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South Africa ends white rule: Approval of interim constitution prepares way for multi-racial democracy

THREE centuries of white rule in South Africa ended yesterday as parliament approved a new interim constitution that will usher in a multi-racial democracy in April.

Cries of amandla (power) from five white African National Congress MPs greeted passage of the 223-page Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Bill in the segregated tri-cameral parliament, while Conservative Party MPs shouted 'traitor' towards the government benches and rose to sing the Afrikaner national anthem, Die Stem (The Call).

By approving the measure, the fruit of two years of negotiations between President F W de Klerk's National Party government and the ANC and 19 smaller parties, parliament effectively voted itself out of 83 years of existence. But its future remained unclear, since it was likely to be recalled into session late next month to consider new amendments to appease conservative critics of the transition to democracy.

The new constitution represented a personal victory for the ANC president, Nelson Mandela who, together with the late Oliver Tambo, led the 81-year-old Congress, Africa's oldest liberation movement, into a largely unsuccessful armed struggle in 1961 and spent a quarter of a century in jail for his anti-apartheid activities before President de Klerk freed him on 11 February 1990. The two former adversaries jointly received this year's Nobel Peace prize.

'Now, for the first time, the future holds the promise of a brighter tomorrow,' Mr Mandela, who was en route to a Christmas vacation in the Bahamas, said in a statement issued by ANC headquarters in Johannesburg. '1994 must . . . be the year in which all South Africans, regardless of race, creed or gender, must take hands and work together to bring an end to the terrible violence that is tearing our country apart.'

The new constitution, which contains a bill of rights and a separation of executive, judicial and legislative powers, will give the black majority an equal share in government for the first time since Europeans began arriving on South Africa's shores 400 years ago.

Parliament's vote yesterday was somewhat anti-climatic after Tuesday night's decision by the government and the ANC to push back by one month the deadline for the conservative Freedom Alliance to accept the constitution and agree to participate in general elections on 27 April. 'The process never stops - that you must remember,' said the government's top negotiator, Roelf Meyer.

Approval of the constitution did not remove the Alliance's threat to a smooth transition to multi-racial government. The Alliance, an uneasy coalition of far-right Afrikaner groups, including the armed neo-Nazi Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging movement, and black leaders of South Africa's semi- autonomous 'homelands', has criticised the interim constitution for its alleged failure to devolve power to the provinces.

One of the chief components of the Alliance, the Afrikaner Volksfront, has held parallel negotiations with the ANC, which is widely expected to win the April polls, on a proposal to set up a white Afrikaner homeland known as the volkstaat.

A 'strategic interim agreement' on the issue drawn up by the ANC and the Volksfront was left unsigned on Tuesday after talks between the government, the ANC and the Alliance negotiators in Cape Town failed to reach agreement on proposed amendments to the constitution. Another important Alliance player, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, has accused the government and the ANC of planning to destroy his KwaZulu government centred in the eastern province of Natal.

Both Inkatha and the Volksfront have threatened to resort to armed violence if their demands are not met. The government and the ANC, the prime movers of the new constitution, have demanded that the Alliance commit itself to rejoining the democratic process and agree to contest the April elections once agreement is reached on their amendments.

The Alliance's proposals include the scrapping of the proposed one-ballot system for the polls in favour of two ballots - one for regional and one for national governments - as well as greater powers for provincial governments.

(Photograph omitted)