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Mandela fears delaying tactic of referendum: ANC leader urges right-wing parties to come back to negotiating table

NELSON MANDELA expressed concern during a visit to London yesterday that President FW de Klerk's suggestion of a deadlock-breaking referendum on democracy might be used as a tactic to delay the elections due to be held next April.

'Our position as the African National Congress on the matter is very clear. We are having an election only six months away and we are determined to keep to that time-frame,' the President of the African National Congress told a news conference.

Mr Mandela was clearly troubled that Mr de Klerk voiced the suggestion while the ANC leader was on his six- nation tour seeking to drum up investment for the future South Africa. He added: 'Mr de Klerk and I had a telephone conversation last night and he explained that at no time did he make a specific proposal that a referendum should be held - only that this is a matter which must be addressed one way or the other, and one way might be a referendum.'

Diplomats said Mr Mandela had privately expressed the worry that the referendum suggestion was a 'stalling tactic' to delay the reform process and elections scheduled for 27 April. Mr de Klerk warned at a National Party rally in Stellenbosch that a referendum testing the national commitment to a democratic constitution could be the only way to ensure peaceful all-race elections next year. He was responding to a boycott of the democracy talks by right-wing groups, including Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party and the Conservative Party.

But Mr Mandela said right- wing groups were unlikely to take part in any multi-racial referendum and said they should be persuaded to return to the negotiations. A referendum 'is an option that is entirely unlikely to resolve the current situation. They can come back to the multi-party forum,' he added, 'and our task is to help them to do so.'

Seeking to attract business investment before an audience of the Confederation of British Industry, Mr Mandela departed from his prepared speech to sound a note curiously reminiscent of the days when white governments of South Africa sought to reassure the outside world. 'I would like to correct a false impression which the mass media has tried to create,' the ANC leader said.