The South African government is running into trouble over its plan for a new political deal for this country. The problem is that the government is caught between two opposite pressures.
One is the strident demand for full political rights from the various black groups who form the overwhelming majority of the population.
The other is fear on the part of its own white followers that the blacks would use any real political power they gained to "plow into the ground" (a favorite phrase of white right- wingers) South Africa's present system.
To find a way out of its dilemma, the government has proposed that a multiracial "president's council" be appointed to advise it on constitutional changes.
Speaking in Parliament, Minister of the Interior Alwyn Schlebusch, who is the government's chief constitutional planner, said that the time had come for all population groups to have an opportunity to consult with one another about a new constitutional system in a "meaningful way."
The government is earnestly seeking peaceful coexistence between the races, he emphasized.
But government proposals for multiracial consultation about the future would have been unthinkably "liberal" to many of its own followers just a few years ago -- and they still are considered anathema by some today.
Moreover, they may not be acceptable to the nation's 18 million blacks, who make up the overwhelming majority of the population.
Thus, even some National Party newspaper political columnists say it is in serious danger of being stillborn.
A serious gulf exists, meanwhile, between the government's expressed intentions and its proposals.
The proposed president's council, for example, would have representatives of the whites, the Coloreds (people of mixed race), the Asians, and the handful of Chinese South Africans. But it would exclude blacks.
The blacks, the government insists, are a special case and should have a separate black council. The black council could, however, consult with the President's Council.
This latest manifestation of the ruling National Party's obsession with apartheid -- enforced social, economic, and political separation of the races -- or its milder, latter-day version, known as separate development, has been rejected out of hand by Colored leaders, most important black leaders, certain Asian leaders, and by the official white oppostion party in Parliament, the Progressive Federal Party (PFP).
Said PFP leader Dr. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, a vigorous opponent of all forms of apartheid: "My party cannot be hijacked on to the president's council just to make separate development work more smoothly."
The government now is clearly concerned that it may set up a consultative body and find that nobody of any consequence is prepared to serve on it, and that it will flop just as disastrously as previous National Party attempts to satisfy black aspirations with powerless, dummy bodies.
Its only real hope of saving the situation seems to be to make its proposed president's council truly representative of all races, and to appoint blacks to it as well as the other races.
But if it does this, it faces the possibility of a revolt from its own right-wingers who insist that, although they might be prepared to make a political deal with the Colored people and the Asians, the black Africans must have separate rights.
The National Party, however, is not the only party with troubles.
Some members of the Progressive Federal Party are also of two minds. They believe that some form of interracial consultation is better than none at all, and that party leader Slabbert's blunt rejection of the president's Council is going too far.
One such person is a suave, longtime member of Parliament, Japie Basson. He bucked a caucus decision and told Parliament that in spite of his party he personally would serve on the president's council as a step toward a more satisfactory constitutional development.
Dr. Slabbert took exception and Mr. Basson was informed within 24 hours that he was no longer welcome in the party caucus and that he is likely to be expelled from the party altogether.
This reinforced Dr. Slabbert's credibility among the blacks and his own hard-liners, but it dismayed some of his own more conservative white followers.