JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Nelson Mandela started the new political year with a conciliatory gesture yesterday by virtually accepting the government's timetable for elections next year.
Speaking at a news conference, Mr. Mandela said his African National Congress wanted an end to white rule in South Africa this year. But he said the anti-apartheid group was "not dogmatic" about the timing of South Africa's first democratic elections.
"Although we feel elections are urgent, there may be some developments which would make it impossible to hold elections this year. In that case, they would be early next year," he said.
President F. W. de Klerk presented a schedule in November under which the elections would be held in the first half of 1994. Mr. de Klerk said he thought his timing was reasonable, considering the differences that remained between the many political parties involved in the negotiations.
Officials of the ANC initially accused the government of trying to
forestall the day when white-minority rule finally would have to give way to democracy.
But Mr. Mandela took a softer tone, signaling that the ANC would make a serious attempt to work with Mr. de Klerk's government this year in an effort to smooth the way to a new government, in which the ANC would be a major player.
Already, the ANC, the country's most popular black political organization, has said it would be willing to enter a power-sharing arrangement with Mr. de Klerk's National Party in order to ensure that a new government is seated and is not undermined by dissatisfied whites.
That concession has brought criticism from some blacks, most notably Mr. Mandela's estranged wife, Winnie, who accused ANC leaders Thursday of cutting a deal with "the oppressors" that was not in the interest of the majority of blacks.
She accused them of distorting the "noble goal" of the anti-apartheid struggle by sacrificing true democracy to political expediency.
Reacting to his wife's barrage, Mr. Mandela said ANC members repeatedly had endorsed the policy of negotiations with the white government.
"The issue of whether the people of South Africa, especially the oppressed people, support negotiations should not be judged on the basis of what individuals may say, no matter who they are. It should be judged from what the organized and disciplined membership of the organization has decided," he responded, without mentioning his wife's name.
Pro-democracy negotiations to replace the apartheid regime have been under way since December 1991, with slow progress and numerous disruptions, including an ANC walkout over the government's insistence on a white veto over certain constitutional issues in the future.
Multiparty negotiations are still in limbo since the collapse of talks eight months ago, but both the government and ANC have expressed plans for a resumption next month.
Meanwhile, government and ANC representatives will meet Jan. 20, to the consternation of Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who says they are cutting private deals that exclude other political parties, such as his Inkatha Freedom Party.
Mr. Mandela is expected to meet the Zulu leader this month to discuss the violent conflict raging between their supporters in some parts of the country.
Violence remains one of the biggest obstacles to a negotiated political settlement that involves all major parties and puts South Africa in the category of a democracy.