Plan to change Constitution disappoints S. Africa blacks

In a move akin to launching a trial balloon that immediately turns leaden, the South African government has released proposals for changes in this country's Constitution that have met immediate condemnation.

Criticism, moreover, has come not only from the white opposition in Parliament, but also from even the most moderate black spokesmen.

A government commission has recommended that South Africa -- a country in which 84 percent of the population is not white -- should continue to be governed primarily by its white minority. The black majority, along with Indians, Coloreds (people of mixed race), and Chinese, would be represented through purely advisory committees. The South African Parliament, meanwhile, would continue as an all-white body.

"Instead of abolishing apartheid, they are entrenching it even further," declared Cedric Phatudi, head of the Lebowa "homeland" (tribal reserve) and one of the most moderate of black political figures here.

Apartheid, this country's complex system of political, economic, and social segregation, undoubtedly will be furthered in some respects by the proposals mooted by the Commission of Inquiry on the Constitution.

In its interim report, the commission, headed by Interior Minister Alwyn Schlebusch, recommends:

* Abolition of South Africa's 20-member Senate, an appointed body.

* Expansion of the House of Assembly -- at present an elected chamber -- by an additional 20 members, to be nominated by leaders of political parties.

* Creation of a state president's council, to include whites, Coloreds, Indians, and Chinese, to "advise the state president on any matter."

* Establishment of a council consisting of black South African citizens to "consult" with the state president's council.

The proposals are a slight deviation from past policies of the ruling National Party, in that they concede the need for consultation with other racial groups in the running of the country.

But remarks made in Parliament recently by Pieter Koornhof, the government minister of cooperation and development, indicate that the setting up of "separate sovereignties" -- code words for making blacks citizens of tribal reserves in order to make South Africa a predominantly white republic -- still is the underlying government strategy for dealing with its racial problems.

Various government officials have made it clear that majority rule in a unitary state is "not negotiable."

The commission found that a system of one-man, one-vote would lead to domination of the white minority by the black majority. But blacks charge that the present system, despite the changes advocated in the Schlebusch commission report, amounts to white minority domination of a black majority.

The new constitutional proposals are likely to create something of a flurry in Parliament, since the opposition Progressive Federal Party (PFP) says it will oppose some of them.

"Our main objection," wrote the PFP commission members in a minority report, "is that [exclusion of blacks from the state president's council] will not promote the process of peaceful constitutional development in the republic."

But some black activists argue that even inclusion of blacks in the council would make little difference.

"It is irrelevant," says Dr. Nthato Motlana, chairman of the Soweto black township Committee of Ten.

The new structure being proposed "excludes the most important segment of the population," he says, and "does not address itself to the central problem of power-sharing on the basis of one-man, one-vote."

The commission report will have a perhaps unintended effect in black political circles, however. It is likely to further isolate those moderate black spokesmen who still favor negotiations with the government. Some black political figures say the commission's proposals vindicate their refusal to talk to the government -- unless it is to talk about the dismantling of apartheid.

Even Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, one of the more moderate black leaders, could not hide his disappointment. "Separate ethnic governments as ultimate and final forums for participation in decision-making are not acceptable to the majority of blacks in South Africa," he said.

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