Johannesburg, South Africa. -- South Africa's reformist president Frederik W. de Klerk has a lot in common with Mikhail Gorbachev. Like the fallen Soviet leader, Mr. de Klerk is trying to control a reform process vital to the future of his country, and the more he reforms the less power he has over the process or the country.
Last weekend, Mr. de Klerk took another step along the road of political transformation. Under his leadership, the white-minority government met with black opposition groups and made a commitment to draft a new constitution giving blacks the vote. But the meeting didn't go exactly as Mr. de Klerk had envisioned.
It showed how much things have changed already in South Africa, where black political organizations were banned only two years ago. Mr. de Klerk lifted the ban on dozens of opposition groups and released thousands of political prisoners so that the process of negotiation could begin.
But the historic meeting also showed how easily the reins can slip from Mr. de Klerk's hands as he tries to steer the process toward a solution that gives blacks the vote but also gives whites special protections.
For one stunning moment that forever jolted racial perceptions in this country, Mr. de Klerk sat silently as he was publicly dressed down by a black man -- Nelson Mandela. The blistering attack, carried live on national television, was a first for South Africa. It was another sign of change but not one Mr. de Klerk had planned on.
The attack was sparked by a speech President de Klerk delivered to the conference. He criticized Mr. Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) for refusing to dismantle its military wing and said the ANC could not be trusted to negotiate peacefully as long as it maintained its own army.
Mr. Mandela was not upset by the substance of the criticism, but by the timing. He said he had met with the president until late the previous evening to smooth over differences that might prevent the historic conference from moving forward. Mr. de Klerk didn't once mention the military issue, according to Mr. Mandela, who accused the white leader of being duplicitous, untrustworthy and unfit to lead.
Liberal analysts said it was a sign of political maturing for the country that a white and black leader could slug it out as equals -- rather than as oppressor and oppressed -- and that they could do it around the negotiating table rather than over gun barrels.
That's the positive side. Such a scene couldn't have been imagined in the old days of repression, when black dissent was )) crushed and dissenters were silenced each time they rose up. But the negative side is that the public blowout between the two leaders displayed the deep distrust and hostility left behind by apartheid. Those feelings are bound to make the task of drawing up a new constitution more difficult, especially since there are major policy differences to be reconciled.
For instance, Mr. de Klerk's government wants to ensure that a black government never has as much power as white governments in South Africa have exercised throughout the country's history. He has proposed a three-man presidency, to be rotated annually among the three largest political parties in the country, and a legislature in which whites would have a disproportionate number of votes in one house. He also has proposed an interim government that could last 10 years or more and would draft the new constitution.
The ANC, which sees this as a ploy to keep whites in control for at least another 10 years, wants an interim government to last no more than 18 months -- just long enough to oversee the process of writing a new constitution. It also wants a single president and a legislature based on one-person, one-vote, which would mean unquestioned black rule. (Blacks make up about 70 percent of the population, whites about 10 percent. The rest are Asian and mixed-race "colored.")
Mr. de Klerk's interim government proposal is a concession to the ANC, the most powerful black group in the country. Previously he opposed an interim government and talked instead about including blacks in the present government. But the two sides are still far apart.
Many observers believe the policy differences can ultimately be reconciled, but those differences represent only one obstacle along the path to a new and democratic South Africa.
The country is still plagued by violence among blacks and threats of violence by militant, right-wing whites who would rather see South Africa burn than live under a black government.
Blacks on the far left and whites on the far right refused to even take part in the negotiations. Leftist blacks think the talks are just another ploy by the white regime to dupe blacks and maintain power for whites. Right-wing whites think Mr. de Klerk's government is handing over the country to blacks and deserting the white minority. They are desperate to cling to the past, in which whites owned South Africa and the laws discriminated against blacks. Their desperation could lead to civil war.
In addition, black groups that feel they are being left out of the process also could spark new levels of violence. Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose Inkatha Freedom Party was on the sidelines during the big meeting last week, threatened that South Africa could face civil war if any group is ignored. The threat is significant since most of the violence in South Africa during the past five years has involved Zulus who support Mr. Buthelezi fighting supporters of the ANC or other groups.
Even if the negotiations succeed and a new government is put in place, that government will face incredible and possibly insurmountable odds. After four decades of apartheid and centuries of discrimination that preceded the official policy, South Africa is left with a large and fast-growing black population plagued by poverty, unemployment, insufficient housing and poor education.
It's not likely that any new government can meet expectations of a better life before frustration and anger set in.
"It is tragic that our country, so well endowed with natural resources, has been reduced to an economic wasteland by the system of apartheid," Mr. Mandela told delegates to the constitutional conference, where 19 black, white and Indian political groups were represented. "It is also distressing to note that the deplorable violence has reached such alarming proportions, and others still threaten more. These features are a direct consequence of the determination of a minority to maintain the power and privilege accrued by apartheid."
Mr. Mandela places most of the blame for violence at Mr. de Klerk's doorstep. He says state security forces are capable of stopping the violence but fail to do so because they place no value on the black lives being lost.
Mr. de Klerk responds that it is a "gross oversimplification" to say the police can stop the violence raging in black townships. He says every political group whose supporters are involved in the fighting must take responsibility for stopping it.
Beneath the accusations is the distrust and suspicion that has built up over decades of white rule and will most certainly remain an obstacle during the long process of constitutional negotiations.
Mr. de Klerk's mission clearly is to maintain control of that process and hand over power to the black majority under terms that his white constituents can live with. Mr. Mandela's goal is to end the days of white privilege and power as soon as possible and turn over to a black majority government the tough job of repairing the damage of apartheid.
After 43 years of apartheid, he doesn't plan to wait until Mr. de Klerk is ready to hand it over. That was apparent from their first public round of negotiations.
The next round is scheduled for March.