The end is nigh for 'separate development' : The dustbin of history beckons for the 'homelands', writes John Carlin

CAPE TOWN - Apartheid's most absurd, costly and pernicious enterprise looks set for the dustbin of history after the disclosure of South African government plans to terminate a system, the black 'homelands', about which it is impossible to write without constant recourse to ironic inverted commas.

Sooner or later it had to happen, but government sources have told the local press they hope that by mid-year the governments of Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei might no longer be entitled officially to persist with the delusion that they preside over independent states. The only country in the world to recognise their sovereign status is South Africa, whose apartheid engineers bestowed this condition on them in the first place.

The conventional wisdom, as propagated by President F W de Klerk, has been that apartheid disappeared when the white parliament made it legal for blacks to live, to walk, to swim wherever they liked. But this is not strictly true and will not be until the disappearance of the homelands, a scheme driven by the 'grand apartheid' notion of driving blacks out of South Africa's rich industrial and fertile rural areas into purportedly tribal reservations where they could 'develop separately'.

Nothing of the kind happened. On the one hand, Pretoria's subsidies to the notoriously corrupt and inefficient homeland administrations - four are 'independent', another six are 'self-governing' - are due to cost the South African treasury 16.8bn rand ( pounds 3.6bn) this year. On the other, the political legitimacy of their respective governments has been, at best, highly questionable - especially in the four 'republics'.

Transkei, Venda and Ciskei are ruled by military governments that won power through coups. Bophuthatswana is ruled by a civilian government that cancelled elections last year after it turned out that the standing MPs were running unopposed. 'Bop', as it is known, does not allow the African National Congress (ANC) or the Congress of South African Trade Unions to operate on the grounds that they are foreign organisations.

The position at present is that Transkei and Venda, which are allies of the ANC, are keen in principle on reincorporation. Bophuthatswana and Ciskei, which have ties with the Inkatha Freedom Party and the white far right, are wavering.

Lucas Mangope, the President of Bophuthatswana, is on record as having said that his country would never relinquish its independence. But the mood has changed during the recent multi-party talks, where the air is thick with plans for a federal future. Last week Mr Mangope's government was engaged in what officials described as 'extremely delicate' bilateral discussions with Pretoria.

Two obvious explanations exist for the South African government's sudden interest in resolving the homelands question. One is that, under the present constitutional dispensation, plans to hold democratic elections in the next year must of necessity exclude the populations of the four 'independents'. The other is that the government's white constituency has been driven into a frenzy by recent reports that Transkei has been harbouring the Azanian People's Liberation Army, a minnow outfit that claims its policy is to kill whites.

Government statements have portrayed Transkei's young leader, General Bantu Holomisa, as a South African Saddam Hussein and, only last week, the South African security forces mounted a huge operation designed to cordon off Transkei with 'a ring of steel'.

Gen Holomisa said on Friday that he would quite cheerfully see the reincorporation of Transkei once such a move had been agreed in multi-party talks. This is also the ANC position.

The ANC is more eager than anyone to see the homelands dissolved but, as a statement on Saturday explained, it does not want this to be the consequence of unilateral government action. First, it rejects the principle of the government making such decisions without multi-party consultation. Second, it does not want the government to take the credit for a move certain to translate into political points among the vast majority of the homelands' inhabitants.