South Africans question prime minister's 'dictatorial' tendency

There is concern in South Africa that Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha's National Party government is tending toward increasingly dictatorial methods to enforce what it regards as necessary "liberal" reforms.

This so-called dictator trend is causing growing speculation here, especialy among white Afrikaner intellectuals and academics on both the left and right of mainstream government thinking.

So much so, in fact, that one of the country's leading Afrikaans Nationalist columnists, Willem de Klerk, who is editor of an official National Party daily newspaper, has declared taht there is so much talk about possible dictatorial intentions that these demand to be officially repudiated.

Mr. De Klerk asks, among other things, for assurances that the government is not working on a "concealed plan" to attack the roots of press freedom, that it rejects the concept of a dictatorial state that scorns the rights of groups or individuals, and that it is committed to finding a political settlement arrived at through consultation and "give-and-take on both sides."

Reasons for speculation about dictatorial tendencies have to do with Prime Minister Botha's political style almost as much as definite legislative steps he has taken.

Mr. Botha is known as an impatient man -- and the democratic process, with its emphasis on discussioin and negotiation, is notoriously slow and frequently inefficient.

The prime minister, moreover, is regarded as a super- administrator and Mr. Efficiency personified. He tends to be intolerant of opposition once he has decided on what he considers the right course.

One of the striking things about his administration -- and he has been prime minister for not quite two years -- is the way he is streamlining the civil service. He is in the process of cutting the number of government departments by more than half, from 39 to 18.

While even his fiercest opponents applaud his drive for increased government efficiency, they also are wary of the fact that by rationalizing the government, he is not only improving efficiency, but also putting more and more power into fewer and fewer hands. And these are all appointed Mr. Botha.

Mr. Botha also has expanded the Department of the Prime Minister to make it almost a mini-government on its own which increasingly plans policy in all key areas and co- ordinates the government's "total strategy."

And this total strategy appears to be influenced more and more by the Army's general and the powerful State Security Council, all under the finger of the indefatigable Mr. Botha, who is also Minister of Defense.

In addition, Mr. Botha has broken with tradition by taking the power to appoint people of his choice directly to the previously all-elected white Parliament. Moreover, the new prestige body, the President's Council, which will advise on future constitutional developments, will be a group entirely appointed by the government.

So, directly and through the patronage he controls, Mr. Botha now is more powerful than any previous South African prime minister, and he seems set to increase his power almost day by day.

Some young Nationalist supporters believe that the only way to bring about a form of enlightened change in South Africa is for Mr. botha to use his power to introduce a temporary phrase of "enlightened authoritarianism."

They see him bringing like-minded people into the governing process, either by simply appointing them members of Parliament, or by appointing them to the President's Council (which is scheduled to have white, Asian, Chinese, and people of mixed race as members) and a separate Black Council for the majority black African group (which some black leaders already have criticized).

Some proponents of the "dictator option" believe this would result in the paradox of a government forcing through more liberal reforms on the one hand while acting almost ruthlessly on the other hand to maintain law and order.

At any rate, many here are anxious about this trend.

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