Johannesburg — 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.
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.
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?
Some Afrikaners would have reform go further, faster. Here, as in Moscow, change is the visible part of an iceberg. Politicians have added their imprimatur to thinking that others began earlier.
The elite of Afrikaner academia, at Stellenbosch University, have long harbored practical and ethical doubts about apartheid. And at least some in the security establishment have sensed that the less apartheid were reformed, the more guns would be needed to preserve it.
Dangers of reform
One police expert remarks that, despite the government's charge that current unrest is part of a coordinated Soviet and African National Congress ``onslaught,'' it is clear the ANC merely coopted, or tried to coopt, unrest that arose from within.
Still, reform-minded Afrikaners also share with Botha a sense of the dangers inherent in reform. Recently, a top security official said in an interview that the suggestions that ANC leader Nelson Mandela might be released from prison were folly. The mere possibility that police might have to cope with Mr. Mandela addressing a huge crowd in Soweto, he said, was reason to hesitate.
``We want to share power,'' says another official. ``But sharing power does not mean abandoning power.''
Often, this distinction is obscured in what might be called neo-apartheid speak. Yes, whites must not ``dominate'' blacks. But blacks shouldn't ``dominate'' whites, either. Yes, whites are a ``minority.'' But so are blacks: a compendium of tribal ``minorities.''
When pushed to define what this means in practice, the government tends to gag on its own lexicon. Asked last year whether power sharing could lead to election of a black president, Foreign Minister Roelof Botha (no relation to the President) said, ``Yes.'' President Botha wasted no time in issuing a public rebuke.
When Zulus (a 6-million-strong community that, even by government arithmetic, is the largest ``minority'') joined English-speaking whites to negotiate regional power sharing, the plan envisaged a Zulu chief minister who would need white and ethnic-Asian support to get laws through the provincial parliament. Within days of the so-called Indaba accord, a government minister dismissed it as recipe for black rule. (Since then, the government has suggested talks on making the accord palatable.)
The problem for Botha - or for those who follow the National Party leader to power - is that his present vision of reform has little chance of succeeding. The official hope is that if power sharing is accompanied by improvement in blacks' living standards, the offer will eventually satisfy most of them.
But economic cooption costs money. While black population mushrooms at 2.5 percent a year, annual economic growth since 1980 has trailed at about 2 percent. Inflation runs at about 20 percent.
On the power-sharing front, only a few discredited pro-government blacks have expressed readiness to enter talks as presently defined. Partly, this is because the murder of alleged black ``collaborators'' has intimidated moderates. One black moderate returned home recently to find that the local ``street committee'' had comandeered his home for a meeting on a rent boycott in many townships. ``I didn't dare protest,'' he says.
But partly, too, the absence of blacks willing to negotiate power sharing reflects genuinely widespread opposition to government policies. The unwilling host added, ``I agree with the rent strike. Conditions are appalling!'' His quarrel is over method: ``How can they [militants] succeed, against police with guns?''
For now, at least, major new reform concessions are unlikely. While in Moscow it is unclear how much Gorbachev will heed conservatives who say reform is going too far, here the question is less open. Botha is clearly watching the Afrikaner right: having freed Govan Mbeki, a close associate of Mr. Mandela in November to right-wing jeers, Pretoria promptly put restrictions on him and toned down hints that Mandela would soon be freed.
It is not only the far right that will slow reform. Conservatism still pervades Afrikaner society. Though professors at Stellenbosch may favor speedier change, a recent survey suggests most students there do not. And the government discourages dissidence.
When one Stellenbosch professor ended years of government support this year and suggested new leaders might be needed for reform to proceed, the pro-party Cape Town newspaper Die Burger lashed out with ideological hyperbole Pravda might have envied: the professor, it said, had loosed a ``nihilist onslaught.''
What might black rule bring?
In a country whose government has talked ``democracy'' without practicing it, there is little reason to assume potential black leaders would act much differently. Mandela, say those who know him, would - perhaps. Evidence on the other black most cited as a potential head of a ``majority government,'' Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, is mixed.
Publicly, Mr. Buthelezi opposes political violence. But he regularly unleashes supporters - who ignited the conflict, no one can say - to battle with pro-ANC activists in Zulu townships. In interviews, Buthelezi is silkily charming but turns fiercely on reporters who critize him.
Pro-ANC activists here acridly denounce government bars on free expression. But when black guitarist Ray Phiri nominally broke a UN cultural boycott of South Africa by joining Paul Simon to record his ``Graceland'' album - and then told black militants to stick to politics and leave music to him - he found fans being pressured to boycott his concerts.
At least for now, it seems unlikely that black tolerance will have to pass the test of black government any time soon. The unrest of the past few years suggests blacks still lack the strength, or militant resolve, to wrest control. Pretoria's reply shows the Afrikaner still has the strength, and resolve, to rule.
The question now is whether the clock is merely ticking down to a next, more violent, but not neccessarily conclusive, showdown between white rule and black; or, whether a negotiated compromise will be found between African and Afrikaner.
On the black side, attitudes have hardened. Even a pro-government black-township mayor recently termed Pretoria's current power-sharing concept an ``exercise in futility.'' At least, he said, blacks must be allowed into Parliament ``on a par'' with whites. Major new government reforms, meanwhile, seem unlikely.
Hopes for compromise center on the possibility that Afrikaner perestroika (restructuring) may have acquired a momentum that is irreversible. Though the Dutch Reformed Church has resisted calls to declare apartheid a sin, it has scrapped the idea that such a system is blessed by the Bible. Though the elected leaders of the Afrikaners still show no sign of swallowing the idea of black rule, they have in effect given up the idea that black pressure for that rule can be wished away.
At least some senior officials, of the generation that will come to power after Botha, seem particularly aware of this. One rising star in Botha's Party rejects the idea that growing militancy in the black unions legalized by Botha calls for a slowing of reform. ``Black unions are so militant,'' he reasons, ``because unions are the only vehicle through which blacks can make their political voices heard.''
Botha's chosen negotiator, Stoffel van der Merwe, may reflect a changing mind-set. He still insists whites must have the option of legally sanctioned separatism: ``freedom of disassociation.'' But he acknowledges any workable move toward a new system must address the issue of freedom of association among races.
Perhaps most important, he has broken with the official assumption that whites can ``reform'' by choosing preferred black ``leaders,'' making a deal with them, and pronouncing that democracy has triumphed. ``Nothing,'' says Mr. Van der Merwe, ``is to be gained by drawing in a bunch of puppets. They wouldn't be able to deliver at the end of the day.''
Last in a three-part series.