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Next Step : S. Africa's Conference of Many Colors : The ruling Afrikaners are about to sit down with their longtime enemies of the African National Congress. Even if successful, these 'talks about talks' are only the beginning of a long and rocky journey.


CAPE TOWN, South Africa — On one side is President Frederik W. de Klerk and the seven most powerful men in South Africa, each of them white and each of them an Afrikaner.

All but one were children when their fathers' generation forced apartheid onto South Africa, and they grew up in the cradle of white privilege. Now middle-aged lawyers, professors and businessmen, they say they want to break with the past and end apartheid.

On the other side, in a rainbow of colors, are 11 leaders of the enemy--the African National Congress, the guerrilla movement that has waged war on Pretoria for 30 years.

Older than De Klerk's men, most are in their 60s or 70s. They include a black economist, a white Afrikaner pastor, a mixed-race teacher and both black and white lawyers.

Five have spent half a lifetime in exile in Lusaka, Zambia, vilified by successive Pretoria governments as terrorists. Three have spent half their lives in prison here in this city. And three others have spent half their lives under police surveillance, banning orders and periodic detention inside their country.

These two warring sides come together Wednesday on the tip of Africa, where the Afrikaner ancestors of De Klerk's delegation first settled among the indigenous tribes of Africa three centuries ago.

Their three days of historic talks, coming amid a whirlwind of change in South Africa, will be the first important test of the chances for peace.

But even if the talks are successful--and there is no guarantee of that--they will mark only the beginning of a long, rocky journey to the negotiating table and, later, an even more jarring trip toward a new constitution.

"What we have at the moment is a compromise--the ANC and the government are talking to each other about talking to each other," said Mark Phillips, a researcher at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. "But neither side has met the other's preconditions for talks."

On the table in Cape Town will be the ANC's preconditions for negotiations. It wants the four-year-old state of emergency lifted, returning exiles indemnified from prosecution for past crimes and political prisoners freed from South Africa's jails.

"It's going to be quite a difficult process to keep this thing on the rails," said Cheryl Carolus, a Cape Town anti-apartheid activist and one of the ANC delegates. "There need to be a lot more gestures on the state side."

Also up for discussion is increasing violence in the country and the government's insistence that the ANC end its armed struggle. The ANC's guerrilla war has been dormant for months now, and Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu has publicly urged its demise.

The ANC has refused, though, until the government agrees to a mutual cease-fire.

Most political analysts expect the government to meet some of the ANC's demands in the coming months, if not sooner. The state of emergency, key sections of which were abandoned by De Klerk in February, could be partially lifted, analysts say.

And the government may be prepared to begin releasing political prisoners as well. In recent weeks a few prisoners have been freed early, and restrictions on those activists still in prison have been eased.

Any progress will depend, though, on getting these two widely divergent groups of South Africans to see eye-to-eye. And that may hinge on personalities.

De Klerk and ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela, the delegation leaders, have met three times and spoken of their mutual respect. While in prison, Mandela also met often with Gerrit Viljoen, a retired professor of classics who is minister of constitutional development, and Hendrick (Kobie) Coetzee, minister of justice.

But this will be the government's first encounter with ANC exiles such as Thabo Mbeki, 47, the pipe-smoking head of international affairs. Mbeki, a first among equals in the ANC's exile headquarters, has charmed hundreds of white South African visitors to Lusaka with his relaxed, urbane demeanor.

The most controversial members of the teams are likely to be Adriaan Vlok, the government minister of law and order, and Joe Modise, the commander of the ANC's military wing. The government's longstanding distaste for communism also may put it at odds with Joe Slovo, a white lawyer and former ANC military commander who is general secretary of the South African Communist Party.

Even if the delegations manage to get beyond their immediate differences, a host of other obstacles to a peaceful future in South Africa lurk just beyond the meeting room. Among them are:

* The ANC wants a new constitution to be drawn up by a constituent assembly, elected in a one-person, one-vote election for all races. However, the government believes that the constitution can be drawn up by "recognized leaders" in South Africa without a vote.

* Violence in the black townships, which the South African Institute of Race Relations says is running at the highest level in modern times.

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