Nail-biting contest ends in a victory for teamwork: John Carlin in Johannesburg watched the process of compromised during which South Africa's negotiating council agreed on a date for democratic elections

(First Edition)

A SUCCESSFUL proposal at the beginning of the year by the South African Communist Party for proceedings at the 26-party constitutional negotiating council to be open to the press was greeted by local editorial writers as a victory for democracy.

The reporters assigned to cover the talks have often had cause to wonder whether, in certain circumstances, democracy is altogether a good thing. Progress has been exasperatingly slow, hopes of front-page stories heralding 'major breakthroughs' continually having been dashed by deliberately fussy delegates representing parties with no interest in abandoning the privileges acquired under apartheid.

On Thursday night, however, the press box was treated to two hours of debate as nail-bitingly intense as an FA Cup semi-final. Would negotiators agree on an election date or, in failing to do so, add more confusion and delay to a tortuous task? Outside factors added to the tension - impossible deadlines loomed, not only for the reporters but also for the two star players: Cyril Ramaphosa, secretary-general of the African National Congress, and Roelf Meyer, the Minister of Constitutional Development. That night the two were expected to attend a banquet jointly to receive a 'Man of the Year' award before flying off together to the United States at 10pm to accept a similar honour.

As it turned out, it was a game of two halves. The ANC, their allies and the parliamentary Democratic Party pushed to fix a date but met stiff resistance from Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party and their allies in the black homelands and the white right. Mr Meyer caused some consternation in Mr Ramaphosa's camp by proposing that a decision be deferred for 10 days.

But in the second half, with half an hour left to play, Mr Meyer again tilted the balance by clarifying that he favoured setting the date that night. Then, in injury time, diners at the 'Man of the Year' event anxiously picking at their desserts, Mr Ramaphosa appeared out of nowhere and slotted home the winner - clinching the support even of Inkatha with a subtly worded proposal that had the effect of sealing 27 April 1994 as the historic day when South Africans will vote together for the first time.

In a concession to authoritarianism to which few but the passengers on the jumbo jet would have objected, the flight to New York was delayed and the two men described by some as the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of South African politics made both their appointments.

Mr Ramaphosa's compromise was to propose that the date be finalised at a negotiating council meeting on 15 June. But he knew that the small print would make little impact either in the local media or in the consciousness of the wider public. He calculated that for the spoilers at the talks - seven out of the 26 on a bad day - the political price of rejecting the electoral timetable at that next meeting would simply prove too high.

The significance of having set the election date is more than symbolic, although the value of allowing the ANC leadership to persuade their township rank-and-file that a political victory has been won should not be underestimated in terms of the possibilities of minimising unrest.

Agreement on the date will set in motion a number of important political dynamics. Dates will have to be set for the establishment, as agreed by the government and the ANC, of Transitional Executive Councils, multi-party bodies which will exercise joint control over those organs of state whose impartiality is essential for the holding of free and fair elections. The TECs will, among other things, oversee parts of the national budget, the appointment of an independent electoral commission and, critically, the role of the armed forces - including the ANC's, Inkatha's and the various homelands' militias. In short, some months before the elections new democratic structures will have substantially modified the racist tendencies of the government apparatus.

The indications are that, while dangerously recalcitrant elements remain, the South African Defence Force has come around to the inevitability of democracy, to the irreversibility of what the pundits call 'the process of transition'. Last week, the chief of the army, Lieutenant-General Georg Meiring, held talks at a secret venue in Pretoria with Joe Modise, his counterpart in the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). Under discussion were the possible integration of their armies - a previously verboten subject in the SADF high command - and, more immediately, the future relationship between the TEC politicians and the men with the guns.

If, in future meeetings, the SADF and the ANC agree to a far-reaching set of proposals hammered out by a special committee advising the negotiating council, the country's various armed formations will submit to an audit of all weapons and personnel and eventually, after an elected government is in place, to unification under one national banner.

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