White South Africa at last has a distinct mandate for change. The results of the recent election lead to that conclusion. But Prime Minister Pieter Botha, leader of the ruling National Party, may well think otherwise.
Mr. Botha called an early election in order to reposition his party and, conceivably, to weaken white opposition within the country to his calls for domestic reform. But when he began campaigning, Mr. Botha employed tactics of an earlier era. Fearful of Afrikaner antagonism to his articulation of the need to begin reforming, and mindful of a mighty assault from the right on the National Party by the Reformed National Party (HNP) and a new Conservative Party , he, too, appeared to move rightward. As a result, he staked no firm claim to solid reformist ground. Indeed, at times he appeared to be disavowing the "adapt or die" slogan that he had so strikingly promoted in 1979 and 1980.
Mr. Botha and his party fought a bitter rear-guard action against the right. Although the HNP nearly quadrupled its share of the popular vote, it failed to win a seat. In several key rural and mining constituencies, it came very close. The National Party's percentage share of the vote fell, since the last election in 1977, from 64 percent to 53 percent; the HNP was backed by 13 percent of the voters.
This result is evidence of the appeal of the far right. It demonstrates how many whites, mostly Afrikaners, were disenchanted with the possibilities (and they remain possibilities) of reform.
Mr. Botha could permit the new strength of the right to paralyze his legislative will. Many members of his party will take that politically less risky line. Or the prime minister, with no need to call another election for five years, could press ahead with reform before there are further, stronger challenges from the right.
Given the remainder of the electoral results, a very good case could be made for the second option. The big victor in the elections was the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), white South Africa's political expression of liberalism. At a time when the white electorate was thought to be moving rightwards, the PFP gained eight seats, including several which a few weeks ago were thought to be surely lost. Six were won from the Nationalist Party.
In a Cape Town constituency, a PFP newcomer badly defeated the National Party's bright, charismatic minister of commerce and industry, a former rugby star. In a neighboring Cape Town constituency, which had, through the craft of gerrymander, been linked with the National Party stronghold of Walvis Bay, 1,000 miles to the north on the shores of Namibia, the sitting PFP member was returned. In the province of Natal, where the PFP had previously held only one seat, it gained four, several of which had been held by the National Party. Key suburbs of Johannesburg were won for the first time by the PFP.
The distribution of seats in the new parliament, which opens in July, will not be markedly different than before. The National Party will have 131 seats and will be able to pass whatever legislation is desired by the prime minister. The PFP with 26, and the New Republic Party (a centrist group) with 8, will not be able to enact their own programs or amend those of the government.
But an opposition which a decade ago only counted one member, Dr. Helen Suzman, can now speak with a more resolute voice. The prime minister, should it suit his legislative plans, can also use the success of the PFP as a mandate for his brand of reform.
A 65-year-old prime minister may now wish to see change. So will the more influential members of his cabinet. But this confident, optimistic analysis may easily be undercut by the protestations of those many National Party parliamentarians who, although on the right of their party, almost lost their seats either to the HNP or, in one constituency, to the leader of the Conservatives.
The prime minister who refused to take the high road of declared reform during the campaign may well refuse further to split his party. Afrikaner prime ministers are never anxious to be accused of dividing Afrikanerdom. However, the prime minister and at least a few of his powerful associates know that they cannot temporize indefinitely.
Africans wait cynically. The West waits more expectantly. Whether the first indication of change will come with regard to a Namibian settlement, or with regard to anodyne but symbolic modifications of apartheid, like the abolition of the law that prevents marriage across the color line, is not yet clear.
But if the election proved only one point, it is that further indecision and dri ft will only make it more difficult for South Africa to follow an evolutionary path to change.