Buthelezi fudges decision on poll participation: 'Final' attempt today to reach a peaceful settlement

PRESIDENT F W de Klerk phoned Mangosuthu Buthelezi at 3am yesterday, so concerned was he that, with the break of day, the Inkatha leader would conclusively announce his party's decision not to participate in South Africa's first democratic elections on 27 April.

Chief Buthelezi's answer should have reassured Mr de Klerk sufficiently to allow him a few hours of relatively untroubled sleep. It was the answer he gave Inkatha delegates yesterday afternoon at the end of a 'special general conference' called to decide whether to boycott the poll.

Inkatha would not contest the elections under the terms of the present constitution, Chief Buthelezi declared, but would continue to press for a solution in negotiations with the government and the African National Congress.

The reasons for Mr de Klerk's anxiety were twofold. First, on Saturday Chief Buthelezi had told the Inkatha conference, held at Ulundi, capital of his KwaZulu 'homeland', that the new constitution adopted last month was a recipe for his party's destruction and should, accordingly, be met with 'resistance'. Secondly, today Inkatha and its allies on the white right wing are due to meet the government and the ANC in what has been billed as a final attempt to arrive at a peaceful settlement.

The urgency of today's meeting is that Mr de Klerk is expected officially to ratify South Africa's April election date by midnight tonight. Once the date is promulgated in the government gazette, government officials said, no further possibility exists of amending the constitution until after the elections.

Chief Buthelezi is seeking essentially two amendments: he wants more power to be devolved to regional governments and for the election to be contested through two ballots, not one.

In the first case it is almost as if the Inkatha leader is pleading the ANC's cause, for all the polls indicate that the ANC will win the elections for at least seven of the nine new provincial governments, including the one in Inkatha's Natal-KwaZulu power-base.

On the second point Chief Buthelezi enjoys support beyond his right-wing constituency. The liberal Democratic Party and even the radical Pan-Africanist Congress agree that two ballots would be preferable to one. The point is that the elections will decide the composition both of the national and the provincial parliaments. The ANC and the government have reached the conclusion that the one-vote option written into the present constitutional rules would secure each a better result. The smaller parties surmise, not irrationally, that two votes would give them a better chance as a number of people might decide, in the manner of elections in the United States, to hedge their bets.

Whatever the merits of the arguments, a substantial number of Inkatha officials are known to disagree with their leader's rejectionist stance.

It is an open secret that a body of opinion within Inkatha holds to the view that failure to participate in the elections would mean political suicide for the party.

The separatist white far right, the Afrikaner Volksfront coalition, is also divided as to the wisdom of participating in the elections. But in this case it is their leader, General Constand Viljoen, who is sounding the moderate note.

At a Volksfront rally in Pretoria on Saturday the general, the South African Defence Force's overall chief in the early Eighties, floated the idea of participation, only to be met with a resounding chorus of boos from his audience, many of whom were members of Eugene Terre-Blanche's neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement.

The conference's final resolution was that if their demand for an independent Afrikaner homeland was rejected they would resort to civil war.

Today, under the banner of the Freedom Alliance, Volksfront negotiatiors will join their Inkatha partners in the talks with the government and the ANC. Chief Buthelezi said yesterday it would require 'almost a miracle' for the talks to succeed.