Hopes for liberalizing reform in South Africa fizzle

Hopes that South African Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha would lead his ruling National Party and the country into a period of liberal constitutional reform have fizzled out in a week-long censure debate in the all-white Parliament.

Although Mr. Botha heatedly denied at the start of the debate that he is a "compromise leader," a weakling, or a "jellyfish," he appeared at the week's end to be little more than a political pawn of his party's right wing.

He has:

* Refused to accept that the urban blacks (who already outnumber the whites) would be as part of a new constitutional system planned to involve the whites, people of mixed race, and Asians.

* Rejected any chance of a common voters' roll even for the whites, people of mixed race, and Asians.

* Said that no people of mixed race, Asians (mostly Indians), or representatives of the small South African Chinese community would be given seats in the present all- white Parliament "under the present circumstances" (although it has been suggested another constitutional body might be created where whites, people of mixed race, and Asians might sit together -- with whites in the majority).

* Said that nobody other than a white would be elected executive president.

* Agreed that his policy amounted to white "domination" everywhere except theoretically in "independent" areas called the "homelands" of the Africans.

No wonder that the dour conservatives in the National Party were looking well satisfied by the time the debate ended.

Especially sleek and self-assured was the leader of the party in the Transvaal Province, Dr. Andries Treurnicht, who assured his. . . took time off himself in Parliament to assure his right-wing followers that there was no chance of political changes being introduced that were not strictly in line with fundamental National Party policies: in other words that apartheid -- the system of enforced social, economic, and political segregation -- is theoretically here to stay.

The only problem is that it is a policy that simply does not face the facts of changing realities in South Africa, and willy-nilly it is breaking down in many areas, particularly in the workplace, as opposition leader Dr. Frederick van Zyl Slabbert pointed out.

And he warned that attempts to enforce white domination could lead to "a semipermanent siege in this country similar to Lebanon and Northern Ireland."

If the prime minister came out of the debate politically threadbare, it was a triumph for Dr. Slabbert. The closing session ended with a blistering row across the floor of Parliament between Dr. Slabbert and Mr. Botha both men shouting and gesticulating.

Opposition spokesmen said afterward that they had never seen a prime minister similarly "demolished" in debate.

Rather anxiously, Nationalist newspapers are now predicting further bitter confrontations between the opposition Progressive Federal Party and the ruling National Party for the rest of this short session at least, particularly between Mr. Botha and Dr. Slabbert.

They are also trying to find glimmers of some reformist hopes in the wreckage of the censure debate.

The best they have come up with so far is that the year-old President's Council, an appointed body of 60, dominated by former National Party faithfuls, but with a sprinkling of Asians and some people of mixed race, might come up with constitutional proposals that will get the prime minister out of the dead end he seems to have been driven into now.

But seeing that the council is discounted and considered generally discredited by most people, black and white, outside the National Party, this hardly seems very likely.

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