South Africa: a change, but not necessarily for the better

By , Robert I. Rotberg is professor of political science and history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

South Africa changed its political system last week, but not necessarily for the better. Its white electorate strongly endorsed a radically new constitution which promises to alter the country's political focus profoundly.

The constitution transforms South Africa from a Westminster type of parliamentary system into a curious hybrid dominated by an all-powerful executive president. He will have broad appointive powers and control over most matters of national or cross-racial concerns.

Three legislatures, one for whites, one for Coloreds (people of mixed descent), and one for Asians, will constitute a new tricameral parliament. Each will legislate only for its own peoples, thus perpetuating and institutionalizing apartheid (South Africa's special version of segregation).

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Power will flow to the executive, and to a lesser extent to the white legislative chamber. The majority party in the white parliament, now the National Party, will be able to outvote any combination of the Colored and Asian chambers, and also those two chambers and the opposition parties in the white chamber. These skewed votes will determine the election of the first state president, and all other issues that involve the opinion of the whole parliament. Moreover, the president will himself appoint a cabinet for the entire parliament, ministerial councils for each chamber, and an advisory council for disputes between chambers.

The new constitution gives no political role to the 22 million Africans who constitute South Africa's majority (whites number 4.6 million; Coloreds, 2.5 million; and Asians, 0.8 million). During the campaign that preceded last week's 66 percent majority for the new constitution, Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha over and over again promised that Africans would never be brought into South Africa's political system. They would never receive a chamber of their own or other rights and would have to continue to find some political solace in 10 small, rural, impoverished homelands on South Africa's periphery.

Africans of all backgrounds and political tendencies condemned the constitution. Their leaders pleaded with whites to vote no. So did the head of the liberal white Progressive Federal Party. By shutting Africans out and denying the majority a stake in the peaceful evolution of South Africa, they said that Mr. Botha was intensifying racial conflict in a country where Africans were already sympathetic to the African National Congress, an externally based guerrilla movement.

Asians and Coloreds are dissaffected, too, although one set of Colored politicians agreed early this year to accept positions in a chamber. Even though whites have now approved the constitution, Coloreds and Asians may not, if and when they are asked their opinion. They fear African reprisal. Moreover, Mr. Botha has refused to consider altering the segregationist policies, which injure Coloreds and Asians as much as Africans.

Many whites voted affirmatively last week because they thought the new constitution would enable Mr. Botha's government to reform their country's racial policies.

Yet blacks want the chance to vote or at least influence the formulation of national policy. They want the elimination of segregation, especially legal limitations on their job and residential mobility. They want to be considered South Africans. They want a territorially unfragmented South Africa. But Mr. Botha's government is pledged to grant none of these rights.

In the months ahead Mr. Botha may be influenced more by his defeat last week in one of the 15 voting areas where far right-wing whites thought his policies, vague as they are, too advanced.

South Africa after the referendum is much as South Africa was before last week's vote. Its vast majority is poor, alienated, and angry. Its Coloreds and Asians are wary and fearful, and its whites are no more secure than they were before. The new constitution and the new parliament that as a result will come into being next year address none of the fundamental problems of a still bitterly divided country. Also, the whites have traded a strong parliamentary government with a vigorous opposition for a potentially dictatorial one which has neither the vision nor the inspiration to deal directly with the all-consuming problem of a nation where evolutionary reform has now been made less rather than more likely.

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