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Pretoria in throes of perestroika

By Ned TemkoStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 31, 1987


The short-story writer paused, as if seeking exactly the right word. ``We have entered a period of `glasnost.''' The implied comparison - from the lips of a young Afrikaner, Hans Pienaar - verged on heresy. Barely a day passes without President Pieter Botha accusing Moscow of an ``onslaught'' against Africa's last bastion of Christianity and civilization.

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Yet, South Africa and the Soviet Union have more in common than either would admit. The process of ``reform'' initiated by Mr. Botha in 1978 - so often judged by the standards of the Western world whose values Pretoria purports to represent - is far better understood in analogy with the perestroika (restructuring) Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is attempting thousands of miles to the north.

In Pretoria as in Moscow, there remain powerful built-in limits to how far authoritarian rule-by-ideology can be ``restructured'' by those who helped erect it: men who know they lack the trust of many whom they govern; men who would find a way to loosen control, without losing power.

On the surface, South Africa is not like the Soviet Union. Store shelves glisten with the foreign gadgetry. State television, if nearly as obedient to government news dictates as Moscow's, also airs American sitcoms.

English-language papers, if with increasing difficulty, write of black unrest or white injustice. White-liberal artists, journalists, and psychologists plan for a ``post-apartheid'' society. In Parliament, though blacks aren't allowed, opposition figures clamor for basic human rights.

South Africa's government also faces in black political violence a challenge far more overt than protests in the USSR.

Yet, for a reporter who spent two years in South Africa, and three in the Soviet Union, the similarites are obvious.

Social engineering

When the Afrikaner came to power in 1948, he, like the Bolshevik, imposed an ideology whose core assumption was that the state (meaning, the few who ran it) must take precedence over the individual. He invented an Orwellian doublespeak, translating authoritarianism as ``democracy,'' imposing ``pass laws'' which governed the movement of blacks under an ``abolition of passes'' statute.

The Afrikaner's mania for social engineering was barely less extreme than the Bolshevik's. Tens of millions of blacks were jailed, or deported to distant homelands, for violation of the pass laws. At least several million others were ``relocated'' to townships of Pretoria's choice.

Police muscle, intimidation, censorship, became integral tools of power. Even before recent unrest triggered a new media crackdown, there were dozens of laws limiting what the press could print.

At black political gatherings I would often spot plainclothes Afrikaner police, with cameras to film the proceedings, standing beside sky-blue Fords with elaborate radio antennae. They made so little effort to conceal their purpose, they might as well have been in uniform. Indeed, it seemed they wanted their presence known, like KGB men at a refusednik gathering - to remind political foes who rules and how tightly.

In Afrikaner South Africa, as in Moscow, a genuine process of reform has begun. Despite attempts by antigovernment leaders to portray the process as trivial, some changes have been major. The scrapping of the pass laws can hardly be called window dressing. Nor can the drive to negotiate a formula for ``power sharing'' with blacks, however hedged with guarantees for whites to stay on top.

The moves challenge a once unshakeable assumption of apartheid: blacks can, must, be kept politically and socially separate.

Still, key to Pretoria's approach to reform remains the insistence that it be charted from above. The engine of change isn't a feeling that apartheid was evil - but that it didn't, couldn't work.

So difficult is the two-step required to begin ditching apartheid without denouncing it, that even Botha's men sometimes trip up. While announcing the repeal of the pass laws, a top official was asked whether compensation would be offered to blacks victimized by it. No, he replied, adding: Did Lincoln offer compensation when he freed the slaves?