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Next Step : South Africa's Path to a New Constitution Proves Bumpy : * Apartheid laws have been repealed, but much more must still be done before blacks can attain voting rights.


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A few days ago, the African National Congress moved into fancy new offices with dozens of secretaries, fax machines and expansive views 22 stories above downtown Johannesburg.

Long gone were the scruffy headquarters in Zambia, where the ANC once conducted business by telex and met foreign visitors at a local pub. Closed, too, were the prison cells on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela taught generations of ANC cadres about liberation politics.

"You can't say nothing has changed in South Africa," said Thabo Mbeki, the ANC's foreign affairs chief, as he awaited his next visitor--Pretoria's new ambassador to Italy. "Look at us here!"

"But," Mbeki added, pausing to smile through his black beard, "nothing has changed, really."

South Africa, for so long a bastion of racism brutally ruled by 5 million whites, is changing so rapidly under President Frederik W. de Klerk that hardly anyone--certainly not the ANC and not even the government--can keep up.

But, as Mbeki suggests, much remains to be done before the 28 million blacks attain the right to vote in the country of their birth.

The repeal of hundreds of apartheid laws in Parliament last month and the ANC's first national conference inside South Africa last week have marked the end of the first phase of the transition from the old South Africa to the new South Africa.

Now the country prepares to begin the important, and more difficult, task of writing a new constitution.

But the country that Mbeki, Mandela and the ANC expect to soon rule is today a confusing, contradictory place--one where apartheid laws are removed but discrimination remains, and where the future looks as smooth as the freeways one day and as potholed as a dusty township street the next.

The ANC, the organization with the broadest support among blacks, says De Klerk still has some work to do before the decks are clean and formal constitutional negotiations can begin. The ANC refuses to talk about a constitution until the last political prisoners are free, an estimated 40,000 exiles are allowed to return without fear of prosecution, violence is brought under control, and the last remnants of apartheid security laws are removed.

Nevertheless, both the government and the ANC say they are in a hurry. The government wants a constitution before 1994, when it will be forced under current law to call new white elections, which it might lose. And the ANC wants to move quickly to grab power and begin undoing the legacy of 43 years of apartheid.

Mandela, the ANC's new president, told delegates to last week's convention in Durban that the ANC must prepare for talks "sooner rather than later," and he urged his colleagues to draw up a political platform to contest the country's first multiracial election.

ANC delegates responded by electing a pro-negotiations team to its highest offices.

If a few final hurdles are removed, the next step on South Africa's road to democracy will be a multi-party conference, during which all black and white leaders with proven support will sit down together for the first time. Their agenda: to agree on basic principles of a new constitution, how that basic law will be drafted, and who will rule in the meantime. The conference could begin by the end of the year.

A sticking point, though, is the township violence. Over the past year, more than 3,000 blacks have died in fighting between supporters of the ANC and supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party, headed by Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi.

In Natal Province, Buthelezi's home base, where the fighting began several years ago, the war has been waged by Zulus against Zulus. When the trouble spread to Johannesburg-area townships last year, though, it pitted ANC supporters of various ethnic backgrounds against Zulu migrant workers from Natal who live in squalid dormitories, known as hostels.

The ANC has charged that the government's own security forces, which include many right-wing whites opposed to De Klerk's reforms, are behind the fighting, either through active support for Inkatha or a reluctance to take the steps necessary to stop it.

Even as the ANC staged its historic conference, the violence continued. The wife, daughter and grandson of one ANC delegate were killed in an attack on their house in the Vaal Triangle, south of Johannesburg. Witnesses said the attackers came from a nearby Zulu hostel.

ANC delegates responded by ordering their leaders to refuse to participate in the multi-party conference until De Klerk acts strongly to stem the violence. Until that happens, they said, they cannot be assured of De Klerk's sincerity.

The government contends the violence is the result of political positioning in the townships, exacerbated by the uncertainty of the transition to a new constitution. And it believes that the sooner constitutional negotiations begin, the sooner the conflict will end.

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