South Africa's Botha goes out on a limb

In spite of serious rumblings from his own right wing, South Africa's impatient Prime Minister, Pieter W. Botha, obviously intends to push through constitutional reforms that could give blacks a certain amount of say in the government of the country.

But he could be riding for a fall.

To make a success of his plan he will need to win the support of the accepted African leaders in both the rural "homelands" areas and in the cities. He will also need the support of the leaders of the nearly 3 million people of mixed racial descent (Colored) and the smaller Asian community.

And he will have to make meaningful political concessions to do this.

But right-wing members of his own ruling National Party who believe in traditional hard-line "apartheid" -- enforced racial segregation -- could rebel if they think he is going too far. They are watching Mr. Botha like hawks.

In turn, he is treating them with kid gloves and behaving very warily.

But if it came to a serious showdown, there are whispers that Mr. Botha might feel obliged to take despotic powers "for a while" to keep the right-wingers in their place "for the good of the country" while he gets on with necessary constitutional reforms.

Mr. Botha's immediate constitutional plans seem to be something of a hodge- podge of various ideas that have been touted for some time.

On the one hand, he hopes to satisfy the political aspirations of South Africa's approximately 20 million Africans through the formation of some sort of "constellation of states" or confederation involving white-ruled South Africa and black-controlled rural "homelands."

On the other hand, he hopes to draw the Colored people and the Asians more closely into the present all-white parliamentary process by forming a multiracial "president's council," which would have certain as-yet unspecified powers.

To get the ball rolling, Mr. Botha has suggested to the various African "homeland" leaders that they should get together with "experts" to formulate a "statement of intent" about future constitutional matters and basic human rights.

They all agree the scheme has some merit, and it is likely to be put into practice

The proposed multiracial president's council is expected to take the place of the present whites-only Senate, which is a sort of legislative review body, and easily expendable.

The council would consist of elected and nominated whites, Colored people, and Asians in proportion to their population figures. This would give the whites a clear majority.

Right-wing white nationalists are very suspicious of this plan. Already they are objecting to the possibility that the council might sit in the parliamentary complex in Cape Town, in the chamber used by the existing Senate.

And they do not want it to sit at the same time as the white Parliament, because they say this would give the impression that the whites were "sharing political power" -- something to which they are bitterly opposed.

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