Ruling party wins in S. Africa but many whites bolt ranks

Growing numbers of white South African voters are shedding their ideological cocoons. But they are flying off in widely divergent directions. And that leaves South African Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha, like a lepidopterist with an empty butterfly net, uncertain in which direction to head.

At least, that is what a number of South African election watchers are saying after whites went to the polls April 29 to choose a new Parliament.

Only white adults -- a scant 10 percent of the population in this African country --were eligible to cast ballots here. To be sure, most of them continued their support of the ruling National Party and its widely criticized policy of apartheid, or racial segregation.

At this writing, the party had won 124 seats in the nation's 165-member Parliament, capturing 55 percent of the total vote. (The results of 10 races were still out.)

But there was slippage to both the right and left, as disaffected voters bolted Nationalist ranks.

The party's victory margin was slashed in a number of constituencies across the country. In the peculiar world of National Party politics -- wherever spiraling vote totals are deemed obligatory -- many will view the results as a setback for Mr. Botha, who has advocated a few modest changes in racial policies here.

Even though Mr. Botha's party clearly scored a numerical victory, not many people think it was an ideological one. During the campaign, Mr. Botha consistently refused to spell out a specific plan for leading this minority-ruled country away from racial confrontation. Instead, he tried to appeal to both hard-line white supremacists and white moderates.

"He tried to be all things to all people," says black churchman Desmond Tutu, Anglican bishop and frequent government critic.

As a result, "He has no specific mandate" flowing out of the election results , says University of South Africa political scientist Willem Kleynhans.

Indeed, the clearest ideological trend in the election seemed to be toward the relatively more liberal official opposition, the Progressive Federal Party (PFP). The PFP won a total of 25 seats -- a gain of nine, with half of those coming at the expense of the Nationalists.

Notably, a PFP candidate defeated the minister of industries, commerce, and tourism, Dr. Dawid de Villiers --marking the first time a Cabinet minister has been unseated here since 1948.

The party's strong performance undoubtedly will bolster the political fortunes of its charismatic young leader, Dr. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert.

More worrisome to the Nationalists, however, is the slippage of support on the right. While the right-wing Reconstituted National Party (Herstigte Nasionale Party or HNP) did not win any parliamentary seats, it did markedly increase its popular vote to at least 136,000 votes -- a quadrupling of its showing in the last general election, in 1977.

HNP party leader Jaap Marais lost to arch-conservative National Party Cabinet minister Andries Treurnicht in a bitterly contested race in northern Transvaal Province. But, Dr. Treurnicht's victory margin was slashed by some 3,200 votes.

"Overnight, the HNP has become a respectable party," says Professor Kleynhans. By his calculations, it is within striking distance of winning seven parliamentary seats in the next election (lagging behind the Nationalists by fewer than 2,000 votes).

That is clearly worrying to Mr. Botha, since the HNP draws most of its support among Afrikaners -- the same ethnic group that has formed the backbone of support for the Nationalists.

Surveying the election results, Mr. Botha termed the HNP "a scar on the face of South Africa."

He also promised resolute leadership for the country, vowing, "We will now continue with the direction which we have taken, and will not be diverted from our course."

But after the election, as before, it remains unclear just what that course is likely to be -- and wheth er it will lead South Africa away from growing international isolation and internal violence.

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