Critics claim De Klerk has lost his way: John Carlin in Cape Town detects signs of a party on the defensive

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A LEADING South African businessman noted recently that it had become impossible to define F W de Klerk's National Party in conventional ideological terms. 'Are they Thatcherites? Are they Tory 'wets'? Are they John Smith Labourites? No answer exists to these questions.'

A National Party MP's view in a conversation in parliament last week was: 'This is the era of pragmatic politics. There's no longer any meaningful role for the theorists. It's a straight power game and the players are on the pitch, dodging and weaving, improvising, doing what they can to win.'

Since the game began with the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990, the government team has largely held the initiative. The spectacle seen in the first week of the extraordinary session of parliament convened by Mr de Klerk last Monday has underlined the perception that his team is now on the defensive.

Diplomatic observers and rival MPs categorised Mr de Klerk's opening speech to parliament as his worst public performance to date. Failing to convey any clear sense of purpose, at a time which he himself described two weeks earlier as a crossroads in South African history, the sole object of the exercise seemed to be to lambast the Communists and radicals in the African National Congress.

Scepticism only deepened when the government tabled its new bills. One to outlaw casinos came across as spectacularly irrelevant; another to enable Mr de Klerk to appoint non-elected individuals to the cabinet seemed marginally less irrelevant, and then fell apart altogether when the government whip failed to do his sums right and the motion was outvoted.

The third, and most significant, piece of legislation concerned an amnesty, the implicit purpose of which was to absolve state officials who carried out crimes on behalf of the state. The bill, which is to be debated this week, generated an instant furore, perceived as it was as a cynical attempt by the government to pardon itself.

To compound matters, the political world has been humming all week with reports of muttering discontent within the National Party. It has become established as a conventional wisdom that the once seemingly monolithic Nationalist machine is riven by tensions between hardliners and moderates in the cabinet, in the parliamentary caucus and beyond.

The problems of Mr de Klerk, who is perceived by many of his own people to be selling out to the ANC, have been compounded by the dawning realisation that the dream of electoral success he has long promised the party faithful seems likely to remain just that. The shift rightwards, into the arms of the die-hard Afrikaner tribalists of the Conservative Party, and of Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, not only expressed the sentiments of many traditional 'Nat' voters, it also raised the spectre of a National Party without black allies being smashed by the ANC in an election.

The close links Inkatha has long enjoyed with sectors of the security forces has reinforced the belief that Mr de Klerk is becoming increasingly isolated - a predicament that the wiser heads in the ANC recognise as extremely dangerous for the entire process of constitutional negotiations.

One highly placed government member candidly summed up the prevailing confusion. 'I'd prefer,' he said, 'not to make predictions beyond the next five minutes.'