The African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress, South Africa's two largest liberation movements, declared themselves a "Patriotic Front" Sunday and agreed to press urgently for formal talks with the white government.
About 500 delegates from several dozen anti-apartheid groups--claiming to represent 15 million of South Africa's 36 million people--joined the ANC and PAC in signing the declaration. They demanded, among other things, that talks with President Frederik W. de Klerk's government begin "as soon as possible" under a neutral sponsor.
The delegates agreed to carry into the talks their demand for a constitution drawn up by a "constituent assembly" elected in a national one-person, one-vote election. They also demanded that De Klerk relinquish power to an interim government "to ensure that the De Klerk regime does not preside over or manipulate the transition through . . . its control of state power and resources."
Sunday's action in Durban appeared to clear the way for power-sharing talks, the first in the history of South Africa, which could begin late next month.
But it also set up what will surely be a bitter clash at the table between the government and the ANC-PAC front over how to draw up a new constitution and what transitional arrangements should be made in the meantime to govern the country.
Dikgang Moseneke, deputy president of the Pan-Africanist group, said the front is "a happy marriage" that will preserve the independence and integrity of its participants while allowing them to act together on matters with which they agree.
Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC secretary general, said the conference has put added weight behind the ANC's demand for a constituent assembly as the constitution-writing body.
"The overwhelming weight of our people's call will be so immense that they (the government) will have no choice in it," Ramaphosa said.
The government strongly opposes a constituent assembly, favoring instead a constitution drawn up by the consensus of black and white leaders and ratified by a referendum. De Klerk has argued that a constituent assembly, by requiring an election, would solidify positions and make true negotiation difficult, if not impossible.
Government supporters and leaders of minority groups, such as Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, also fear that a constituent assembly would give parties with broad support, such as the ANC, virtually unchecked power to draft a constitution.
The government and Inkatha criticized the Patriotic Front conference, saying it was an attempt to "gang up" on the government and would give black liberation groups little room to compromise at the bargaining table.
"The outcome of many issues has been preempted" by the conference, said Tertius Delport, the government's deputy minister of constitutional development and planning.
The immediate effect of the Patriotic Front declaration was to bring the PAC, which has opposed any contact with De Klerk, into talks with the government. The PAC is considered the more militant of the two organizations and they remain divided over many matters of strategy and ideology.
Recent opinion polls have indicated that 7% of urban blacks would vote for the PAC and 24% might vote for it. By comparison, 68% of those polled said they would vote for the ANC and 12% said they might. The National Party runs a close third, with 28% of urban blacks saying they would or might vote for De Klerk's party.
In its declaration, the Patriotic Front promised to work together "to realize, within the immediate future, a truly democratic order in which non-sexism, non-racialism and democratic majority rule shall be non-negotiable."
And the front agreed with the government that the coming talks would discuss common constitutional principles, ways of drawing up a new constitution, forms of interim government and a possible role for international groups in the process.
On those matters, though, the Patriotic Front participants and the government differ sharply.
The front said an interim government is needed to, "at the very least, control security forces, the electoral process, state media and defined areas of budget and finance." It called De Klerk's government "illegal, illegitimate and totally discredited."
De Klerk supports an interim government in principle, but he favors the retention of his government with some form of participation by black leaders.