This month has seen in succession three ominous warning signals to the white minority government of Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha in South Africa. Each is significant.
* First came daring acts of sabotage against the country's two key coal-into-gasoline plants, the most advanced in the world. The plants are part of South Africa's insurance against an eventual world oil boycott, oil being the republic's Achilles' heel if it were ever forced to depend on its own resources.
* This was followed by the boycott of schools by Colored (mixed race) pupils, mainly in Cape Province, which led to violence, killings, and destruction in Cape Town's Colored townships. The fact that this protest was spearheaded by Coloreds proved -- if proof were still needed -- that Coloreds have gone over to the side of the blacks in the long-drawn-out drama of race conflict in South Africa.
* And finally, with the Colored school boycott and violence subsiding or contained, there now has come a wave of strikes by black workers in the twin-city industrial centers of East London and Uitenhage. This region is South Africa's Detroit, since its most important automobile plants are there.
The three developments throw the spotlight on three areas of sensitivity or vulnerability. The sabotage at the fuel plants is a reminder that South Africa is vulnerable to just such actions, as an industrial power depending heavily on black labor. The work stoppages in East London and Uitenhage are a parallel reminder from a different angle of the same stark fact.
As for the eruption of the Colored protest, it tells South African whites (and particularly the Afrikaners among them) that time may have run out for any government hope of co-opting the Coloreds or South Africans of Indian origin against the black majority.
Why are the protests gathering steam now?
Probably because of the psychological effect on South African nonwhites of the revolutionary change that has come about since the turn of the year in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), just across the Limpopo River to the north. There black majority rule has been achieved, and generally accepted, by the process of the ballot box, albeit after a decade or more of intermittent guerrilla war.
That black success in Zimbabwe has stoked nonwhite determination in South Africa to increase pressures to the same end. (If it comes to protracted violence in South Africa, the pattern is more likely to be one of industrial sabotage and urban terrorism, not the guerrilla warfare in the countryside that forced Zimbabwe's white minority to give in.)
Significantly, the main thrust of this month's new wave of nonwhite student protest in South Africa did not come from the younger generation of blacks in Soweto, the huge and sprawling township outside Johannesburg, where exactly four years ago this month a new era of race confrontation in South Africa was ushered in.
For this there are two likely explanations:
1. Within little more than a year of the 1976 explosion, South Africa's Afrikaner-run government had removed or driven underground the entire leadership of the new generation of black protesters, centered in Soweto. Most of them had been identified with the late Steve Biko's black consciousness movement.
2. The mood has changed among the young of Soweto. The change is not toward resignation or passivity. Young urban blacks have seen that the tactics of 1976 -- civil disobedience producing confrontation -- are no longer strong enough. More and more are known to have left South Africa for sabotage or guerrilla training abroad. The fuel plant explosions may have been among their first calling cards after returning home.
In 1976, when the young blacks of Soweto set the pace, some young Coloreds joined in. This year, it was the Coloreds who boycotted schools without awaiting any cue from blacks.
The situation of the Coloreds is particularly poignant -- and divisive among Afrikaner whites. The usual description of them as being "of mixed race" tells only part of the story.
There are between 2 1/2 and 3 million Coloreds, just as there are between 2 1 /2 and 3 million Afrikaners in South Africa. Indeed, the Coloreds are the stepchildren of the Afrikaners. Their language is Afrikaans, and their religion is mainly that of the Afrikaners, that of the Dutch Reformed Church.
This is because they are the descendants of children born of original Dutch (Afrikaner) fathers and imported East Indian or Malaysian laborers in the early days of European settlement around Cape Town.
Until fairly recently, the Coloreds had cherished hopes that the Afrikaners would accord them a privileged position among nonwhites. Thus they tended to see their future with whites rather than with blacks.
But over the first two decades of untrammeled Afrikaner ascendancy from 1948 onward, the Afrikaners made the mistake of denying Coloreds the few minimal advantages they had enjoyed prior to World War II. In Afrikaner blueprints, they were not even accorded a homeland of their own -- as black ethnic groups have been. Thus began their alienation.
The younger generation of Coloreds has become increasingly radicalized (if still less so than the younger blacks). It was they who spoke in Elsies River and other Colored townships in the Cape Town area last week. Coloreds alone, be it noted, already outnumbered whites 3 to 2 in Cape Town.