February 2, 1990 was the day F W de Klerk unbanned the ANC, heralded the end of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela and set off the chain of consequences that have moved South Africa today to the threshold of democracy.
Blocking the door to the April elections are the Inkatha Freedom Party and the Afrikaner Volksfront, partners in a right-wing coalition they call the Freedom Alliance.
In the seemingly interminable negotiations the ANC and the government have been holding with the Alliance since the end of last year one issue has remained a stumbling block: the ANC's and the government's insistence on holding one ballot in the elections, and the Alliance's insistence on two.
The Inkatha leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, in particular, has been making a great issue out of this. The signals he has put out in recent weeks indicate that if the ANC- government axis capitulated here he would be prepared to abandon his threats of war and take part in the elections.
A rare foray into the political fray by a tall, white-haired patrician individual by the name of Julian Ogilvie Thompson on Tuesday has focused national attention on the apparent absurdity of allowing disagreement on the double-ballot debate to destroy South Africa's chances of achieving a peaceful, economically stable future.
Mr Ogilvie Thompson, the chairman of the massive Anglo American Corporation (the conglomerate that controls half of South African big business), said in a statement that the major parties had, through long and difficult negotiations, secured an opportunity to entrench a true democracy.
'I find it difficult to believe that they now appear willing to throw it away . . . I find it all the more alarming that the reasons advanced for the single ballot appear to be rooted in expediency rather than principle,' he said.
When South Africans go to the polls on 26, 27 and 28 April they will be voting for two parliaments, one national, the other provincial. The ANC and the government decided in November that one ballot would suffice to elect both. The Freedom Alliance, joined by smaller moderate groupings such as the liberal Democratic Party, say that, in accordance with the procedure followed in countries such as the United States, individuals should cast one ballot for each parliament.
The reason Mr Ogilvie Thompson said he believed the reasons advanced by the ANC and the government were rooted in expediency was that he had heard their arguments and found them to be less than convincing. What they have said is that people would be confused by a two- ballot system, that there would be millons of spoilt votes, that the procedure would be too expensive.
What the chairman of Anglo American and many others believe is that in reality the ANC and the government, certain to come first and second in the national elections, fear that two ballots would lead to a dilution of their total vote, especially in the provincial elections. They fear that voters might hedge their bets and open the door to some of the smaller parties.
Another argument some ANC officials have been putting forward against changing the electoral arrangements is that they see no reason to keep on attempting to mollify Chief Buthelezi because, the polls having shown that Inkatha will do disastrously, they simply do not believe he has any desire to take part in the elections.
However, what no one doubts is that should this concession be made when the ANC and the government, on the one side, and the Freedom Alliance, on the other, meet today for yet another attampt to break the impasse, it will be extremely difficult for Chief Buthelezi to persevere with his rejectionist stance.
Not only will his support, which has been falling away in recent weeks, be eroded further, he will face growing pressures from within his own party, where a significant lobby exists attached to the belief that the alternative to electoral participation is political suicide.
After a meeting of the ANC leadership on Tuesday night to discuss precisely this question in advance of today's scheduled meeting, the smoke signals suggested that a change of heart was in the offing.
An ANC spokeswoman, Gill Marcus, appeared yesterday to be preparing the terrain for such an announcement. 'We would ideally like a double ballot. It is not a matter of principle. If you can address the practical problems we would be prepared to support it,' she said. A government spokesman, echoing her words, said: 'Government is pragmatic on this issue and we are willing to discuss it.'
Should South Africa's big two indeed backtrack today then it will be up to Chief Buthelezi to decide whether he is ready to take the risk of shifting the political goalposts.
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