South African reformists try to bounce back

The so-called "verligtes" (enlightened ones) in South Africa's ruling National Party are trying desperately to make a comeback after Prime Minister Pieter Botha's dismal showing in the recent censure debate in the all-white Parliament.

Mr. Botha came out of the debate -- a traditional vote of no confidence by the opposition at the opening session -- looking as if he was hostage to ultraconservatives on the right of his own party, and the government as a whole appeared to be backtracking to harsh, old-style apartheid (the system of enforced social, economic, and political racial segregation).

This impression was reinforced by the harsh methods employed by government officials to try to force black squatters to leave a bleak stretch of ground near Cape Town and return to remote rural areas. Riot police Aug. 19 arrested and removed about 2,000 blacks from the Nyanga squatter camp. Earlier, police had smashed squatters' shelters, and even removed shreds of plastic, leaving men , women, and babies unprotected in bitter cold and rain.

But, no, says a leading Afrikaans newspaper columnist, Dr. Willem de Klerk, in Rapport, the country's biggest National government-supporting newspaper: "The reform movement is on course, in spite of dirty politics."

And a leading article in the same paper says it is a mockery to suggest that the prime minister is a "prisoner inside his own party" and that he will not keep his word about introducing fundamental reforms.

Dr. De Klerk is an important spokesman for the reformist wing of the National Party. He edits an Afrikaans morning paper in Johannesburg, the country's biggest city, as well as contributing a weekly column to Rapport.

Indeed, so seriously does he take his work as a political prophet for Afrikanerdom's left wing that he declined the offer of a post as rector of one of south Africa's biggest universities.

Fairly characteristically for Nationalist apologists who are in a difficult corner, Dr. De Klerk blames the opposition Progressive Federal Party "and newspapers that support it" for the difficulties in which the reformists in the National Party, as well as the party itself, find themselves.

Ignoring Prime Minister Botha's own admission during the parliamentary debate about "white domination" in South Africa, Dr. De Klerk implies that "dirty politics" had created a wrong impression of the government's intentions.

Indeed, he declared Aug. 16, the reformist trend is going "full steam" in the National Party, unafraid of people, in or out of its own ranks, who wish to blockade the path.

What is holding the government back, he says, is that negotiations over details of a "new dispensation" have taken longer than expected, and the government consequently is not able yet to present its whole "packet" of proposed changes.

Another political columnist, Dawie, in the Cape Province mouthpiece of the National Party, a daily newspaper called Die Burger (the Citizen), has also been piping up, though not as vigorously as Dr. de Klerk, on behalf of the National Party "verligtes."

In his latest column, Dawie says: "It is becoming clearer by the day that if reconciliation [between black and white] and cooperation do not get the upper hand, South Africa will be precipitated into unavoidable chaos."

So far, apart from progressive legislation introduced by the minister of manpower utilization, there has been little in Parliament to sustain the reformist hopes the Afrikaans newspapers are trying to arouse once more.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.