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National Agenda : White Parliament Ready for Last Hurrah : South Africa has issued a 'death sentence' for 140-year-old institution. Soon, multiracial lawmaking will be a reality.


CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Behind the Corinthian columns of Parliament, in the great debating hall, the paneling is South African stinkwood, the leather is English, the carpet is Irish and the honorable lawmakers come in nearly every size, shape and color--except black African.

So it has been for 140 years in South Africa.

In all that time, no black man or black woman has cast a vote in Parliament or given a speech on the floor. No black South African--or black foreigner--could even eat in the dining rooms until Parliament converted a cafeteria a few years back and constructed a short-cut footbridge to keep those dark-skinned guests from passing through the lobby.

Now, though, all that is about to change. In a big way.

The fifth session of the ninth Parliament, the supreme power of South Africa, opened last month for its traditional five-month sitting. The elected members have arrived daily in their German luxury cars to debate the budget, question the government, solemnly consider the abstruse legislative package of President Frederik W. de Klerk and, of course, collect their salaries.

But they know their days are numbered. In fact, this is likely to be the last full session for a white-dominated Parliament in South Africa. The members' most important remaining tasks will be to give legal force to the transition to democracy and to clear out their desks.

"We're mostly filling time, waiting for the day when we do ourselves out of business," said Tony Leon, a member of the liberal Democratic Party. "I wouldn't say we're exactly overburdened at the moment.

"We have a death sentence," he added. "But we don't know the day of the execution."

Three long years after De Klerk began to dismantle apartheid, South Africa finally is preparing to begin the process that will propel this country of 39 million people over the final stretch of uncharted road toward the first democratic elections in its 300-year history.

Black and white leaders plan to meet March 5 to give new life to the process of constitutional negotiations, which collapsed in disarray and acrimony nine months ago. They will set a date, probably within weeks, to resume multi-party constitutional talks.

If all goes according to plan, Parliament will formally shed the South African constitution by October, rubber-stamp the decisions of multi-party negotiators and set an election date for March or April of 1994.

Voters will elect a constituent assembly, which will make a final decision on the functions, powers and even the name of South Africa's most important governing body. Whatever it is called, the new Parliament will undoubtedly include blacks for the first time.

Decisions on the future of South Africa no longer are being made by Parliament. And although many members of Parliament also are participating in negotiations, the body itself has become so unimportant that the African National Congress didn't even bother with its annual protest march on Parliament this year.

Yet, the supreme objective of all these black and white political warriors is control of this two-block-long collection of buildings in the center of Cape Town.

The buildings of Parliament, some of which date to the 19th Century, are among the most beautiful architectural accouterments of this attractive city. And the halls and chambers reek with the white history of this land.

It was in Cape Town, in 1652, that a man named Jan van Riebeeck established an outpost of the Dutch East India Co. and a company-run government. To get here, he passed Robben Island, later to become the infamous penal colony where the white rulers kept anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela for most of his 27 years in prison.

The southern tip of Africa soon passed from Dutch to British rule. Then, in 1909, the British granted South Africa a parliamentary government with a whites-only franchise, and, in 1961, the country left the Commonwealth and became a fully independent republic.

King George VI opened Parliament in 1947, and giant portraits of British royalty now clutter a dark museum on the grounds. The king's daughter, Elizabeth, celebrated her 21st birthday here a few steps from Parliament in the ballroom of Tuynhuys, which is now President De Klerk's Cape Town office.

South Africa's Parliament has borrowed heavily from the mother of all parliaments. As in Britain, each session opens with a procession down a narrow carpet, the width of two swords, and the sergeant-at-arms places a 4 1/2-foot mace in front of the House Speaker. But in South Africa, like nowhere else in the world, that 17-pound mace is made of solid gold.

South Africa's government is divided among three provincial capitals. The executive branch is headquartered in Pretoria, north of Johannesburg. The highest court in the land is in Bloemfontein, in the center of the country. And Parliament sits in Cape Town.

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