Cape Town — The southern tip of South Africa is strikingly beautiful. High mountains plunge into the seas. Whales swim into secluded bays to calve. Great fighting fish patrol the deep blue waters. And when the weather gets up, huge waves roll in from the Atlantic, and mariners fear for their lives.
This is the setting for one of the strangest and perhaps one of the most significant by-elections the country has seen recently. It will be held at Simonstown, South Africa, on Sept. 3.
The outcome could give a strong indication as to whether South African whites are beginning to understand their racial predicament and the need for political change, or whether they are going to opt for a polarization of racial attitudes and confrontation.
Or, perhaps, simply that they cannot see the difference, or do not really care.
The by-election is a showdown between the ruling National Party and the small but vigorous opposition Progressive Federal Party. What makes it strangely different is that, whereas the traditional National Party supporters are Afrikaans-speaking, the voters in the Simonstown constituency are mainly English-speaking and the constituency itself is traditionally an opposition, anti-Nationalist seat.
The very idea that it might "go Nationalist" would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
But there is a good chance the National Party might win this time, and if it does it will enable Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha to claim all manner of "breakthroughs" to the English-speaking electorate -- something none of his predecessors managed to achieve effectively.
It also would end claims by English-speakv ing white South Africans that they are more "liberal" as a group than the Afrikaners -- which is pretty much a fallacy, anyway. The reason the predominantly Afrikaans-speaking National Party has high hopes is that their candidate is a sort of Trojan horse since he is English-speaking in an English-speaking constituency.
He is a former member of the now-defunct anti-Nationalist United Party, who has been member of Parliament for the constituency for 14 years. His name is John Wiley, and although he has been steadfastly anti-Nationalist until now, this has been for quirky South African historical reasons, not really on a basis of current politics.
In fact, his racial views, his grim attacks on "pinko" liberals, communists, and fellow travelers, his tirades against the West for going soft on Russia, and his support for the former white-minority regime of Ian Smith in what used to be called Rhodesia, have tended to put him even to the right of the National Party.
Nonetheless, his views have found an echo among the English-speaking middle-class conservatives in his constituency, and this, plus his dedicated attention to practical affairs in the area, has kept him in Parliament, although the Progressives have been cutting down his majority.
Now, after years of being accused of being a closet Nationalist, he has taken the plunge and joined the party in return for nomination as the National Party's official candidate in his old constituency. There was no shortage of talented candidates to stand against this dogged old conservative.
A retired admiral, top businessmen, and professional men came forward. Out of them all, the Progressives chose a complete amateur. He is a famous and highly popular South African sportsman and Cape Province cricket captain called Eddie Barlow. He says he wants to fight the Nationalists because he is simply tired of the atmosphere of strikes, boycotts, unrest, and racial antagonism in the country and wants "to do something about it."
His heart may be in the right place, but the feeling is that he will be hard pressed to beat the pugnacious professional.