De Klerk's hidden concessions 'too little, too late'

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The Independent Online
HIDDEN deep in a memorandum sent on Thursday by the South African Government to the African National Congress - after dozens of pages full of anti-Communist sound and fury - were three interesting political concessions which, had they been made earlier, might have averted the present crisis.

A six-page memo from President F W de Klerk to Nelson Mandela was followed by six dense and detailed annexures. The last one, 'Annexure f ', revealed a government decision to back down on the hardline positions that they had adopted in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) negotiations on 16 May, positions that wrecked any chance of a deal and precipitated the hostile new mood that has seized South African politics.

The straw that broke Codesa's back was the government's insistence on 75 per cent as the majority required in an elected assembly to approve a new constitution. The ANC, whose opening position had been 66.66 per cent, shifted at the eleventh hour to 70 per cent. The government did not budge and the talks collapsed, leading the ANC to conclude that the government was 'not serious about democracy' and that the only option was to take politics to the streets.

'Mass action' was born - or, rather, re-born - and the ANC's enemies replied with the Boipatong massacre, which led the ANC to call off all involvement in Codesa and issue the government with a list of 14 demands to end the violence. The consequence of the Codesa breakdown in May has been that today, it is widely agreed, South Africa faces the serious possibility of anarchy and economic collapse. Mr de Klerk indicated as much in a televised speech on Thursday.

'Annexure f 'said that the government was now prepared to accept 70 per cent as the constitution-making majority but there is no question of the ANC accepting this now as it has since moved its position back to 66.66 per cent and, what is more, added its list of demands - including the suspension and arrest of police and army officers involved in township violence - for a return to the negotiating table.

None of these demands received a response on Thursday from the government, which instead counter-attacked with the charge that the ANC, not the government, was stoking up the township violence.

'Annexure f ', again seeking to turn the clock back to the May Codesa meeting, answered the ANC's charge that the government wished to hold on to power indefinitely with the proposal that if a new constitution had not been agreed by a transitional government within three years a general election should be held.

The annexure also dropped a particularly contentious government clause demanding disproportionately high representation for minorities in that transitional government.

Effectively the government has thus admitted to a serious blunder at the Codesa talks in May. Had it accepted the ANC's compromise then, the chances are that the three-stage sequence of mass action, massacre and breakdown of negotiations would have been avoided.

As it is, political temperatures are higher than they have been at any point since Mr de Klerk came to power in September 1989 and the likelihood of the ANC accepting the government's invitation to talks is nil. Indeed, the government seems to have accepted as much, otherwise it would have made a point of highlighting its three concessions on Thursday instead of deliberately hiding them from public view. As it was, Mr de Klerk's speech made no mention of the government's shift in tactics, concentrating instead on a vituperative offensive against the ANC and its alleged plans to seize power by force.

'Annexure f ', as a senior South African political reporter observed yesterday, might unlock doors when and if negotiations restart, but offered no short- term solution to the crisis. It was a case of too little, too late.