Snipers of left and right target SA talks

DETERMINED to buck historical trends and prove that the pen is mightier than the sword, negotiators and would-be constitution-makers from the South African government and the African National Congress (ANC) met yesterday in Cape Town to confront the latest of numerous challenges to their idealism.

Once again, the drive for a peaceful political settlement is under fire from snipers of left and right determined to pursue their political aims by more traditional South African methods.

It emerged yesterday that eight alleged ANC members had been arrested in connection with cross-border weapons smuggling; that police had seized arms from an Inkatha-controlled single men's hostel in Soweto; that a shadowy and possibly fictitious group calling itself the South African Republican Army had claimed responsibility for the killing of six people at a squatter camp on Sunday and that a notorious army special forces battalion which eight months ago the government said would be disbanded was still in operation.

Reports in yesterday's South African press that, in the light of these developments, the future of negotiations hung in the balance were an exaggeration - almost certainly disinformation by government sources eager to dispel the entirely correct impression that constitutional talks with the ANC have reached an advanced stage of consensus. For the government, and indeed the ANC, fears alienating troublesome radicals by letting out of the bag too soon the news that they have struck a substantial private deal, the core of which involves delaying majority rule, but sharing power, until the end of the century.

The impact of these latest spasms is likely, however, to strengthen the hands of those who reject such a deal, to pose tough new political challenges for those in favour and to delay the negotiations.

The most urgent issue concerns the alleged ANC gun-runners, who were caught last week bringing 34 hand- grenades, 22 pistols, two rocket launchers, six rockets and 2,800 rounds of AK- 47 ammunition from Swaziland into Natal, the province where ANC and Inkatha supporters have been at war for seven years. The ANC, which confirmed that five of the arrested men were members of the organisation, insisted yesterday that the mission had not been authorised at senior level.

Muddying the waters, however, was the response of the ANC's most popular Natal leader, Harry Gwala. Mr Gwala, the voice of those Zulus who view their Inkatha cousins with as much loathing as the Croats do the Serbs, was as disarmingly blunt as ever. 'I don't think we should pretend,' he said, 'that we don't try to obtain arms ourselves, or else how can we defend our people.'

For once, the customary cries of outrage from Inkatha have not been forthcoming, perhaps because on Tuesday the police arrested four men after the seizure of 15 AK-47s, three Makarov pistols and nine other 9mm guns plus ammunition in Dube hostel, Soweto. This rare police raid on an Inkatha bastion holds implications no less ominous than the ANC weapons haul, because in recent months political violence in Soweto has declined dramatically.

As to the emergence of the so-called South African Republican Army and the reluctance of the real army to disband 32 Battalion, manned entirely by Angolan-born soldiers with an unparalleled reputation for ferocity, the suspicion lingers in ANC minds that the dark forces on the right of the security apparatus are still pursuing their own disruptive 'Third Force' agenda.