Cracks open up in S African right wing: ANC and government in talks with conservatives aimed at exploiting divisions before April elections

CONFLICTING signals from the black and white right wing encouraged the South African government and the African National Congress to pursue a divisive strategy in talks yesterday aimed at defusing the threat to peaceful elections next year.

President F W de Klerk yesterday met the Freedom Alliance while the ANC entered their second day of talks with the Afrikaner Volksfront.

The Volksfront is a member of the Freedom Alliance, a body formed last month which also includes Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, the parliamentary Conservative Party and the 'homeland' governments of Bophuthatswana and Ciskei.

Nothing emerged publicly from the two meetings yesterday afternoon, but privately both government and ANC officials have said they are hoping to open cracks in what Chief Buthelezi candidly acknowledged last week to be a marriage of convenience.

Tensions within the Freedom Alliance there already are. It is an open secret that General Constand Viljoen, leader of the Volksfront, feels far from comfortable cohabiting with some of the more fanatical elements in the far right, notably Eugene Terre-Blanche of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement. Mr Terre-Blanche and Ferdie Hartzenberg, the leader of the Conservative Party, both called yesterday - utterly implausibly - for a whites- only election to be held to test support for the new constitution.

As for Inkatha, the South African press has been engaging in much speculation about rifts between Chief Buthelezi and 'moderate' elements in his party. The speculation is not without foundation.

In an address on Thursday Chief Buthelezi said he would rather 'go into the political wilderness than legitimise a wrong constitution by entering into elections under it'. But in almost the same breath he said he would participate in the April elections if his supporters demanded it.

Describing Inkatha as 'the most under-rated political party in the country', he said: 'Elections will do us more good than any other party.'

Rhetoric apart, the fact is that Inkatha are preparing for elections. They have established an electoral commission, chaired by the party's chief executive officer, Joe Matthews; they have a campaign logo; they are raising campaign money.

A growing body of opinion within Inkatha believes that not to participate in the elections would mean to consign the party to the rubbish heap of history. How to explain to rural Zulu constituents that they must not vote in South Africa's first democratic elections is a challenge party officials simply do not wish to have to meet.

However, Chief Buthelezi's confident electoral predictions are not supported by the opinion polls, which give him barely 5 per cent of the national vote. Which is perhaps why he has endorsed plans to take the precaution of preparing for war. Reports, long circulating, that pro- Inkatha chiefs have been recruiting youths in their areas and dispatching them for military training near Ulundi, the capital of the KwaZulu 'homeland' over which Inkatha rules, have been confirmed in the last week.