South Africa's ruling whites lost a crucial election last week when Coloreds (a mixed-color minority) refused to endorse the country's shift to a new three-color Parliament.
Less than 30 percent of registered voters, and less than 20 percent of approximately 1.1 million eligible voters among the country's 2.8 million Coloreds, cast ballots last week. A vigorous boycott movement, accompanied by some intimidation, contributed to the luke-warm response. But, government's protestations to the contrary, the low turnout certainly showed that the response of South Africa's Coloreds to the new white initiative was not enthusiastic.
Tomorrow there will be a further test, when South Africans of Indian and Pakistani extraction go to the polls in the second of these communal elections. A very low poll of eligible voters among the 0.8 million Asians is now anticipated.
South Africa's tricameral Parliament, replacing its 74-year-old Westminster model (for which only whites could vote), will formally come into existence next Tuesday. Representatives of the nation's 4.6 million whites will retain control and have 160 seats in their house. The Colored house has 80 representatives (75 of these were elected last week as members of the Labour Party) and the Asians, 40. There will be no representation for South Africa's 20 million-strong black majority.
South Africa's new executive-president will, in effect, be selected by the Afrikaner-dominated National Party majority in the white Parliament. Pieter W. Botha, the present prime minister, will become president, with potential authoritarian power.
Last year whites approved the proposed new Constitution and tricameral Parliament with a referendum. Coloreds and Asians were denied a similar role in the Constitution-deciding, and black opinion was ignored entirely. As a result, last week's Colored vote became a trial of legitimacy in local and world eyes of this new modification of apartheid.
The Coloreds' verdict was purely negative, and against co-optation. But because the overall number of voters was greater than a level that could be called derisory, the Labour Party and the white government claimed a modest backing by mixed races. Much higher rates of voting, however, were reported from rural Colored constituencies than urban politicized areas near Cape Town. In some of those urban districts less than 10 percent of registered voters turned out.
Low polls or not, the Labour Party will take its seats and the new Parliament will be inaugurated. The Rev. Allan Hendrickse, Labour Party leader, is expected to receive a cabinet position. But Mr. Hendrickse has said he wants to upset apartheid and, if no progress is made in five years, Coloreds will withdraw from Parliament.
This is the ultimate test, but it is a test about which skepticism of success is easy. The white government has refused to consider scrapping the Group Areas Act, which now enforces residential segregation against Coloreds and Asians as well as Africans. It has refused to revoke legislation barring white and black, Colored, or Asian intimacy or marriage. The new Colored and Asian members of Parliament will not be housed with white legislators, nor will they be allowed in the same parliamentary dining room.
Mr. Hendrickse and others may be able to embarrass and harass the white government from new positions of privilege and freedom, but their actual power of decisionmaking will be very limited, and their influence on the workings of apartheid correspondingly little.
Just as the Coloreds last week refused to be cooperative and Asians will probably follow suit, so whites in South Africa cannot yet be expected to diminish their power. They are not prepared to dismantle apartheid or - it seems - to do more than to give South Africa's minority near-black groups a whiff but not a taste of power.