PRETORIA, South Africa — Ensconced in a tiny cubicle of a South African think tank, Barry de Villiers draws inspiration these days from the travails of America's Founding Fathers and the muggy summer of 1787.
"There were a number of times when it looked as if things would fall apart," the South African constitutional expert said recently, nodding toward an anecdotal book about the Philadelphia convention that he keeps on his desk.
"At one point, one of the leaders--an old, grayish gentleman--said: 'Either this convention is going to break down or we will have to pray to see if we can keep it together,' " De Villiers noted.
The delegates prayed and eventually emerged with what is today the world's oldest written constitution.
Like the American colonies in 1787, South Africa in 1990 is preparing to write a new constitution. That document will, for the first time in the country's history, give blacks a vote in national government and formally bind this ethnically and politically diverse population under one democratic banner.
Whatever South Africa's constitution looks like in the end, it will be one of a kind, the experts say.
"We can study other countries, but after that we have to develop something new," said De Villiers, who heads the 6-month-old Center for Constitutional Analysis at the Human Sciences Research Council in Pretoria. "That's the most important lesson from the American experiment: Be original."
The government predicts that full-blown constitutional negotiations could begin early next year, and an urgent hunt for governmental models has begun in board rooms, drawing rooms, think tanks, college classrooms, law offices and political party meetings across the country.
Hundreds of reports, pamphlets and books on possible constitutions have been produced. Dozens of constitutions, from Belgium's and Switzerland's to Fiji's and Canada's, are jammed onto computer disks for analysis. And some academics even are studying the chaotic behind-the-scenes process by which the United States and other countries drew up and ratified their constitutions.
The primary goal of this cottage industry is to find a system that will extend full voting rights to 27 million blacks, correct the economic imbalances created by 42 years of apartheid and also safeguard the civil rights of 5 million whites.
President Frederik W. de Klerk has promised the white electorate a separate referendum on any new constitution. But it also must be acceptable to blacks, who will make up the largest voting bloc when it comes up for nationwide ratification.
"This is going to be a bumpy road, definitely. It would be naive to expect otherwise," said Margie Keeton, a member of the "Scenario Planning Team" at the giant business conglomerate, Anglo-American Corp.
Up to now, the government has been trying to persuade black and white opposition groups simply to accept its invitation to negotiate.
Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, which most analysts believe has the widest support among blacks, has tentatively agreed to participate, as have other black leaders, including Inkatha Freedom Party chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi.
Two left-wing black groups, the Pan-Africanist Congress and the Azanian People's Organization, and the right-wing white Conservative Party continue to hold out, and De Klerk said he will go ahead without them, if necessary.
But before even the preamble can be written, South Africa's competing political forces must agree on a negotiating forum.
The ANC wants a multiracial election to select an assembly to write the constitution. It also wants an interim government installed to watch over the country. The government has flatly refused both ANC demands but says it would be willing to grant black leaders a direct role in government during the negotiations.
Most analysts believe those differences can be overcome, though, and that constitutional negotiations are imminent.
In the meantime, South Africa is bulging with suggested political alternatives that would do everything from breaking the country into pieces to creating a socialist state:
* The Conservative Party favors the status quo--keeping South Africa and its major cities under white control and allowing blacks to govern only in the nominally independent "homelands."
* The Oranje-Werkers Unie (Orange Workers Union) wants to carve a large, irregularly shaped chunk out of the fertile and mineral-rich center of the country where whites already outnumber blacks, leaving the rest of South Africa to black majority rule.
* Seventy-five families who support Carel Boshoff's Afrikaner Volkswag (People's Guardian), a cultural movement, have already moved into what he envisions as a white homeland on rugged territory in the northern Cape Province.