EXTENDING the state of emergency has become business as usual in South Africa. With a fourth year just announced by President P.W. Botha, censorship, detention without trial, and other abuses can continue. The foes of apartheid can thus be muted. And such muting may, in the government's view, be crucial in the months before September's elections to the all-white parliament. The ruling Nationalist Party wants to forestall any disturbances that could hand their right-wing Conservative opponents an issue. They are less concerned about a challenge from the left, mounted by the new Democratic Party.
Such political calculations can scarcely justify the continued emergency, with its affronts to basic rights. If, as widely forecast, the Nationalists strengthen their hold on power after September, a new government under Botha's successor, F.W. De Klerk, could be expected to lift the emergency. Mr. De Klerk has stated that white domination must come to an end, and important steps - such as the release of Nelson Mandela - could lie just ahead. But significant changes in direction are incompatible with the dead weight of the emergency measures.
Inexorably, apartheid is crumbling. It has always been a morally indefensible system, and its economic consequences are coming home. The talents of black workers and managers are central to the country's health, a recognition that should help knock the pins from under apartheid. If people are to contribute fully to a society, they have to be allowed full participation in shaping that society.
The real emergency is to come up with something better than the current system. A new administration in Pretoria may be willing to move cautiously toward genuine black participation in government. Blacks, however, will be skeptical of any approach that smacks of co-optation and compromise. They demand, and deserve, full political rights. Ultimately, that goal will have to be shared by all South Africans who want a brighter future.