Adriaan Vlok, the erstwhile minister of police who is now in charge of prisons, captured the mood in an extraordinary, and quite unprompted, plea to the assembled reporters. 'I beg you not to stir up emotions,' he said. 'To my friends in the media I say, 'Help us]' '
Whatever doubts remained that the South African government had received a hammering in the talks last week with the African National Congress (ANC) were dispelled by yesterday's performance. If anything, Mr de Klerk reinforced the point when he protested: 'I wish to state that the perception that the government has capitulated to another party is devoid of all truth.'
The ANC, in fact, gave nothing away either in the talks or in the summit between its leader, Nelson Mandela, and Mr de Klerk that followed - save, perhaps, for a woolly commitment, ratified by the ANC leadership on Wednesday, to adjust its policy on 'mass action'. On the other hand, the release at the weekend of the ANC prisoners - notably Robert McBride, who killed three people in a car bomb attack - was a summit pre-condition which the government ceded only with extreme reluctance.
Unexpectedly rubbing salt in the wound was the reaction of Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), publicly identified by government officials as important partners in a future electoral alliance against the ANC. On Sunday, Chief Buthelezi, deeply offended at his exclusion from the summit, announced he was pulling out of all talks with the government. In petulant mood, he insisted that the government should treat him as a major political player, as a leader of equal status to Mr Mandela.
Otherwise, the chief strongly hinted, he would disrupt the government's best-laid electoral plans and seek alliances with the secessionist right. Today, indeed, the Inkatha youth are due to hold a meeting in Johannesburg with their counterparts from the right- wing Conservative Party.
The objective of yesterday's press conference was to restore the crumbling edifice, to woo back Inkatha, to reassure doubters - the security forces included - in the white constituency and to restore, besides, the wavering fidelity of the South African press.
Otherwise, one hour with the nation's leaders yielded nothing of any news substance - as demonstrated by yesterday's afternoon edition of the Johannesburg Star, which reduced the event to three paragraphs.
What was interesting was the tone of what Mr de Klerk and his ministers said, and to whom they were addressing their words.
The President began proceedings with a statement in which he reassured Inkatha that it was 'simply not possible to negotiate a viable constitutional settlement with only some of the major parties'. There was no intention at the weekend summit, he reiterated, 'to exclude any parties'. 'The IFP is an important party without which there can be no comprehensive solution.'
However, he criticised the delay caused by Chief Buthelezi's outburst: 'This is not the time for boycott politics or for the politics of demands and divisions.'
For the benefit of outraged whites, Mr de Klerk felt compelled publicly to repeat the obvious for the third time in a week. 'The release of these prisoners does not signify condonement of the crimes they committed.'
In a clear reference to the failure of the government in the talks to placate the army and police by securing from the ANC a linkage between the prisoners' release and a general amnesty, he gave an assurance that his own plan unilaterally to proceed with such an amnesty would not be overturned by a future ANC government.
The government would not approve a constitution that would allow a future government 'to at random alter or undo what we have done in the spirit of reconciliation and the maintaining of security and stability in South Africa', he said.
Mr de Klerk's final words to the press, many of whom have been projecting the notion that he has sold out to the ANC, were: 'I call upon all to handle the debate with regard to our meeting with the ANC in a such a manner that existing tensions will not be further exacerbated.' Mr Vlok's 'Help us]' plea a few moments later revealed that the tensions in question lie most pressingly within the government itself.Reuse content