EFFORTS to mollify conservative opponents of South Africa's new interim constitution reached a farcical impasse yesterday, with right-wing Afrikaners refusing to sign a peace accord they had reached with the African National Congress, and the country's top political negotiators debating the meaning of the word 'commitment'.
General Constand Viljoen, the leader of the Afrikaner Volksfront movement, appeared at a Johannesburg press conference called to unveil a 'strategic interim agreement' with the ANC and promptly announced he could not sign it for fear of undermining his conservative allies in the Freedom Alliance. His statement came after a breakdown in trilateral talks in Cape Town between President F W de Klerk's National Party government, the ANC and the Freedom Alliance, an uneasy coalition of Afrikaner groups and leaders of South Africa's semi-autonomous black homelands.
'The attitude of the people in the Cape may have dashed the last opportunity of finding a peaceful settlement for South Africa, at least for the time being,' General Viljoen said. 'We feel betrayed.'
Both General Viljoen and Jacob Zuma, the ANC deputy secretary general, said they would respect the accord that committed both parties to continue negotiations over the Volksfront's proposed autonomous homeland for Afrikaners, known as the volkstaat (people's state). Both appeared critical of the on-again, off-again talks in Cape Town designed to bring the Freedom Alliance back into mainstream politics. They said, however, they would set up a joint task force to look into what the establishment of a volkstaat would entail.
General Viljoen said that on Monday he had presented the government with amendments, which would have allowed a future accord on a volkstaat to be implemented and which the Volksfront-ANC accord provided for, but these were rejected. 'This to me is a red light and I get the impression that the people are not taking us seriously and that there is very little regard for the efforts that we as a joint negotiating team here made,' he said.
President de Klerk criticised General Viljoen's statement, saying: 'He should stick to military affairs - his assessment is nave. We have bent over backwards. If it was not for our efforts to bring the Freedom Alliance aboard the process, Parliament would long ago have completed its business.'
The parallel Cape Town talks were described as a last-ditch effort to consider amendments put foward by the Freedom Alliance before parliament's scheduled approval tomorrow of the interim constitution. The negotiations broke down over the insistence of the ANC's senior negotiator, Cyril Ramaphosa, that the Alliance leaders commit themselves in writing to participate in the country's first multiracial general elections on 27 April and the Transitional Executive Council, an advisory body with special powers to oversee South Africa's transition to democratic rule. Mr Ramaphosa's position, supported by Mr de Klerk's top negotiator, Roelf Meyer, was that until the Alliance made such a commitment its proposed amendments calling for greater regional autonomy could not be considered. Alliance negotiators argued that a commitment was possible only after agreement on their amendment proposals.
Mr Ramaphosa's insistence on an immediate commitment by the Alliance parties to join the transition process contradicted the agreement drawn up by the ANC negotiating team and the Volksfront. Their accord clearly stated that Volksfront would 'consider participation in the transitional structures and process' only after a 'final settlement' on the volkstaat issue in January.
Whether or not parliament approves the new constitution as scheduled tomorrow, most analysts expect the negotiations to continue into next year, with a possible recall of parliament in January to consider additional amendments. 'The door remains open - even next year,' said a government negotiator, Danie Schutte. Mr Ramaphosa likened the marathon talks to 'pulling teeth without anaesthetic'.
In the meantime, General Viljoen pledged to try to keep his right-wing constituency in line. 'I am calling on our supporters to remain calm. I am worried because there is a degree of impatience. It might explode unexpectedly. The tension is arriving at the breaking point.'
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