South Africa leader gives an inch in rights for blacks

President Pieter Botha has dropped once and for all the notion that all of South Africa's black majority can be accommodated politically in the tribal ``homelands.'' And Mr. Botha has invited certain blacks to take part in informal talks aimed at developing ``mutually acceptable'' political institutions for non-homeland blacks.

Botha's speech at the opening Parliament last Friday appeared to mark a signficant shift in several of the basic tenets of apartheid. But there has been a mixed reaction from government opponents.

Many blacks have rejected Botha's proposals as a new tactic for an old end. Black organizations say Botha is still trying to fragment blacks politically in order to perpetuate white dominance.

Certain of the government's white opponents responded more favorably to Botha's speech. Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, leader of the opposition Progressive Federal Party, said while Botha's pronouncements were ``tentative and cautious,'' they also represented a ``departure from traditional Nationalist dogma.''

[United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Frank Wisner, visiting Zambia, welcomed Botha's speech.]

Botha's new proposals are in keeping with his established style of leadership. He has jettisoned in the past several apartheid sacred cows. But he has yet to convince the country's nonwhites that these changes -- despite their ideological importance to whites -- are anything more than tactical maneuvers for ensuring continued white control of the country.

Botha and his fellow Afrikaners once held that all of South Africa's 22 million blacks would one day end up in the 10 tribal homelands. Blacks would have political rights in the homelands but not in the central government of South Africa.

It became clear over time that all blacks would never reside in the homelands. (There are more blacks than whites in major cities like Johannesburg.) But the government still insisted urban blacks would only have a political say beyond the local level in their ``homeland.''

Now Botha has announced that black communities outside the ``homelands'' will be treated politically as entities in their own right and that they must be granted political participation at ``higher levels.''

But this does not necessarily mean blacks will gain any power at the central-government level over the country as a whole. Botha said what was envisioned was an institution at a higher level whereby blacks could decide their ``own affairs'' -- meaning matters relating only to blacks.

This could imply that urban black communities will in effect be elevated to the status of mini-homelands, a development that would not placate black demands for political power in governing the country. Pretoria's political blueprint for the homelands is that they can have autonomy to rule themselves.

But when it comes to the ``common interests'' of all of South Africa, the homelands have no real power and can only consult with the white-dominated central government. At this stage Botha's plan seems to envision a similar role for urban blacks.

In his speech, Botha also hinted at some changes in policies that affect the day-to-day lives of blacks. Botha said he was ready to grant freehold property rights to urban blacks. Whites have always been reluctant to grant blacks property rights since it implied their permanence in areas outside the homelands.

Botha announced the government was investigating how to ``eliminate negative and discrimatory aspects'' of the influx-control measures that stringently regulate black travel and access to jobs. He promised changes in the policy of resettling blacks from white areas to the homelands ``to the great satisfaction of all those concerned.'' Blacks want influx control and resettlement scrapped in entirety.

Botha also said new attention was being given to black citizenship. All blacks are regarded as citizens of one or other homeland. And when a homeland becomes ``independent,'' its blacks lose South African citizenship. By acknowledging that all blacks will not eventually live in a homeland, the government must logically amend its policies to allow that some blacks will always remain citizens of South Africa.

The heavy emphasis of Botha's speech on black affairs is a clear signal to many analysts that the South African government is sensitive to the accelerating disinvestment campaign in the United States and that the government takes seriously the wave of black unrest that swept the country last year.

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