed to do so by the government. The fear is that while the chief of the South African Defence Force, General Georg Meiring, has gone along with the new constitutional order, he could face a rebellion in the ranks.

The evidence of recent months has been that the police are not providing the Inkatha warriors with the unconditional support they enjoyed during the township conflicts of recent years. Yesterday, for example, an Inkatha loyalist was found guilty in a Durban court of the murder of eight ANC supporters.

The one thing certain is that the government is worried. Yesterday the Minister of Defence, Kobie Coetsee, said that the intelligence services had told Mr de Klerk last week that the security situation was 'extremely volatile'. The most likely shape 'armed resistance' would take, ANC and government officials say privately, is terrorism. The question, they add, is whether such violence might undermine free and fair elections.

It was precisely because neither Mr Mandela nor Mr de Klerk knows the answer to that question that last night ANC and government negotiators were trying for the umpteenth time to prevail upon the right-wing minority to pursue war by electoral means.