JOHANNESBURG — IF ever a country needed a national savior, South Africa does. It's easy to see why. Pretoria has disenfranchised blacks smoldering in the townships, right-wing whites hunkering in the suburbs, and an economy that's barely holding its own.
Enter Frederik de Klerk, heir apparent to President Pieter Botha in the just-announced election scheduled for Sept. 6. To some, he's the man on horseback come to save the country from what they see as Mr. Botha's botch-ups. Indeed, in a recent editorial, the usually pro-government Beeld newspaper strongly suggested that Botha step down now - instead of waiting until the voting.
But to many analysts, Mr. de Klerk falls short of the far-seeing, fearless-warrior type needed to solve South Africa's troubles. Instead, they say, he's a National Party man seeped in that group's segregationist apartheid traditions. And his reign could herald more of the same.
All the brouhaha here over the coming change is because ``we're a society of professional straw-graspers,'' explains David Welsh, a University of Cape Town political scientist.
``In reality, however, De Klerk is light years away from being able to make the bold moves necessary for a solution here,'' Professor Welsh says.
To be sure, even his critics concede that being the consummate politician, De Klerk could do something to surprise them all.
That political prowess has deep roots. His great-grandfather was a senator; his uncle a prime minister; his father a Cabinet minister. De Klerk's older brother Willem recalls that household discussions consisted of politics, politics, and more politics.
Thus, De Klerk already was canvassing for votes - his father's - by the time he was in high school. He rubbed shoulders with the other Cabinet ministers who were frequent visitors to the house. And he vacationed at his father's official residence in Cape Town. As his brother puts it, De Klerk is the ``product of the National Party's political culture.''
So it seemed inevitable that, after obtaining a law degree and practicing in the profession for a while, he too would jump into the fray. This is exactly what De Klerk did in 1972, with his election to Parliament. Since then, his has been a steady, by-the-books rise through party ranks that has included some rather low-profile Cabinet posts. (He now is National Education Minister and party leader in Transvaal Province.)
De Klerk's admirers maintain he made it to the top by acting the great conciliator among warring factions; hence his reputation as a middle-of-the-road man. His detractors say he simply played it safe by never taking a position.
``De Klerk has perfected the art of saying nothing,'' contends Sampie Terre Blanche, a Stellenbosch University economist who split with the Nationals a couple of years ago.
``He always criticizes the left, then the right, then takes a stand in the middle. That isn't being moderate, that's being noncommittal,'' Professor Terre Blanche says.
STILL, excitement in the press - at least initially - was great when Botha stepped down as party chief in January after suffering a stroke and handed the reins over to De Klerk. (Traditionally, the party leader automatically is the presidential candidate in an election.)
Newspapers cranked out stories likening De Klerk to a ``breath of fresh air'' and his politics to a ``new spirit of reform wafting through the country.''
After more than 10 years of Botha's often heavy-handed rule, the hyperbole is understandable. For starters, there's the difference in style. Botha is given to belligerent outbursts. But ``the first thing that strikes you about De Klerk is his charm,'' says Mr. Welsh, the political scientist. ``He's very affable, very soft-spoken.''
Then there's his firm commitment to parliamentary politics. This is in sharp contrast to Botha, who over the years has increasingly invested power in the presidency and a cabal of ``securo-crats.'' The hard-line securo-crats see anti-apartheid groups as dangerous revolutionary agitators that must be ``neutralized'' - banned and gagged.
Thus, the almost three-year-old state of emergency, clampdown on anti-apartheid organizations, imprisonment of anti-apartheid activists, and virtual breakdown in dialogue between the government and its black opponents.
But De Klerk ``believes in debate,'' says Peter Gastrow, a member of Parliament from the Liberal Democratic Party. ``He's far quicker on his feet, a much nimbler speaker, and more dedicated to a civilian orientation.''
That doesn't necessarily mean, however, that De Klerk will engage in what many see as the most important dialogue: negotiations with the outlawed black nationalist African National Congress (ANC.) Friends and acquaintances say that while De Klerk recognizes he must find a way out of South Africa's current stalemate, he still very much is wedded to the National Party's basic segregationist philosophy.
``I'm not sure if he has the strength, the courage, and the clearness of vision to take the lead'' in moving away from the concept of racial groups, warns an analyst close to De Klerk.
Many here say De Klerk will come up with yet another constitutional concoction, whereby he will try to accommodate everyone - but still on a racial basis. (Botha introduced a tri-cameral Parliament in 1983 that gave limited representation to Indians and ``coloreds,'' or people of mixed race. The country's 28 million blacks, who make up the population's majority, were excluded.)
Mr. Gastrow says this is a big and crucial waste. ``This experiment too will fail,'' he says, ``which means more time lost. Meanwhile, frustration, anger, and poverty will be building. And that will make it all the more difficult when we finally get around to trying to find a realistic solution.''