Secret deal could bring democracy to SA: F W de Klerk has pledged to kick the power habit. John Carlin reports from Cape Town

IT IS A testimony to the allure of the nicotine habit that South Africa's President F W de Klerk is finding it more difficult to give up smoking than to give up power. In 40 years he has made three unsuccessful attempts to abandon the habit. Last year he endured a full three months without a cigarette. But today he is back to his old ways, seizing every opportunity to steal out of the parliamentary chamber for a puff.

However, the addiction to political power is something he is resolved to overcome. In a secret deal between the government and the African National Congress, a schedule has been agreed for the transition to what Nelson Mandela calls 'ordinary democracy'. Mr de Klerk has bowed to the inevitability of majority rule. The compromise, accepted by ANC negotiators, is that Mr de Klerk will not give up power suddenly. He will cut down gradually.

It is, however, the most significant concession in the history of South African politics. For until now, and still publicly, the National Party position has been that a system of 'power-sharing' should be entrenched in the post- apartheid constitution. Mr de Klerk has said it time and again: the winner-takes-all model favoured by Western democracies is not appropriate for South Africa. Now he has changed his tune. The agreement, in essence, is that a transitional government of national unity will rule the country for five years after the first all- race elections, which the government and the ANC expect to be held within the next 15 months. Majority rule will wait until 1999.

Last year the ANC made a remarkable concession of its own. In a move spearheaded by the Communist Party chairman, Joe Slovo, the ANC accepted the principle of democracy deferred. Mr Slovo proposed the new constitution should include what he called 'a sunset clause' providing for 'compulsory power-sharing for a fixed number of years'. ANC leaders endorsed the proposal and Mr de Klerk has been persuaded to repay them in kind.

The deal rests on one other major ANC concession. It has accepted government demands for a federal model that will entrench a system of checks and balances designed to limit domination by central government.

It is as good a deal as Mr de Klerk could have hoped for, according to Colin Eglin, chief negotiator of the Democratic Party. Mr Eglin, who stands in the liberal centre of South African politics, praised what he called the extraordinary maturity of the ANC. 'I think the ANC is the most sophisticated liberation movement there has been,' he said. 'I feel proud to be a South African. What we have achieved will be textbook stuff for negotiations the world over.'

If all goes according to plan, the textbook will contain the following timetable for transition:

Multi-party talks, which were suspended last May, resume before the end of this month;

By June, a Transitional Executive Council made up of black and white politicians is in place, its purpose to ensure the impartiality of the security forces, state broadcasting and the electoral mechanisms prior to the holding of free and fair elections;

By October the multi-party forum has reached agreement on a transitional constitution and a bill of rights, which will establish the divisions of power within an interim government of national unity;

By April 1994 elections are held for the interim government, which will also draft the final constitution;

Within perhaps 12 months the constitution will be fixed in law and for the next four years the executive and the legislature will rule as a coalition government.

Neat as it now looks, the process is not without its obstacles and its potential pitfalls. The rhetorical vitriol, for example, will still fly. Genuine differences will emerge as the government seeks to set in stone as many power- sharing mechanisms as possible before the inevitable post-electoral dilution of its authority. And disputes over the exact degree to which power is to be distributed during the transition may delay the election date by some months.

But the more pressing problem the leaders of both the ANC and the government face is how to sell the new deal to their constituencies. The ANC leadership needs to bring on board those on the radical left whose thinking was best captured by Winnie Mandela two weeks ago when she denounced what she called the unseemly rush with which 'the elite' were hurrying to wrap themselves in 'the silken sheets' of power. The government also has to still mutterers within its ranks.

Chances are that each will succeed. ANC leaders' confidence that they will defuse the Winnie bomb rests on the belief that their supporters' energy will soon be channelled towards the urgent task of winning an election.

The government knows that the majority of the white population are too befuddled to rebel and that those on the far right, while they might throw stones at the train, will not derail it.

Mr de Klerk's bullish mood in recent days - 'We shall succeed,' he declared at the opening of parliament on 29 January - is built on the knowledge that the 'bitter-enders' in the party are losing their stomach for the old cause, worrying more about keeping their large homes than their parliamentary seats. Four senior ministers have resigned in the past 10 months, the last being the hawkish former defence minister General Magnus Malan, who announced a week ago that he was going fishing in Alaska.

The ANC and the government must also deal with 'the Buthelezi factor'. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, rejects the envisaged interim government-cum- constituent assembly. He wants the final constitution to be decided by a self-appointed, multi-party body in which Inkatha's bargaining capacity will rest less on its electoral support than on its capacity to mobilise to influence political events. But it is unlikely he will get what he wants.

Almost as phenomenal a development as the power-sharing compromise has been the transformation in the government's attitude to Inkatha. Only six months ago government spokesmen were publicly identifying Mr Buthelezi's organisation as a potential electoral ally. But last week Johan Steenkamp, a powerful National Party MP in Natal, said electoral surveys had shown that to equate Inkatha with all seven million Zulus was a myth. 'It is questionable that in an election the majority of Zulus would support Inkatha,' he said. 'We have also learnt that, such is the widespread aversion that Inkatha generates among the black community, that if we want to capture black votes, we have found it might be counterproductive for us to be identified with them.'

This view has not permeated through to all members of the government (one MP defected to Inkatha 10 ten days ago), much less to the whole white population. But Mr de Klerk shares Mr Steenkamp's view. The feeling is that if Inkatha insists on playing a spoiling role, it will be ditched.

The question remains, however, whether Inkatha's potential for violent disruption will flower again if it does not get its way. And the answer lies in the attitude of the security forces, the pillar of white minority power since the first colonists arrived in 1652.

The hidden manipulators of the security police and army intelligence have helped to orchestrate the Inkatha-ANC war of the last seven years, a war that has claimed some 10,000 lives.

Mr de Klerk has reined in the 'Third Force'. The decisive moment came on 19 December when he announced the retirement or dismissal of 23 officers - including six generals - involved in dirty tricks. But as with the ANC, he has realised that compromise is his only option. Mr de Klerk has made a deal with the generals, built on a commitment on his part not to prosecute. To push for justice, both the government and the ANC have come to realise, is to run the risk of civil war.

The imperative for stability, a prerequisite for the almost impossible task of economic reconstruction, is what underlies the historic compromises the ANC and the government have made over the new year. Such is their mutual resolve to achieve an orderly transition to democracy that the police and army are fully confident that soon they will be engaging in a novel task - repressing radicals of both right and left with the blessing of the ANC.

A taste of what might lie ahead came this week when a conflict involving black taxi-drivers brought Johannesburg to a standstill. The government proclaimed a state of emergency in the centre of the city and police unleashed their dogs, tear-gas and ammunition with the gusto of old. The ANC barely raised a murmur.

The true measure of just how far South Africa's two great historical antagonists have progressed is provided by the fact that today the question in most political analysts' minds is not if they will reach a deal, but when. For the core issue of power has been fundamentally resolved.

In the interests of peace and stability, each side has accepted that there will be no big bang. No day, as Mr Eglin put it, when one flag will go down and another will go up. 'No, it will not be as exciting as it might have been. But it will be as exciting as it should be.'

(Photograph omitted)

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