CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Meeting in a room where white men gathered for decades to keep them down, South Africa's black leaders formally grasped the tiller of political power here yesterday.
How firm their grasp will be in the months leading up to April's first democratic election remains uncertain, but the initial meeting of the Transitional Executive Council (TEC) dominated by blacks clearly marked another major step toward the once unthinkable: a government representative of the country's overwhelming black majority.
'Taking their rightful place'
"I am ecstatic," said Cyril Ramaphosa, a representative of the African National Congress (ANC), who sits on the council.
"This is the people taking over what is theirs, taking their rightful place," he said. "It is the beginning of the end of minority rule."
The meeting of representatives from 16 of the political organizations involved in the recently concluded negotiations for a new constitution took place beneath pink chandeliers in the elaborately decorated room that once held the President's Council.
When the current National Party government made attempts at reform a decade ago, it instituted separate national legislatures for the country's Indian and mixed-race colored populations along with the all-white Parliament. The President's Council resolved disagreements among those bodies by rubber stamping the white government's desires.
Yesterday, Mr. Ramaphosa proclaimed: "We have disinfected this chamber of all the bad odors."
"We are sitting in a chamber that was built to prop up apartheid," said Joe Slovo, head of the South African Communist Party. "But we begin the serious task of destroying the pillars of apartheid."
Such an event could not pass in South Africa without controversy. In what was described as a "symbolic protest" against the TEC, a group of about 40 heavily armed right-wing whites took over a historic fort south of Pretoria.
South African Defense Force troops immediately sealed off the fort but took no action to expel the protesters, who said they would remain until Dec. 16, when a large, right-wing demonstration is planned at the nearby Voortrekker monument.
The TEC met without two parties involved in the constitutional negotiations. The right-wing Afrikaner Volksunie has refused to take its seat, while the left-wing Pan Africanist Congress is withholding participation pending further negotiations with the government.
On the eve of the first TEC meeting, talks with the Freedom Alliance collapsed as they seemed to nearing a resolution. The Freedom Alliance, an organization of right-wing white and black groups seeking greater local autonomy that includes the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, had already walked out of the constitutional negotiations.
Those talks could resume later this week, and several speakers at yesterday's meeting emphasized that the door would remain open for their participation.
Within the TEC, the controversy is over exactly how much power the body will have. Representatives of the government and the National Party were much less effusive in their rhetoric yesterday. Their position is that the TEC has only one role -- to ensure that the country has free and fair elections April 27 on "a level playing field."
"We must ensure that the government is not both the referee and a player," said government representative Roelf Meyer.
Speaking to the news media after the TEC meeting, state President F. W. de Klerk said, "The government has not stopped governing. The TEC is not the new government of South Africa."
But Mr. Ramaphosa spoke in direct opposition to those views when he addressed the TEC.
"We should call upon the present National Party government, who would like to see the TEC as a mere advisory body -- thus reducing it to a toy telephone -- to finally accept that the days of minority rule are over," he said.
"All of us assembled here must refuse to become an advisory body. We must resist attempts to reduce us to an advisory body."
At a press conference there, he said, "It would be an illusion for anybody to believe these institutions would be set up smoothly without difficulties."
But while he urged dissident parties to "come back to the process," he also warned, "This process will go on with or without them."
Mr. de Klerk's comments actually seemed directed at the right wing, which claims that the institution of the TEC marks a takeover of the country by the Communist Party.
In practice, the TEC should have widespread powers over the South African government.
That has already been the case, as the Multi Party Talks, the negotiations that wrote the new constitution, have been the center of power in South Africa for the past several months.
But those were informal de facto powers. As a legally constituted body, the TEC can directly challenge the government's decisions on a wide variety of issues, including the media, police and all matters affecting the elections, in some cases exercising a veto.
If there is time before April, the TEC also can set up a National Peacekeeping Force, a new police force that has the potential to take on the political violence in which hundreds have been dying every month.
The real test
"When we assess the point that we have reached, we should have no illusions," Mr. Slovo, the head of the South African Communist Party, told the meeting. "All we really have is a mountain of paper. The real test will come when we try to transfer the contents of that mountain into action and implementation.
"If we can solve our problems here in South Africa, it would indeed give hope, not only to South Africa, but to the whole of humanity, because South Africa is a microcosm of virtually every single problem that besets Africa and the world.
"We have an inheritance of racism, poverty and the background of the most bitter armed conflict," he said. "But did it seem possible even three months ago that this disparate collection of political enemies and bitter adversaries could have the meeting of minds we have reached up to this stage?
"But we have done it," Mr. Slovo said. "As time passes, I think we will all be proud to say that we were there."