DAKAR, SENEGAL, JULY 12 -- An unprecedented conference between liberal white Afrikaners and black South African nationalists, designed to demonstrate the possibility of a negotiated settlement of the country's racial conflict, ended here today with a joint expression of commitment to replacing apartheid with a nonracial democracy.
The organizer of the three-day conference, former opposition leader Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, said there had been an "extraordinary meeting of minds" between the 61 whites, most of them dissident members of the politically dominant Afrikaner community, and 17 exiled black leaders of the outlawed African National Congress.
"We found that we have a great deal in common, and although there are some differences, we found that there is a great deal of flexibility and negotiability on those points," Slabbert said in an interview.
Slabbert was cautious in assessing the significance of the conference, pointing out that the group of academics, professional people and businessmen that he brought here Thursday did not represent an organized body and had no mandate to negotiate. But he said he believed the talks had shown that the government of President Pieter W. Botha was wrong to claim that negotiation with the ANC was impossible because the black organization was committed to overthrow of apartheid, or racial separation, by violence.
The ANC expressed desire for a negotiated settlement in the joint communique, which went on to accuse Botha's government of obstructing progress toward this.
The ANC's commitment to waging an armed struggle against white rule was the one major area of disagreement between the two sides, resulting in what Slabbert described as "some of the toughest debates I have seen in a long time."
But even on this issue a small measure of flexibility eventually emerged from the closed discussions, with the white group accepting that it was a "historic reality" stemming from the use of force to maintain white domination, and the ANC joining the whites in expressing concern about "the proliferation of uncontrolled violence."
On other issues, the ANC sought to allay white fears of black-majority rule by pledging to maintain a multiparty democracy, in which individual rights would be guaranteed in a bill of rights.
The black organization appeared to soften its position slightly on a commitment to nationalize what it calls "the commanding heights" of South Africa's highly monopolistic economy -- the rich mining industry, the banks and half a dozen major industrial conglomerates -- by saying this would be done gradually and in consultation with selected businessmen and other advisers to ensure that there was no economic dislocation.
For the rest, free enterprise would be allowed to continue in a mixed economy, but there would have to be affirmative action to redress the "historical injustice" of exploitation and oppression caused by apartheid.
The conference aroused international interest and raised a storm of controversy in South Africa because of its symbolic bringing together of members of the main conflicting groups in that strife-torn country.
For four days the two delegations have talked, eaten and lived together in the same hotel in this West African capital 3,000 miles from home. They have been guests of the Senegalese government of President Abdou Diouf, last year's chairman of the Organization of African Unity.
It was an exercise in sensitivity training, as well as an opportunity to explore each other's political standpoints, by people who had not met before and often had only stereotyped images of each other, magnified by years of political propaganda.
While there is little contact between the races in South Africa generally, there has been none at all with the ANC leaders since their organization was outlawed in 1961 and they began moving into exile.
Their statements may not be quoted inside South Africa and it is a crime to possess the banned organization's literature or to "further its aims" in any way. The result is an almost total lack of first-hand information. Critics of the government accuse it of having exploited the situation to portray a "demon image" of the ANC as an organization of hard-line terrorists controlled from Moscow.
The exiles, for their part, having left the country at a time of Afrikaner solidarity in support of apartheid, were not prepared to deal with Afrikaner dissidents. The ANC's tendency has been to continue to categorize all Afrikaners as racists.
These stereotypes seem to have been visibly eroded by the contact here in Dakar. The experience appears to have had a particularly strong impact on some of the Afrikaners who, breaking out of the cocoon of their country's international isolation, made their first contact with life in a black African country as well as with the ANC.
As one Afrikaner put it: "This will probably be a watershed experience in the lives of all of us and will determine what we are going to do when we return to South Africa."
Thabo Mbeki, leader of the ANC delegation, said the blacks, too, had been "changed" by the contact and now had "a much better understanding of the feelings and fears of our Afrikaner compatriots."
The blacks admitted to having a better appreciation of the courage required for an Afrikaner to break ranks with the ruling establishment, of their misgivings about what life would be like under a black government and of the difficulty whites have in identifying with the liberation struggle if it means accepting or condoning revolutionary violence.
These perceptions were sharpened by news from home that President Botha had denounced the group for associating with the ANC. The semiofficial broadcasting service described them as "political terrorists," and the extremist Afrikaner Resistance Movement threatened to take personal reprisals when they returned.
One delegate was told that his small daughter had been removed from her Pretoria school after being harassed by other children because her father was "talking to the terrorists."
In their joint communique, the two groups agreed that they should make further contacts and encourage other white South Africans to meet with the ANC.
Asked at a press conference today whether the government was likely to take action against his political contact agency, the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa, for organizing the conference, Slabbert admitted this was a possibility.
"We are under no illusions. The government is powerful enough to ban us, to take away passports, to cut off our funding, but I don't think they can stop the process that is going on of people searching for a democratic alternative to apartheid and wanting to talk and negotiate with each other about how to achieve that. Even if they make it impossible for IDASA to operate, others will carry on," Slabbert said.