THE most important election in South Africa last week was the one that didn't occur. That was the non-election by the nation's 28 million blacks, still disenfranchised by the ruling white minority. Apartheid renders last Wednesday's parliamentary balloting by 5 million white, mixed-race, and Asian South Africans a parody of representative self-government. In fact, blacks did vote Wednesday, in the only ways they have available to them: prayer, protest, and the successful culmination of a two-day strike. The preceding month-long defiance campaign - which brought forth unnecessarily harsh responses (including a reported 25 killings on election day) from Pretoria - sent a brave signal to the government that black grievances will not be palliated by half measures.
But for now, the voting that counted was for the white House of Assembly, which dominates the three-chamber Parliament. The National Party sustained its 41-year grip on South African politics, and acting President F.W. de Klerk will become the permanent head of state. The party's majority was significantly eroded, however, as it lost about 20 seats to challengers on both flanks.
The biggest gains were registered by the Conservative Party, a break-away movement of Afrikaners opposed to any loosening of apartheid. Yet those gains were nearly matched by the new Democratic Party, which seeks to ameliorate racial policies.
What's it all mean for Mr. de Klerk, who has said he wants to move South Africa away from white dominance to a (hazily defined) order in which no racial group has the whip hand? The combined votes for the National and Democratic parties could signify a cautious mandate for reform; or, Conservative gains might indicate that the NP is no longer the party of the Afrikaners and will increasingly break apart.
If De Klerk is to lead South Africa into a brighter future and not anchor it to its dark and bloody past, he must read the election results courageously. Political courage can often impress its own interpretation on ambiguous events. De Klerk must continue his efforts to improve relations with the neighboring frontline states, begun several weeks ago in Zambia. More important, he must start a dialogue with the African National Congress - beginning with the release of Nelson Mandela.
The very murkiness of the election results may also give the United States an opening to help De Klerk give impetus to reform. If Washington shouldn't expect too little from De Klerk at this juncture, nor should it expect the impossible. This could be a good time for South Africa's president to pay a call at the White House.