In the 16 months since President Frederik W. de Klerk steered his country onto the road of apartheid reform, he has portrayed himself as the impartial manager of the transition to a new constitution. But these days, De Klerk is showing signs of grander political ambitions.
The president and his aides still plan to guide the old South Africa to its death. Their actions in recent weeks suggest, however, that they also have high hopes of winning the right to control the "new South Africa," and many fear that those hopes will undermine the black-white negotiation process before it begins.
De Klerk's Afrikaner-based National Party "is probably the most expert group of politicians the world has ever seen in their ability to adapt," said Jan van Eck, an Afrikaner and member of Parliament in the liberal, white Democratic Party. "They won't give up power until they believe they have a good chance of getting the majority support in a one-person, one-vote election. They will never be the undertakers at their own funeral."
Under De Klerk's direction, the National Party today stands on the verge of dismantling nearly all the apartheid laws it foisted on this country 43 years ago. But critics note that while the laws are being liberalized, discrimination remains.
The government is preparing to negotiate the country's future with the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela's opposition movement, which has broad support among the 28 million blacks, who outnumber whites 5 to 1.
Many analysts think the country's future rests on the government's ability to deal with the ANC. And they fear that if the government declares the ANC its election enemy this early in the process, it will be tempted to use its power to destroy the ANC power base.
"I want to believe De Klerk is not ganging up on the ANC," Van Eck said. "But these are the same tough-nut politicians who destroyed every bit of black opposition, day after day, for four decades. This is not a humanitarian government. It is power they are after."
The National Party began to lay the groundwork for a multiracial coalition last year when it formally opened its membership to all races. In recent weeks, it has lured mixed-race members of Parliament to its ranks and tried to forge alliances with black, Indian and mixed-race Colored groups.
De Klerk has said he believes he can lure enough moderate blacks to his side to win any future election in South Africa; his optimism is bolstered by public opinion polls indicating that as many as 25% of blacks support him. (The same polls give Mandela more than 50% of black support.)
The likeliest government supporters are those groups, such as Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi's 2-million-member Inkatha movement, that share De Klerk's belief in a market-driven economy, a weak central government, multi-party democracy and protection for minorities.
Helping drive Inkatha and others into the government's arms is the ANC's alliance with the Communist Party, the ANC's belief in a strong central government and fear that it will deal harshly with political opponents.
Signs of National Party politicking have appeared.
Earlier this month, the party stunned its mixed-race Colored opposition in Parliament by signing up more than a dozen Colored representatives from the Rev. Allan Hendrickse's Labor Party.
The reason: Hendrickse had opposed a government attempt to replace residential segregation with laws allowing communities to establish their own "norms and standards." He argued that it was just apartheid in disguise. Although Hendrickse retained his control over the Colored house, he was forced to drop his opposition to the government's bill, and it passed.