JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Black and white negotiators yesterday tentatively chose April 27 of next year for South Africa's first nonracial democratic elections.
That date must still clear two more hurdles to be endorsed by a multiparty negotiating committee charged with working out the shape of the country's future government.
A election involving the country's 30 million black people would end 350 years of white rule. It would give all South Africans equal rights for the first time and lead to a multiracial government headed by black leaders.
The committee was facing a self-imposed deadline to set the election within a year. But that deadline was contingent on the committee's coming to an agreement on a number of important issues that seemed impossible earlier this week.
Clearly, though, it was important to the African National Congress that the committee meet the deadline and specify a particular date. As the talks dragged on into the evening, the ANC agreed to make April 27 contingent on a further discussion by this committee, the Negotiating Council, on June 15 and a final approval by the larger Negotiating Forum on June 25.
The strategy appeared to be to get the April 27 date into the public's mind, making it impossible for any of the 26 parties involved in the talks to delay an election.
"I'm telling you, the 27th of April will reverberate across the length and breadth of this country," said Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC's chief negotiator, after the meeting adjourned. "Even those opposed to it will find that impossible once the mass of people key on the April 27th date."
Most of the 26 parties supported the election date, but several conservative parties -- black and white -- objected. They said that black factional fighting must be brought under control first; otherwise it could escalate during an election campaign. They also want decisions on how an interim, multiracial government will operate.
If the date had been put to a vote of the 26 parties, it would have passed 17-9. But this council works by something called "sufficient consensus," which means agreements don't have to be unanimous, but close to it.
In the morning session, the committee cleared a major hurdle when it agreed on a fundamental constitutional issue, that the new South Africa would be a unified federal state with a single citizenship and not, as some have proposed, a loose confederation of essentially independent countries.
Parties favoring the election now have three weeks to persuade the conservative groups to agree to the election date.
Walton Feldgate of the Inkatha Freedom Party, whose opposition was key to ruling out consensus at the conference, was not optimistic about agreeing on April 27.
"At this point in time, I have no confidence in that date," he said. "We . . . have to settle a number of differences."
The Zulu-based Inkatha party sides with right-wing white parties in demanding greater local powers and will probably try to hold out its approval of the election date in negotiating with the ANC, which wants a stronger central government.