JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Government officials were scrambling yesterday to repair the damage to South Africa's shiny new image after revelations of government payoffs to opponents of the African National Congress.
Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok said that he was considering whether to resign and that he might do so if he is becoming an obstacle to the country's 17-month-old reform process.
"If I am an obstacle, then I will reconsider my position," he said. "I am reconsidering, and I will discuss this with the president."
Mr. Vlok and Foreign Minister Roelof F. "Pik" Botha have both admitted that the government paid large sums of money to the main black rival of the African National Congress. But both maintained the money was not paid to undermine the ANC, an anti-apartheid organization led by Nelson Mandela, which was legalized last year after being banned for three decades.
They said the funds were intended to support campaigns against economic sanctions that were hurting South Africa.
The Zulu-based Inkatha movement, which received secret cash payments from the government in late 1989 and early 1990, is opposed to economic sanctions against South Africa and has campaigned against them for years.
Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi yesterday denied that he knew anything about payments from the government to his political movement. But he said Inkatha had a special bank account "for humanitarian needs" into which supporters could make anonymous donations.
The scandal, which broke Friday, has seriously damaged the government's image, which President Frederik W. de Klerk has worked to change from the image of a racist regime to that of a reformist, pro-democracy government.
It also caused new strains in its relationship with the ANC, the country's main anti-apartheid group and a longtime opponent of the government. The ANC has been engaged in negotiations with government officials since shortly after it regained legal status last year.
It has persistently accused the government of working with its enemies to undermine the ANC and weaken its position at the negotiating table, a charge the government adamantly denied until last week. The organization also has accused South African police of siding with Inkatha in the bloody violence that has rocked the country's black townships and claimed thousands of lives.
Government officials were forced to modify their position Friday after a newspaper published reports that 250,000 rands (about $92,600) were paid into a secret Inkatha account by the South African police. Reports in yesterday's newspapers indicated that figure was just the tip of the iceberg.
One newspaper, the Sunday Star, quoted Kobus Jordaan, a liberal member of Parliament, as saying he had proof that 5 million rands ($1.85 million) was paid to Inkatha in a covert government campaign against the ANC.
Speaking in a televised interview, Mr. Vlok said that figure was "way off the mark," but he admitted that up to 1.5 million rands ($555,000) might have been paid to Inkatha as part of a government anti-sanctions campaign.
The scandal broke as Mr. Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party opened its annual conference in the Zulu capital, Ulundi, which is located in the eastern region of South Africa.
The conference was intended to showcase Inkatha as a strong political organization and an important player in South Africa's reform process. Instead, Mr. Buthelezi and his top lieutenants spent much of the weekend denying reports of government payoffs and accusing the press of "vicious propaganda."
The conference ended yesterday following the re-election of Mr. Buthelezi as Inkatha president. Several newspapers called for both the Zulu leader and the law and order minister to step down.