Government and ANC officials condemned a decision by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party and four right-wing allies to walk out of constitutional talks after requests for discussion of an election date to be deferred were overruled by a majority in the 26-party Negotiating Council.
It was unclear last night whether the gesture was a prelude to Inkatha, the far-right Conservative Party and others making good on a threat to pull out of negotiations altogether.
Much of the problem lies in the right-wing perception that the government and the ANC have reached a private agreement on the way forward - which is partly true. They are, indeed, united in the conviction that the best route to lasting stability lies through elections next year for a government of national unity which will draw up a constitution and rule for five years. But difficulties do remain between the government and the ANC on the details of how power is to be shared.
The right, led by Chief Buthelezi, consider this debate to be premature. They object to the notion, agreed in January by the government and the ANC, of seeking a mandate from voters for a new constitution. They want it to be drawn up by the self-appointed multi-party forum engaged in negotiations.
The objective of the meeting yesterday at the Negotiating Council was to have been to ratify a date, 27 April 1994, provisionally agreed earlier this month for elections. Instead, in painstaking behind-the-scenes bargaining, the government, the ANC and their allies found themselves engaged in the all- too-familiar task of trying to prevent what they call 'the Process' from falling apart.
It was all the more trying for the big two because last week everything indicated Inkatha had agreed to a compromise proposal by the ANC for a significant part of the final constitution to be drawn up, before elections, by the Negotiating Council.
The key to yesterday's crisis lay in a meeting on Monday in Pretoria between the leaders of a five-party right-wing axis, the Concerned South Africans Grouping (Cosag), formed at the behest of Chief Buthelezi late last year. Present at the meeting, apart from the chief himself, were leaders of the Conservative Party, the Afrikaner Volksunie and the Bophuthatswana and Ciskei 'homelands'.
Between them, according to opinion polls, Cosag would be hard pressed to win 15 per cent of the national vote. But the two main parties know that, while Cosag may not have the people, they do have the guns.Reuse content