DURBAN, South Africa — Black and white political leaders from South Africa's Natal province opened talks here Thursday on establishing a multiracial legislature for the province in what many believe could become a model of power-sharing for the whole country.
Prof. Desmond Clarence, chairman of the conference, said that if these unprecedented negotiations succeed and a single government is established for the region, South Africa's civil unrest could be ended, since the black demand for full political rights would then be satisfied.
Although the focus of the talks will be on bringing together Natal and the autonomous Zulu tribal homeland of Kwazulu, Clarence said, the effort will be followed closely by the entire country, and an agreement on power-sharing here could become the first step toward a new national constitution.
The effort has wide support among Natal's white businessmen, farmers and community leaders. But the biggest push has come from Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, the chief minister of Kwazulu, whose 7 million Zulus would have the votes to control the controversial new provincial legislature, although presumably with constitutional checks and balances to protect the white, Indian and Colored (mixed-race) minorities here.
"None of us believes that apartheid can last," Buthelezi told the opening session at Durban's crowded City Hall. "Everyone of us knows that change is in the very air we breathe. . . . "
The country's deepening political crisis and Natal's own economic and social realities, he continued, have led people of all races to "recognize that they share but one destiny and they need to talk about that destiny now."
Kwazulu was carved out of bits and pieces of Natal 14 years ago under the apartheid policies of racial separation. The Zulu homeland remains 40 different areas, all shaped like jigsaw pieces. One envisioned result of the conference is to reintegrate Kwazulu and Natal.
Buthelezi also warned that, should the conference fail, "you will, in fact, have failed the people of South Africa as a whole" and proved to many of the country's 25 million blacks that the time for negotiations has passed and that only a revolution will give them power.
While black radicals already assert that "the only thing that is left to do is to maim, burn and kill in order to bring about change in this country," Buthelezi said, "we say such a moment has not come as yet, and we pray that it will never come."
Although militant anti-apartheid groups, including the outlawed African National Congress, the United Democratic Front coalition of anti-apartheid groups and the Natal Indian Congress, were invited, they refused to join Buthelezi's Inkatha, a predominantly Zulu political movement, at the conference. They reject any regional solution to what they see as a national problem and view Buthelezi as a government collaborator.
The conference has also been condemned by right-wing white political parties, which want continued apartheid and insist upon racial separation and "white self-determination." The ruling National Party, uncertain of what the negotiations will produce and the effect they will have on its own program of step-by-step reforms, reluctantly agreed to send observers. Thirty-four political parties, business groups and other organizations accepted invitations to participate; seven turned them down.
Frank Martin, the senior member of Natal's executive council, urged other whites to put aside their fears and approach the negotiations with open minds and open hearts.
"Fear is our supreme enemy," Martin said, quoting from a speech at a similar provincial convention 25 years ago that failed to develop a new political system for Natal. "Fear is evil, fear is silly. Fear can destroy, but only love and faith and confidence can create."
The closed-door conference, called an indaba, the Zulu word for a round-table discussion, is expected to last six to eight months, and any decisions will require approval by the central government. An earlier agreement to merge, where possible, the administrative structures of Natal and Kwazulu is pending before the Cabinet.
Meanwhile, Winnie Mandela, wife of the imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, spent most of the day greeting thousands of well-wishers who came to welcome her back to her home in Soweto. She was allowed back after more than eight years in internal exile imposed by government orders intended to ban her from politics.
The government denied that it had formally lifted her "banning orders," in force almost continuously for 23 years, but it did say eventually that it would probably not oppose her court appeal against the orders.
Government spokesmen also left open the possibility that new orders might be drafted, complying with recent court decisions requiring that specific reasons be given for the action, and that her activities might again be restricted under the country's severe security laws.