S. Africa seeks church support of controversial plan

South Africa's government is going to extraordinary lengths to win support for its new constitutional plan, which has been roundly rejected by most important black leaders and by the main white oppostiion party, the Progressive Federal Party.

Its latest move is to involve the biggest of the Afrikaans churches in publicizing its political proposals.

Part of the constitutional plan is to set up a nominated 60- member body called the President's Council to advise the present all-white Parliament constitutional change.

Although the council will include whites, Asians, people of mixed race, and even representatives of the tiny South African Chinese community, 70 percent of the country's population, the blacks, will be excluded.

Critics say this makes the whole thing meaningless. But the government is desparately anxious for it to be accepted and has been trying to sell the idea with a mixture of threats and charm.

It has used government-controlled television and radio to promote the proposals.

Its latest scheme has been to involve the restructured government Information Service -- which is still suspect after it caused a scandal by secretly using public money to start an English-language daily newspaper to support the ruling National Party.

The Information Service produced an unsigned glossy pamphlet enthusiastically hailing the proposals as "a meaningful adaptation" aimed to make a "better life possible for all inhabitants of South Africa."

It says that everybody should "steel himself against empty slogans and destructive criticisms" of the proposals, which should be adjudged "a great step in the process of constructive change."

But its plans misfired when it arranged to distribute thousands of copies as an insert in the country's leading financial journal, the Financial Mail. The editor became suspicious about the insert when he noticed its somewhat lyrical introduction and, most important, that it was not signed, nor attributed to any person or organization.

When he found out that the authors were faceless members of the government's Information Service, he angrily instructed his staff to remove the insert from copies that had not been distributed and took space in daily newspapers around the country dissociating his magazine from the views expressed in the pamphlet.

Opposition politicians condemned the Information Service for "getting up to its old political tricks again" by producing pamphlets that were not in the national interest but simply "party political propaganda supporting the ruling National Party."

The Information Service's latest move has been to involve the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk -- the all-white Afrikaans church to which the majority of Afrikaners belong -- in the distribution of further pamphlets, and even service organizations such as the local members of Lions International.

As before, the printed pamphlet is unsigned, but the covering letter is on Information Service letterhead paper. It is being sent to church ministers (known as "dominees") and urges them to bring the contents of the pamphlet to the attention of their church councils and "any other organization in the church."

Once again there have been some indignant protests. One church minister who received the pamphlet said it was "pernicious" and "intolerable" that the government was using "church channels to disseminate purely political information."

But the Information Service itself says it sees no reason anybody should "cause a fuss" and says it will use any suitable organization it can find to distribute its pamphlet.

One thing that clearly hurts government ministers about the opposition to its constitutional plan is that they really do believe they are taking a bold step forward by trying to involve at least the country's Asians, Chinese, and Coloreds (people of mixed race) in the constitutional process.

They believe that it is sufficient for the black Africans to be given a separate "black council" to confer with the President's Council.

But, as the leader of the official opposition in Parliament, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, says, it is simply not sufficient to measure meaningful political change according to the pace of the slowest white conservative.

One must also, he says, take account of the growing polarization and radicalization at the other end of the political spectrum.

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