The politics of South Africa have assumed a new quality of not-so-quiet desperation. With unaccustomed unanimity, the country's internal critics are demanding bold initiatives and resolute acts. Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha seems to agree. So do many of his colleagues. Even the usually subservient white electorate is looking for positive leadership. But very little has changed politically in South Africa in the year since the same prime minister dramatically heralded the coming of a better deal for blacks and progress in resolving the fundamental problems of his country.
Those problems, for the last six months, have been emphasized by the almost daily protests by African and Colored (mixed race) school children against their denial of equal educational opportunity. There have been frequent violent clashes between the police and the children, a number of fatalities, and an almost perpetual state of tension in the African and Colored townships that surround South Africa's major cities.
On several occasions, older urban Africans and Coloreds have grieved militantly, stoning police vehicles and being fired at in return. Last month there was renewed fighting near Cape Town and an outburst of violence in the old diamond mining center of Kimberley. In September, the minister of education and training closed down schools for Africans and Coloreds in many of the disaffected townships.
The children and their elders want better schools, better teachers, and the expenditure of funds on them to be more equal to that spent on whites. The government of South Africa now spends about $1,000 per white child, $300 per Colored, and $100 for each African in school. The prime minister has acknowledged the disparity and promised has acknowledged the disparity and promised a sympathetic hearing to those who wish improvements.
Mr. Botha has also been ready to criticize the inequities of social and economic apartheid. A year ago he said that South Africa must "adapt or die." He admitted the fundamental wrong of two 30-year-old laws, the Immorality Act and the Mixed Marriages Act, both of which make sexual relations across the color line criminal offenses.
Last month Mr. Botha startled a provincial congress of his ruling National Party by reiterating that those laws, and others like them, were unnecessary: "I don't believe my nation depends on these laws for its survival." In the face of hostility from many of the delegates to the congress, he went on to attack those who still believed in routine forms of segregation, such as separated lines in post offices or separate athletic teams and competitions.
But as powerful as is Botha's rhetoric in the context of South Africa's overwhelming contest between 26 million blacks and 4.3 million whites, his critics contend that he fiddles relentlessly while South Africa burns. This year's legislative session of the country's exclusively white Parliament was distinctive for its lack of any legislation fundamentally modifying apartheid. Instead, the government's overwhelming majority in Parliament agreed to abolish its upper house, or Senate, and to replace it with a vaguely defined nominated constitutional body called the president's council, thus giving the prime minister added power and, admittedly, a degree of new freedom from the inhibiting influence of the more "verkrampte," or closed-minded, members of his party.
(Africans are excluded from the president's council. Because of that exclusion, South Africa's main white opposition party refused to allow its members to be nominated for places on the council. Of the 61 council members, 15 are Colored, Asian, or Chinese.)
Since Parliament adjourned in June, the prime minister has strengthened his control of the party and bolstered its "verligte," or liberal, wing by dismissing or shunting aside the verkrampte members of his Cabinet. In their place, he has installed a distinguished classicist, who also happens to have been the leader of the Broederbond (the Band of Brothers, the secret and powerful Afrikaner cultural and political organization); a young theologian and former rugby star; and, as minister of defense, a percipient general, who is credited with understanding that white influence is South Africa can only survive if internal discontent is muted by a fundamental redress of the longstanding injustices of apartheid.
Many politically influential Africans have welcomed Mr. Botha's rhetoric and have praised the way in which he has strengthened the verligte wing of the ruling party. But, their desperation has grown as students have rioted, as Mr. Botha has refused to consider political concessions, as he has forged ahead with plans to strengthen the so-called independent homelands (Transkei, Bophuthatswana, and Venda) and to welcome a fourth (Ciskei) to their ranks -- and, essentially, as nothing progressive seems to happen.
Black desperation has been echoed in many white quarters. Afrikaner theologians have urged action. But no group in recent months has been more outspokenly critical than the usually subdued industrial and business community.
Harry Oppenheimer, chairman of the vast Anglo-American Corporation, is usually muted in his views. In July, however, he called for an urgent and fundamental remodeling of the country's educational system to provide equal facilities for all. He asked for immediate commitments, not vague promises. Racial discrimination and free enterprise were basically incompatible, he declared. In particular, the mobility of black workers was obstructed and denied, despite government intentions to the contrary. Time, he said, was running out.
A few weeks earlier, in late June, Bishop Desmond Tutu, secretary of the South African Council of Churches and a persistent, but measured, black critic of the government (his passport was taken away earlier in the year), spoke of the dangerous crisis in race relations. But, optimistically, he indicated that Mr. Botha only had to act in four ways to resolve the conflict and lead South Africa in an orderly and evolutionary way toward "political power sharing." Bishop Tutu said that the government must 1) commit itself to a common citizenship for all South Africans in an undivided South Africa, irrespective of color; 2) abolish the pass laws (which restrict black mobility); 3) cease sending urban Africans involuntarily to barren, rural dumping grounds; and 4) establish a single educational system for all.
Despite these and similar constructive initiatives, the prime minister has remained reluctant to grasp the nettle of bold leadership. There are excuses, foremost of which is a possible decision on his part to continue to consolidate his personal hold on the ruling party before acting resolutely. Or he may think that a general election, and a big victory, is necessary before he can move decisively.
No one knows to what extent South Africa's future is a hostage of time. Therefore, to temporize when the prime minister can lead, and lead boldly, makes critics despair. At a minimum, Mr. Botha could begin to meet Bishop Tutu halfway. For example, he could go beyond rhetoric to promise legislation repealing the Immorality and mixed Marriages acts. He could modify the pass laws. He could do more than talk about altering apartheid. Most of all he could, before black youth become irretrievably alienated, squarely face the issue of political participation. How is power ultimately to be shared? Will continual violence be necessary to resolve the issue? Mr. Botha knows, and has said, that both questions are intertwined.
Black leaders are still prepared to talk to Botha and his colleagues about meaningful political growth. But for how long? The main lesson of Zimbabwe's successful struggle for independence was one of timing. It is likely that Botha , the supreme tactician, wants to and an act. The fear, however, is that he will talk either to unrepresentative blacks or to none. Only by answering Bishop Tutu and the students on their own terms can he lead South Africa out of despair.