Acrimony mars start of talks in South Africa Mandela trades barbs with de Klerk

December 21, 1991|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG,SOUTH AFRICA — JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Historic talks on a new South Africa got off to a shaky start yesterday when Nelson Mandela and President F. W. de Klerk clashed during an emotional hour of name-calling and accusations.

The harsh exchange came at the end of an extraordinary day that showed how far South Africa has come and how far it still must go in resolving its centuries-old racial fight.

It came after hours of optimistic speeches by the leaders of 19 groups gathered to begin drafting a democratic constitution and ending the era of white-minority rule.

Sixteen of the groups, including the government and Mr. Mandela's African National Congress, reached agreement on a statement that expressed their joint commitment to creating a fair new government in which blacks and whites will be represented equally.

The ANC has repeatedly accused the government of trying to cling to power because it wanted to exercise undue control over the negotiations, but Mr. de Klerk said he did not want to be "both a player and referee."

Mr. de Klerk said he was willing to negotiate on establishing an interim government that would oversee the transition to democracy.

"Today will mark the commencement of the transition from apartheid to democracy," Mr. Mandela said in an upbeat speech. "The presence of so many parties augurs well for the future."

But the black political leader changed his tone after Mr. de Klerk, speaking at the end of the day, attacked the ANC and accused it of holding up the country's progress toward peace by maintaining illegal arms caches.

"An organization which remains committed to an armed struggle cannot be trusted completely when it also commits itself to peacefully negotiated solutions," Mr. de Klerk said.

The ANC has maintained a guerrilla army since 1961 as part of its campaign against white-minority rule.

The guerrilla operations were suspended after the government lifted its ban on the ANC and preliminary negotiations began last year. But the ANC has not dismantled its army or turned over weapons.

Mr. Mandela responded to Mr. de Klerk by saying that the white minority government could not dictate to the black majority.

He called Mr. de Klerk the head of a "discredited minority regime" and said that the president had failed to use his police to stop the violence that has claimed thousands of black lives.

"What political organization can hand over its weapons to the same man who is regarded as killing innocent people?" Mr. Mandela asked.

Mr. de Klerk responded that the ANC could not blame the government for violence in the black townships. He said he was doing all he could to stop the fighting and killings and added, "I'm as concerned about the violence as anybody."

The conference is scheduled to end today after agreement is reached on the time and place of the next round of negotiations.

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