The surprise move, ostensibly in the interests of national unity and reconciliation between the country's two largest predominantly black parties, left the troublesome Buthelezi beaming. Before the cameras he was uncharacteristically humble, thanking Mandela for the faith he had entrusted in him, albeit for a mere 24 hours while Mandela and deputy president Thabo Mbeki attended an overseas conference.
The last month has been full of political surprises. The brief Buthelezi reign is the latest development in a period of unprecedented inter-party courting in South Africa. In an almost orgiastic frenzy, the two largest parties, the ANC and the National Party, have held assignations with almost every small party in South Africa.
The smaller parties have also been flirting with each other, with remarkable results. The Democratic Party (DP), representing the interests of white business, claims it can now do business with the black-consciousness, formerly separatist Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). The ANC has offered the DP a role in government and the PAC a seat in cabinet.
Two years before the next elections and three years after blacks got the vote, it seems hard realities have set in for both opposition and the ANC.
The exodus of white professionals, which began during the violent years of transition, continues, fuelled now by soaring crime rates. White flight is robbing the country of its skilled workers and professionals.
In the first nine months of 1996 nearly 8,000 emigrated from South Africa, including 2,200 professionals and managers. Although foreign professionals are still choosing to settle in South Africa - the largest numbers coming from the UK - last year only half of those who left were replaced. Hospitals all over the country face a severe shortage of medical staff.
In addition, the whites who remain are dropping out of the political process. A third are now categorised as "don't knows, won't vote".
"The skilled and professional white classes appear to be losing hope," says Tony Leon, leader of the DP, which has just seven of the 400 parliamentary seats but has the might of white-owned business behind it. Whites are, he says, overwhelmed by simple arithmetic: post-apartheid the minority white population (10 per cent) feels suffocated by the 80 per cent black majority.
Leon says this calls for a change in mind-set, not depression. "They have to realise that it is not just about numbers but also about influence."
So far it is the National Party - with 82 seats, the second largest parliamentary party - not the DP, that is bearing the brunt of white desertion. Roelf Meyer, secretary general of the party which stubbornly promoted apartheid for more than 40 years, says South Africa only has to look to Zimbabwe, its northern neighbour, to see the future. "There the white community has isolated itself and withdrawn from politics," he says.
The ANC is in an enviable political position. No one doubts it will win the 1999 and 2004 elections. The party currently holds 252 parliamentary seats against a combined opposition of 148. But while the white drop-out terrifies the traditionally white parties it provides no comfort to Mandela and the ANC who want to hold on to white wealth and expertise.
Hence the president's offer two weeks ago of a role in government for Tony Leon. The move may be well-intentioned, but political analysts warn that profoundly undemocratic dangers lurk just beneath the surface. Pulling into government the DP and the PAC (which has criticised the ANC's failure to deliver basic services to poor blacks) may mute critical voices and stunt the growth of a viable opposition.
The emergence of a real rival to the ANC continues to preoccupy South Africa. Despite fighting talk across the entire political spectrum, there are few signs of any real threat to the ruling party. It is six months since the National Party walked out of the ANC-dominated Government of National Unity promising to become a vigorous opposition.
Amidst the chintz and lace ofanAfrikaner Koffiehuis Roelf Meyer earnestly explains how his National Party is struggling to transform itself into a multiracial party. Meyer, who led the negotiations for the National Party in South Africa's peaceful political transition in 1994, is upbeat but still a worried man. There has been no breakthrough in attracting black voters. The party currently controls just one province, the Western Cape, thanks to working-class Coloureds: not white enough for the past and not black enough for today.
Meyer's latest controversial proposal, made two weeks ago, is that the the party disband and reform under another name. "A name change has to reflect real changes in the party and in policies," says Meyer who wants to go into the next election with a name that reflects its African heritage and its commitment to the continent; a proposal that does not exactly thrill the party diehards.
Meyer emphasises the name change will achieve nothing if the Nats do not attract a substantial black base. "The only solution for whites is to build a partnership with blacks," he says with some conviction.
Meyer has only to look around the Koffiehuis to spot the difficulties with a black-white alliance. There is one black among the 70 customers. The only other blacks are working in the kitchen. Meyer, popular with some blacks for the warm relationship he built up with Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC's outgoing general secretary, during the 1994 negotiations, has visited Soweto several times. The National Party runs an office in the township manned by black activists. It has not been burnt down yet, he says with a smile. But neither has it managed to make any real impact on 3 per cent black support.
And while Meyer takes the occasional beer in Soweto's shebeens, most National supporters have never visited a township or know blacks socially. Despite all the changes of the last two years South Africa remains firmly trussed-up in its racial straightjacket.
It is this continuing racial rigidity which ensures a name change will not help Meyer "one iota", according to Professor Laurie Schlemmer, of the Centre for Policy Studies.
For many the idea of a multi-racial opposition led by the NP was always ludicrous. "It would be like putting King Herod in charge of a creche," says Tony Leon. But Schlemmer says the weight of the National Party's apartheid baggage is exaggerated. The NP is failing to attract blacks because it has no grassroots networks in black areas, and partnerships are impossible when there is so little social interaction between blacks and whites. "Before you can get real political integration you need social integration," he says.
To look to existing parties for a viable opposition is pointless according to Pallo Jordan, environment minister and one of the ANC's prominent thinkers.
He laughs at the notion of the National Party addressing issues affecting poor blacks while it continues to champion bills to save the Afrikaans- language schools.
"Have they campaigned on clean water or electricity?" he asks. "No, because the only whites who don't have electricity are hippies who don't want it. They are yesterday's party. They should fold up their tents and go home."
Not everyone is as scathing. But some analysts, like the smaller parties, pin their hopes on an internal split in the ANC to create real opposition.
In the past six months the first signs of strains within the ANC and with its left-wing allies - the Communist Party and the unions - have emerged.
Stephen Friedman, of the Centre for Policy Studies, says of the ANC: "It has held everyonetogetherbybeing extremely vague and fuzzy and - except for the exile period - being very tolerant of differences. There are dangers now it is in government."
ANC grassroots members have complained of arrogance and authoritarianism among the leadership. In the Free State, Premier Patrick "Terror" Lekota, one of the ANC's most popular and respected figures, was removed by the leadership after making corruption allegations against local ANC officials. It caused a huge public outcry supported even by conservative white farmers. ANC chiefs were accused of riding roughshod over local opinion and of bugging the telephones of activists.
This weekend Bantu Holomisa, a former ANC minister recently expelled from the party after accusing senior party figures, including President Mandela, of accepting favours from a casino magnate, held a rally in support of a new opposition party. Hundreds of ANC members ignored a warning that attendance could cost them party membership.
But Holomisa faces an uphill task. Despite support from a few other ANC "populists" - like Mandela's ex-wife Winnie who has reclaimed the chairmanship of the ANC Women's Committee since her own casting-out - Holomisa has discovered how cold it can be outside the party.
Analysts believe the best hope for real opposition lies in the spread of voter alienation beyond whites. Opinion polls show that this at least is something whites and blacks are beginning to share.
It is the remoteness of politicians that is spreading disaffection. The electoral system adopted in 1994 is not constituency-based. And although the ANC talks of changes, the current system - where the party and not an individual is elected - allows it enormous power of patronage.
But given the present racial deadlock, the courting of the parties seems destined to continue; the smaller parties are empowered by the ANC's desire to keep whites - and more radical blacks - on board, and occasionally torment the ANC by feigning interest in other liaisons.
Buthelezi's surprise appointment was rumoured to be partly motivated by the ANC's desire to ensure that his Inkatha Freedom Party's recent talks with the National Party came to nothing.