Johannesburg — A major reshuffling of the South African Cabinet on Aug. 26 is expected to set the stage for some slight softening of the harsher aspects of apartheid. However, it is unlikely to mark the advent of any bold new changes in the racial segregation policy of the white-minority government here -- at least not bold enough to satisfy the aspirations of many black activists.
In his broad Cabinet shake-up, Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha installed seven new ministers and moved three others to new portfolios.
As expected, the appointments reflected two major trends evident in South African governance -- the ascendancy of the military in policymaking and the consolidation of power by the ruling National Party's relatively moderate "verlighte" (enlightened) wing.
Prime Minister Botha also used the occasion to begin filling seats on his new President's Council, the showpiece in his attempts to reformulate South Africa's Constitution in order to head off racial confrontation in this white-ruled country.
But Dr. Nthato Motlana, head of the Soweto Committee of Ten black civic organization, pronounced the moves "meaningless" to the country's voteless black majority. And Dr. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, leader of the opposition Progressive Federal Party (PFP), said the changes amount to "a rearrangement of the political furniture" rather than a political house cleaning.
Reflecting the growing importance of the military in political affairs, the chief of the South Afircan Defense Force, Gen. Magnus Malan, was made minister of defense. Mr. Botha thus shed the portfolio that he had continued to carry even after his ascension to the premiership in 1978, but passed it to one of his most trusted confidants.
Significantly, Mr. Botha also appointed H. J. Coetzee, presently the deputy defense minister with responsibility for the national intelligence service, to the post of minister of justice. In that job, Mr. Coetzee will oversee enforcement of the country's rigid security laws, which frequently are used to corral black dissidents.
Dr. Pieter Koornhoff stays in the sensitive post of minister of cooperation and development, the key portfolio for dealing with South Africa's black majority. But relations with the country's Colored (mixed race) and Indian people will now be the responsibility of a new Internal Affairs Ministry, headed by J. Chris Heunis, former transport minister. He takes over these responsibilities from Marais Steyn, who proved singularly ineffective in handling this year's unrest among boycotting Colored and Indian pupils. (Mr. Steyn now becomes ambassador to the United Kingdom.)
Another key appointment is that of Dr. Gerrit Viljoen to head the government's Education Ministry. Dr. Viljoen, presently the administrator of Namibia (South-West Africa), is the head of the Broederbond, the secret society drawn from the Afrikaner ethnic group that experts powerful influence over the country's affairs.
Dr. Viljoen's presence in the Cabinet makes him something of a counterfoil to hard-liner Dr. Andries Treurnicht, whose portfolio was shifted from public works and tourism to state administration. Dr. Treurnicht is also the leader of the National Party in populous Transvaal Province. As an adherent of rigid separation of the races, he has laid down political stumbling blocks in Mr. Botha's path toward limited changes in apartheid.
Now, Dr. Viljoen is positioned to offer a challenge to Dr. Treurnicht's leadership in the conservative Transvaal. Dr. Viljoen has bested Dr. Treurnicht in a leadership struggle before -- for the post of chairman of the Broederbond.
Moreover, Mr. Botha is continuing to checkmate Dr. Treurnicht's political influence among right-wingers in the National Party. Dr. Treurnicht's mere presence in the Cabinet forces him to become something of an apologist for the Botha administration, even though he privately opposes some of its policies.
The reshuffle, which has placed him in charge of the new Ministry of State Administration, makes him overseer of the government's civil service bureaucracy , one of the main bastions of resistance to Mr. Botha's reformist measures. So Dr. Treurnicht must try to explain and defend Mr. Botha's policies to government bureaucrats -- perhaps losing face in the process -- or be accused of sabotaging the prime minister.
In other developments, the National Party nominated Alwyn schlebusch, former minister of justice, as its candidate for the new post of vice-state president. He is virtually guaranteed election when Parliament meets in special session in October, and will then take over as chairman of the new President's Council.