CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Frustrated by its past inability to open a dialogue with South Africa's black leaders on the country's future, President Pieter W. Botha's government, in a major policy shift, says it is now ready to talk with those it once rejected as "radicals" and to discuss issues that previously were "non-negotiable."
Stoffel van der Merwe, Botha's new deputy minister for constitutional development, said in an interview that the initiative has the long-term goal of drafting a new constitution that for the first time would bring blacks fully into the national government.
But in the short term, he added, the negotiations themselves could help reduce the political tensions that, the white-led minority government has acknowledged, propelled the country toward revolution and civil war over the last three years.
Could Include 'Radicals'
"Not all those people regarded as 'radicals' are ideologically committed to violence," Van der Merwe said, stressing the government's intention to draw as many black leaders into the proposed talks as possible. "People who use violence as a strategy are also not necessarily excluded, as long as they can be persuaded."
The government is similarly ready to commit itself to an open agenda for the negotiations and will impose no conditions, Van der Merwe said. "If there are preconditions, there is no sense in talking to people," he added.
And, although he will attempt to sell the Nationalists' concept of "power sharing" as the basis for a new constitution, Van der Merwe said the government accepts the fact that black leaders will put forward much different proposals, including a demand for one person-one vote, and that major compromises will be necessary.
Van der Merwe, a political scientist from the ruling National Party's liberal wing, also continues to serve as deputy minister for information. He said, however, that his new assignment reflects the government's determination to speed up the search for a peaceful resolution of the country's future and its hope that preliminary discussions, already dubbed "talks about talks," will lead soon to full-fledged constitutional negotiations.
'We Have to Get Along'
"The basic message to get across is that we are all South Africans and have to get along with one another," he commented. "Then one has to listen--that is a major part of the whole process."
The 47-year-old deputy minister reports directly to Botha, rather than to J. Christiaan Heunis, the minister of constitutional development and planning, who has long been the architect of the government's step-by-step political reforms.
Once regarded as a likely successor to the president, Heunis was reelected to Parliament last month by a margin of only 39 votes, and he now appears to have been eclipsed by Van der Merwe as the government's chief negotiator.
Botha pledged at the opening of Parliament here last month to become personally involved in negotiations with black leaders. He also renewed his proposal for a national council as a forum both for constitutional discussions and for interim black participation in the government.
Sees Mandate to Negotiate
The National Party's victory in last month's whites-only parliamentary election gave the government a mandate to negotiate with blacks, Van der Merwe said.
"If we have to go back to the white electorate without being able to prove substantial progress, then we are going to be in trouble," he added.
But Botha's offer has been met with considerable suspicion among blacks who saw the national council as a vehicle to prevent their inclusion in Parliament, and the negotiations based on "power sharing" as a further postponement of majority rule.
Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, the influential Zulu leader whose participation could be crucial to any negotiations' success, commented: "The state president must tell the world what his intentions about negotiations are. . . . Before we get on the train, we want to know where it's going."
Must Establish Credibility
Van der Merwe said that as a result of such attitudes among blacks, his first task will be to establish the government's credibility among skeptical black leaders, most of whom have repeatedly refused to be drawn into a political dialogue.
The black leaders have set tough conditions for their participation, including an end to the year-old state of emergency, legalization of the African National Congress and the release of political prisoners.
These conditions, the deputy minister said, could become the topic for the initial talks, along with the agenda of fuller negotiations. He said his first discussions with individual black leaders will be at an "invisible level" to build trust and to lay the groundwork for broader talks.