JOHANNESBURG -- South Africa's government, businesses and major labor unions appear to be moving toward negotiation of a pact on industrial relations, following President Frederik W. de Klerk's intervention in a dispute over a labor relations bill that threatened to trigger a serious disruption of labor.

After meeting union and business leaders in Pretoria on June 26, de Klerk announced the formation of a joint working committee to "restore mutual confidence" and recommend legislation that would lay the basis for industrial relations in the country.

Union leaders appeared satisfied by their meeting with de Klerk, and as the prospect of labor disruption receded, the deal was hailed as the first step toward a pact among the major contenders in South Africa's racial conflict.

Political analysts say similar pacts between the white government and its principal black opponents, as well as between white-dominated business and black worker organizations, could establish the ground rules for South Africa's transition to a post-apartheid society.

The dispute arose last year over a labor relations bill drafted by the government before de Klerk became president. The bill severely restricted labor unions by giving employers the power to sue and interdict them for strike action and by shrinking the legal definition of unfair labor practices.

After months of bargaining, the country's two major black union federations, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the National Council of Trade Unions, reached an agreement in May with the biggest employer grouping, the South African Employers' Consultative Committee on Labor Affairs, on proposals for an amended bill to pave the way for better industrial relations.

According to spokesmen from both labor and business, the government pledged to study those proposals and introduce labor legislation before the end of the recent parliamentary session.

As the session drew to a close two weeks ago and no new bill appeared, the unions launched an angry protest, accusing Manpower Minister Eli Louw of a breach of faith and threatening a wave of strikes and factory demonstrations "of proportions not witnessed before."

Louw replied that some small businessmen outside the employers' organization had differing views that required time to consider. But in a rare display of unity, both union and employer leaders slammed him for stonewalling.

As Business Day, a publication of the business community, put it: "Three months ago we commented that the process of resolving the conflict over the {labor} act was something of a dress rehearsal for the larger process of political negotiation into which South Africa is entering. That point seems to have been completely lost on the {manpower} minister."

As a foretaste of their intent to strike, 24 leading members of COSATU staged a 24-hour sit-in June 20 at the Johannesburg offices of Louw's ministry.

A year ago, such action likely would have resulted in tough security-police intervention, probably with the union and other black "agitators" being detained. But in a sign of changing times, what happened instead is that de Klerk invited the union and leaders of the Employers' Consultative Committee to meet him in an attempt to end the confrontation.