ON Nov. 3, 1983, a large majority of the 5 million whites of South Africa voted for a new Constitution which provided for limited political representation in Parliament for Indians and ``mixed'' races, but nothing for the 23 million blacks. President P. W. Botha called the results ``a vote for evolutionary reform.'' He said the new Constitution would be an ``attempt to secure security, stability, and prosperity for South Africa.''
The high hopes for the new Constitution are buried today under a rising tide of violence and resistance. It culminated last Saturday in an emergency decree allowing police to seize and detain anyone for 14 days without trial. It imposed censorship on the press.
The record shows that racial unrest often leading to rioting, bloodshed, and repression began building up in September 1983, in advance of the November election. There are no fully authentic records on fatalities, but in round figures it is estimated that 500 people, mostly blacks, have been killed in troubles that began not quite two years ago.
The leader of the political opposition in Parliament, Dr. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, commented that ``what was supposed to be an era of negotiation and consensus has seen us drift steady into the present state of emergency.''
The record is unclear on whether President Botha intended the grant of political representation to the Indians and ``mixed'' people of South Africa as a first step on a long road to admitting blacks to citizenship and parliamentary representation. Some viewed it rather as an effort to recruit the Indians and ``mixed'' peoples to the white strength.
Whatever the motive, the huge black majority has seemed to feel that the time has come for them to stage a major campaign to break through the crust of white power that has dominated South Africa since a band of Dutch traders landed at Cape Town about the same time that English traders were landing on the shores of North America.
The important first point for outsiders to understand about this situation in South Africa is that the whites of South Africa do not see themselves as a minority in the same community with the black majority. To the whites, South Africa is a white country owned and run by whites. To them, the blacks are outsiders, who are permitted to come inside and provide cheap labor -- and then are expected to go away. They are not citizens. They are just labor.
The dilemma for South Africa's white leadership arises from two facts. The first is that there are many more blacks living in the area than whites -- 23 million against only 5 million. The second is that the 5 million whites have allowed themselves to become dependent on the black labor.
If the whites had set up an all-white community and provided all their labor from among their own ranks, today's condition would not exist. The blacks could have been kept out of the white territory and allowed to work out their own salvation as best they could. Although allowing themselves to become dependent upon black labor, the whites talked about a policy of apartheid, but they could never set themselves apart from the black community. They have themselves continued to employ the blacks, on a st eadily rising level of numbers and in importance of positions held. The process of assimilation has reached the point where there are even cases of black foremen giving orders to white workers.
It is not written in the history books that men have often voluntarily given up a higher standard of living for the sake of a moral principle. The white community in South Africa has not reached the point of being willing to demote itself to political and economic equality with the black community.
The blacks are probably correct that they will not in the foreseeable future be able to break the old system in South Africa by peaceful means. They are increasingly turning to violence to change the system. The emergency decree of last weekend in South Africa is a milestone along the road of a struggle that will go on for a long time.