Botha may speed timing on S. African shift to federalism

There is intense speculation that Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha intends to go ahead quickly with plans that will give South Africa a completely new style of government, perhaps within just a couple of years.

In the process, the sovereign white Parliament which at present controls all aspects of the country's political life would be downgraded. People of mixed race and the small Asian and even smaller Chinese populations would be given a direct say in national affairs.And the overwhelming African population would be involved in a kind of federal system.

This is the indication after the first meeting of the caucus of members of Parliament of the ruling National Party (NP) after the country's recent general election.

Prime Minister Botha lost seats to the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) on his left, and the results also showed a dangerous rightwing backlash among working-class and rural Afrikaans whites to his demands for governmental "adaptation," although the ultra-right-wing parties failed to gain any seats in Parliament.

However, Mr. Botha has still returned to Parliament with a majority that easily swamps the opposition members. His NP won 131 seats. The PFP won 26 -- a gain of 10 seats, which has left its supporters delighted. A third, declining and increasingly irrelevant party, the New Republic Party, won eight seats.

But the bare figures do not give the whole story at all.

Mr. Botha's own party is dangerously divided between those who accept that racial reform is inevitable and those who want a defiant return to the old policies of hard-line apartheid -- enforced economic and especially social and political segregation.

They are held together by a desire not to split "Afrikanerdom," and the first impression after the election was that Mr. Botha himself could easily become stuck between the two wings like a man in a gluepot, unable to move effectively left or right.

But he seems to have taken heart -- if, indeed, he ever lost it -- from the concerted enthusiasm for change of the Afrikaans intellectual elite and especially the Afrikaans newspaper publishing establishment.

He appears to be banking also on the fact that Afrikaners -- who form the majority of the all-white electorate -- traditionally tend to follow a strong leader, even if they are not altogether enthusiastic about his policies.

Mr. Botha could still aspire to the key position in the new constitutional system which is being hinted at: the post of executive state president.

There is much speculation -- some rather anxious -- that the man who takes this post will be expected to play the role of some kind of "benign dictator."

Mr. Botha has rather coyly indicated already that he would not be available for this. But, with his authoritarian tendencies and his management approach to government, it would have an enormous appeal to him, and few believe that he could not be "persuaded" if the occasion arises.

Besides, there is hardly anybody else in his rather drab and lackluster Cabinet who looks able to hold the job down.

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