The secret government-ANC agreement, the details of which were disclosed in yesterday's Independent on Sunday, has involved big compromises by both sides. The government has relented on earlier commitments to entrench the notion of 'power-sharing' in a new constitution but the ANC has agreed to such a system - an 'interim government of national unity' - for a period of five years after the elections.
The first stage in the process envisaged by South Africa's two leading political players is multi-party talks at the end of this month. Every significant political organisation has agreed to participate, but a delay seems possible because the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelethini, insists that he too should lead a delegation.
The ANC rejects the idea out of hand because they detect behind the move the hand of the King's uncle, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party. Chief Buthelezi, who manages the King's purse strings and keeps him politically in his pocket, has said he will not take part in the talks unless the King does. The explanation is that he sees a Zulu royal delegation as a useful means of bolstering Inkatha's negotiating strength, which he will need since he is determined to block plans for an election which is certain to confirm the ANC as South Africa's majority party.
But Chief Buthelezi is no fool politically and knows that elections, of one sort or another, are inevitable sooner or later. In which case he wishes to have King Goodwill identified as a partner in voters' minds in order to maximise his appeal to Zulu traditionalists.
Senior government figures are known to be irritated with Chief Buthelezi's spoiling tactics, especially as they have had their eyes opened in recent months and realised that his claims to represent the majority of Zulus are seriously to be doubted. An MP of the ruling National Party said last week that, according to internal electoral surveys, Inkatha would command at most 8 per cent of the national vote.
But, given that every poll taken in recent years has given the ANC a commanding lead over all other parties, the government has also asked itself why the ANC is so resistant to the participation of the King in the talks.
The answer lies in the ANC's need to appease its own supporters. The secret deal reached in bilateral talks with the government will prove hard to sell to ANC hardliners. And they come no harder than the ANC's Zulu constituency in Natal province. Tensions have been running high between the ANC's Natal leadership and the national leadership over the latter's perceived willingness to talk to Chief Buthelezi and, generally, to capitulate to government demands. To accept the participation of King Goodwill in the talks would be to impose more strain on this already dangerously tenuous relationship.
In the end, the government will be forced to make a choice. As a Western ambassador said last week, either it joins forces with the ANC to crush Inkatha or it joins forces with Inkatha to undermine the ANC. The mood in government circles indicates that it would opt for the former.