Johannesburg — Pretoria has undercut mounting private-sector criticism of its reform policies, providing fresh evidence of support among local business leaders. This seems the main significance of a meeting between President Pieter W. Botha and some 200 South African business executives. Last week's conference followed public pressure by corporate leaders and business organizations for the government to move further and faster to meet black political demands.
President Botha seems to have restored a semblance of partnership with the private sector, centering on a mutual interest in lifting the country out of its worst economic recession ever. The recession, which began a few years ago, has been exacerbated by black political unrest and a mounting lack of confidence in Pretoria among foreign banks and businesses.
``Those of us businessmen who actively oppose the government's program of reform as inadequate are in a tiny minority,'' said one of several white executives who skipped the conference. A government source who participated agrees, saying the businessmen who did attend offered only limited criticism of government reform policies. Black businessmen boycotted the conference.
The ``economic summit,'' the third in eight years, focused on economic rather than political issues. It ended with agreement on a 40-page strategy document drawn up by Botha's Economic Advisory Council (CEA).
The document centered on the need for revived economic growth. It cited ``a general need for a clearer indication of the direction which is to be followed with political reform and the maintenance of law and order.'' The CEA added that this ``direction'' would ``have to have sufficient credibility to counteract effectively the unfavorable influence of existing political and security action on domestic and foreign economic perceptions.''
But Botha made it clear this would not mean bowing to some critics' demands for a wholesale shelving of racially defined laws and a move toward black-majority rule. He has favored the gradual repeal of race discrimination and eventual negotiation of ``power-sharing'' with blacks.
Suggesting that businessmen should leave political issues to the government, he complained that race-policy reforms announced so far had merely invited new pressures at home and abroad. ``The foreigners say, `Sanctions are working, impose some more....' The domestic leftist radicals say, `The government is capitulating, keep up the pressure.''' Meanwhile, whites on the extreme right greeted the reforms by demanding his ouster, he added.
The government used the summit to press its longstanding view that private business must concentrate on helping to hoist the country out of its worst recession on record. A new boom, officials have argued, would slow black political unrest and lend greater credibility to government pledges of political reform.
That a large measure of agreement emerged was of little surprise. Both sides had incentives to make the meeting work. Pretoria needs private business to restoke the economy. The businessmen are concerned that the alternative will be greatly increased state control.
The summit seemed to highlight what a leading white businessman terms a longstanding ``discrepancy between what we have said publicly about political reform and what we have told the government in face-to-face meetings.'' The businessman, who did not attend the conference, noted that various executives or business groups were on record as favoring further reaching reforms than the government accepted. Among them:
A wholesale scrapping of all laws that discriminate on the basis of race.
The legalization of the African National Congress, the country's oldest anti-apartheid organization.
The release from prison of founding ANC leader Nelson Mandela.
Participants indicate that none of these demands were pressed by the businessmen at the summit.
This report was filed under South Africa's emergency regulations, which prohibit reporters from being ``within sight'' of any unrest, any ``restricted gathering,'' or any ``police actions''; from reporting on arrests made under the emergency regulations; and from relaying information deemed subversive.