JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africa took a giant leap last week toward the democratic future that its political leaders have been talking about for two years.
After months of reforms that eliminated the country's apartheid laws, the major political players in South Africa's long-running racial drama agreed to begin formal negotiations on a new constitution.
All the action up to now, beginning with President F. W. de Klerk's stunning announcement Feb. 2, 1990, that he was unbanning opposition groups and freeing black political leaders from prison, has paved the way for these negotiations.
The government has released thousands of political prisoners and allowed the return of thousands who fled the country to avoid arrest for their political activities. Parliament also repealed discriminatory laws dating back almost 80 years.
Those actions met conditions set by black political organizations, which refused to hold formal talks until the government created a climate in which they felt the negotiating sides were more equal.
The talks have been threatened by the violence in South Africa's black townships, in which thousands have died, and by the finger-pointing among political organizations about who is to blame.
But the organizations are moving forward now because of a consensus that the only solution for South Africa's problems, including the violence, is for all the parties involved to come together and map out the future.
"The idea of this conference is to chart the way forward toward a democratic South Africa," said Nelson Mandela, president of the African National Congress.
The parties can't even agree on what to call the meeting, set for Dec. 20-21, that will launch the formal negotiating stage of the reform process. The ANC calls it an all-party conference, while the government calls it a multiparty conference.
But all except a couple of political groups on the far left and far right are prepared to plunge ahead anyway, despite differing philosophies, fears of the future and concerns about the violence.
"When the leaders of all the most important parties sit together around the table, I have no doubt that that will have a calming and constructive effect on the atmosphere throughout our
country," Mr. de Klerk said.
"I think the biggest single contribution to bringing the violence to an end would be for the leaders to sit together in a multiparty or all-party conference."
The ANC is now the government's main adversary in the negotiations, but more than 22 groups are expected to attend the December conference.
These include groups aligned with the government, such as the mainly Zulu organization, Inkatha, and groups aligned with the ANC, such as the more leftist Pan Africanist Congress and the South African Communist Party.
The PAC is not a sure participant since it still is insisting that the negotiations be held on "neutral ground" outside the country and have an international mediator.
But the only groups that flatly refuse to attend are the far-left Azanian People's Organization and the far-right Conservative Party.
The CP said it would be "an aggression" against whites if the ANC or Communists ruled the country.
Negotiators will have to settle a number of thorny issues before they actually sit down to draft a constitution. For instance, the ANC wants an interim government to be formed during the transition period to a new democratic government. Otherwise, it claims, the government has the unfair advantage of being both player and referee.
Mr. de Klerk rejects the ANC position, although he says he is willing to discuss "transitional arrangements" that would bring other parties into the decision-making processes.