S. Africa's Botha tiptoes as rightists block change, blacks grow restive

Now that the South African Parliament is back in session here, attention has focused on the possibility that Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha may decide to call a general election for later his year.

If he does, one reason would be divert attention from his very definite political difficulties.

His main problem is that although he and several of his Cabinet ministers have been talking big about "removing color discrimination," there does not seem to be very much he can do about it without changing fundamentally the government's policy of apartheid -- enforced social, political, and economic segregation.

And if he did do this, his powerful and very conservative right wing might walk out on him, splitting his ruling National Party.

Meanwhile, the blacks are getting more and more impatient.

Under the circumstances, Mr. Botha might well opt for a diversion -- and a general election, with all the political hoopla that goes with it, could well provide this.

There are other hings that point that way, as well.

For a start, the country is still doing very well economically. Though the present boom is expected to tail off somewhat later this year, the growth rate is still exceptional, and the government has enough money to give the country's hundreds of thousand of public servants a hefty wage increase within the next few months.

Then too, the government's main international problem, the need to find an internationally acceptable settlement for Namibia, has been stalled temporarily, and Mr. Botha might consider it expedient to go to the polls before the issue becomes more acute.

Also, the country faces a sort of mimi-election anyway, with more than 20 by-elections to be fought before the end of the year. Mr. Botha might decide that, with so many parliamentary seats being contested anyway, he might as well go the whole hog.

He migt even hope to eliminate some of his opponents in his own party in the process.

Meanwhile, although the National Party has an almost embarrasing majority in the all-white Parliament -- 149 seats to the meager 19 of the main opposition party, the Progressive Federal Party -- Mr. Botha will not have an altogether easy ride.

Confronting the prime minister is the relatively youthful leader of the opposition, Dr. Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert. Dr. Slabbert was leader of the opposition last year and so impressed Parliament with his acute and reasoned attacks on government policies that even some Nationalists conceded that he gave a "brilliant" performance.

More experienced now, and supported by some outstanding people in the House, he is likely to be even more effective this year.

He is expected to go straight to the point in the traditional "no confidence" debate, which starts Jan. 25, warning the government that it must not simply talk about ending discrimination, but get on and repeal racist laws.

The albatross around Mr. Botha's neck is the formidable leader of the National Party in Transvaal Province, Dr. Andres Treurnicht, known as "Dr. No" because of his opposition to political change.

Mr. Botha and his more liberal supporters in the Cabinet and in the party would like to involve the increasingly disaffected so-called Colored people -- people of mixed race -- more directly in the political system, which at present is all-white, perhaps even giving them the vote on a more or less equal basis with the whites.

But Dr. Treurnicht and his followers have balked at any suggestion of this. They also have objected bitterly to certain relaxations that have enabled Colored Rugby football teams to play games against whites.

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