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Next Step : New Spirit of Reconciliation Is Moving in South Africa : The changing atmosphere is clear as the government and at least 19 political organizations prepare for talks on democratization.


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Frederik and Marike de Klerk scan the Bible each year for just the right words for their Christmas card, searching for a passage that most clearly sums up their guiding principle for the new year.

This year, the devout South African president and his wife found that message in the Book of Job: "Let us then examine for ourselves what is right; let us together establish the true good."

A similar message of compromise and reconciliation is being heard all across South Africa this Yuletide season, from blacks and whites, capitalists and Communists, farmers and urbanites, maids and madams.

The new spirit has emerged as more than 200 black and white representatives of at least 19 political organizations prepare for the opening this Friday and Saturday of the historic Convention for a Democratic South Africa at the World Trade Center in Johannesburg.

De Klerk's zest for reform has led this country through 22 months of political awakening and unprecedented violence, kindling optimism among South African blacks and fear among many whites.

Now the president's groundwork has been laid. The "talks about talks" are over. And the long-awaited formal negotiations on the future, the grandest indaba (meeting) in South Africa's history, are ready to begin removing the grip of white-minority domination and extending a vote to 28 million blacks.

Left-wing blacks are boycotting the talks, arguing that their demand for a transfer of power from De Klerk to the black majority is not negotiable. Right-wing whites also are staying away, refusing to even discuss their demand for a separate white state with the "Communists and anti-Christians" in the African National Congress.

But the 55-year-old De Klerk and his 73-year-old rival, African National Congress President Nelson Mandela, are committed to bridging decades of racial enmity and finding a solution together. And neither the radical left nor the radical right can stop those negotiations as long as the government and ANC remain at the table.

"I spoke to the president . . . and he's very positive and convinced that what he's doing is right," said De Klerk's pastor, Rev. Pieter Bingle, in Cape Town.

Mandela also has high hopes for the negotiations, having recently told the U.N. General Assembly that a new constitution for South Africa could be ready in a year.

The two-day convention, already being called by its acronym, CODESA, will formally launch a new era of lengthy, difficult negotiations with an open session under the chairmanship of two judges--Ismail Mahomed, South Africa's first black judge, and Petrus Schabort.

Joining the government, the ruling National Party, the ANC and the Communist Party in the hall will be delegations from a variety of less-powerful political groups, including the Inkatha Freedom Party of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi and the liberal white Democratic Party. Also attending will be leaders of the four nominally independent black homelands and the five self-governing homelands.

Although it is being enthusiastically welcomed across most of South Africa, the convention is only a symbolic first step toward a new constitution, on which the government and the ANC still have major, seemingly insurmountable differences.

After speeches by the participants this week, CODESA delegates plan to issue two important declarations setting the tone for the negotiations. The first will be a statement of general constitutional principles, on which the government and the ANC already have reached substantial agreement. Both major players share a desire for a united, non-racial South Africa with a bill of rights, a vote for all, separation of powers, a multi-party democracy, regular elections and an independent judiciary.

The second declaration will be an agreement by the government to abide by and implement the decisions of CODESA. De Klerk has indicated his willingness to honor CODESA agreements, but he says those that require changes in the law will have to be approved first by the National Party-controlled Parliament, which opens its 1992 session Jan. 24.

ANC negotiators say that promise from the government is important because it will help resolve lingering doubts about De Klerk's sincerity among rank-and-file ANC members.

Then, CODESA will appoint working groups to study each item on its agenda. Those working groups, meeting behind closed doors next year, will do the horse-trading on the important first steps in the constitution-making process.

The most difficult negotiations will revolve around two questions--who will draft and adopt the new constitution, and what sort of transitional government should run the country in the interim.

ANC leaders strongly believe that the constitution must be written by a democratically elected body, and they support a one-person, one-vote national election for a "constituent assembly" of constitution drafters as soon as possible.

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