South Africa's 'reformist' minister resigns

The South African government appears unshaken by the resignation of Stephanus Botha, one of its most senior Cabinet ministers. But the credibility of the government's so-called ''reform'' policies may be in for an important test.

The departure of Manpower Minister Botha (no relation to Prime Minister Pieter Botha) clouds the only area of government where even critics concede there has been genuine reform.

During his tenure, Stephanus Botha overhauled South Africa's discriminatory labor laws, legalizing black trade unions and opening up many jobs previously reserved for whites.

Whites who gave the prime minister a mandate for his brand of limited ''reform'' in a referendum earlier this month will be looking for acknowledgement in the choice of a manpower successor. Also, a general Cabinet shuffle could give the government a stronger reformist flavor.

But the manpower minister paid a high political price for his labor reforms, and there may be considerable pressure on his successor - who at time of writing seemed likely to be Transport Minister Hendrik Schoeman - to adopt the ultracautious pace typical of the government as a whole.

Botha resigned amid what appears to be a gathering scandal over diamond concessions he allegedly granted in 1979. Political analysts here do not expect the government as a whole to be damaged by the allegations, which Botha denies.

Black labor demands began rising sharply in the early 1970s. Although Stephanus Botha is not credited with initiating reform, he responded pragmatically with reform legislation in 1979.

These reforms were clearly backed by the prime minister, but they did not go down well among some of the National Party rank and file. They played a role in the party's split last year.

Stephanus Botha scored a razor-thin victory in a by-election earlier this year in his northern Transvaal constituency, showing how his own position - and that of the National Party - had eroded among ultraconservative Afrikaners.

At time of writing Botha had not said whether he would resign from Parliament. If he does, the Nationalists may face another bruising political campaign in the Transvaal against the Conservatives.

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