PRETORIA, South Africa -- An assistant to one of South Africa's top black leaders assumed responsibility yesterday for a political scandal that has rocked the South African government and threatened the country's 18-month-old peace process.
M. Zakheli Khumalo, personal assistant to Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, said he accepted secret payments of about $90,000 from the South African government without Mr. Buthelezi's knowledge.
Mr. Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party said that the Zulu leader would return the money. "It's dirty money. We are going to refund it," said Musa Myeni, a member of the Inkatha Central Committee.
The government of President F. W. de Klerk has come under intense criticism at home and abroad for covertly financing Mr. Buthelezi's Inkatha movement in opposition to Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.
Mr. Buthelezi, the ANC's major black political rival, also is coming under heavy criticism from opponents who say the payoffs prove that he is a government stooge. Anti-apartheid activists have attached the "stooge" label to the Zulu leader for years because of his position as chief administrator of a tribal homeland established by the white-minority government.
Mr. Khumalo's statement, read by three other Inkatha officials at a news conference he did not attend, was clearly aimed at clearing Mr. Buthelezi, but it was met with widespread skepticism.
Top government officials have admitted paying out the money, which they claim was part of an anti-sanctions campaign.
Mr. de Klerk's Cabinet held a two-day emergency meeting to figure out how to limit the damage to his government's reputation and credibility.
Mr. de Klerk told reporters after the meeting that he would have a statement next week on the affair, which the local newspapers have dubbed "Inkathagate."
Mr. Myeni, Inkatha regional leader, said Mr. Khumalo resigned after disclosing that he had accepted two cash payments from a South African police official in late 1989 and early 1990.
ANC leaders have said that the scandal places a severe strain on South Africa's political reform process, which so far has involved months of negotiations between the government and the ANC with the aim of ending apartheid and establishing democracy in the country.
The ANC, which accused the government of double dealing by supporting Inkatha while negotiating with the ANC, has called for the resignation of two of Mr. de Klerk's Cabinet ministers.
Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok, who confirmed the payments and said additional money was paid to an Inkatha-affiliated trade union, said the funds were intended to oppose sanctions rather than prop up Inkatha as an alternative to the ANC.
He said that he did not tell Mr. Buthelezi about the funds because "I have worked under my president for 15 years, and I knew without a doubt that he would have rejected the proposal out of hand whilst I, on the other hand, knew this assistance would be very helpful." Mr. Buthelezi has publicly denied any knowledge of the payments.
The scandal broke last week when a liberal newspaper, the Weekly Mail, produced internal police documents showing that the payments had been made to Inkatha to enhance its position after the ban on the ANC had been lifted.