The declaration of next April 27 as the date for universal elections in South Africa sets transition to a multi-racial society on a firm timetable. Electoral politicking begins now. Even though both black and white conservatives holding out for a federal system did not agree to the date, most of the 26 parties to constitutional talks in Johannesburg did. There now is confidence the election and the transition will occur.
The agreement was part of the grand bargain President F. W. de Klerk and ANC leader Nelson Mandela hoped to present during their simultaneous visits to this country. In separate forums, each is seeking an end to sanctions against South Africa and funding for his nation or party. But Mr. Mandela was not immediately handed the other part of the bargain the ANC has set as the requisite for ending sanctions -- establishment of a transitional executive council to run the country until April 27. On Friday, some progress was made toward the TEC as it is called, but not the TEC itself.
There is not much doubt that this is close and that the United States will soon approve loans to South Africa by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which now bar them. The debate in American pension fund and college endowment circles about jumping the gun on ending divestment is arid. It is a difference of weeks or months at most, and not worth the aggravation.
The leading debate in South Africa now -- as in Philadelphia in 1787 -- is over a unitary state with strong central powers or a federation with strong regional powers. The ANC, hoping to represent most of the black majority, wants a unitary state. The Conservative Party of whites and the Inkatha Freedom Party in the Zulu communities and leaders of the black "homelands" established by the apartheid regime all want a strongly federal system in which they would hold on to regional power. And, as in Philadelphia in 1787, some compromises will no doubt have to be worked out.
It would have been better had Inkatha signed on to the date. It would have been better for Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk had the TEC been agreed to by most of the conference on the day the date was set. But this train is leaving the station.
South Africa will have a system of shared powers, which representatives of practically all elements of the population will design. The election, for an interim regime of five years leading to a blacker regime thereafter, is April 27. And everyone, equally, can count the days.