Doubts undercut South Africa's plan for constitutional reform

Some concrete proposals for "constitutional reform" in South Africa are expected early next year. But the move toward reform has the same credibility problem it did at the outset nine months ago.

The problem is that blacks are not involved in the process. This fact led recently to the resignation of one member of the President's Council and renewed questioning here of whether that governmental advisory group will be a force for change or rather a further affirmation that blacks, who made up 71 percent of the population, can expect no meaningful role in South Africa's political structure in the future.

The President's Council was launched earlier this year with the mission of developing a blueprint for broadening political participation in South Africa. Although only advisory, the fact that the council reports directly to the state president and was, indeed, established by the government will give considerable weight to its recommendations.

In his resignation, Pat Poovalingam, an Indian member of the council, was quoted to the effect that unless blacks played a part in the formulation of a new constitution, "the exercise is bound to fail."

The exclusion of blacks on the council has been criticized from the beginning , but there had been some residue of hope that in time blacks might be drawn into the process. There now seems no hope of that happening soon.

The President's Council rejects at the outset the concept of one-man, one-vote for South Africa. Dr. Denis Worrall, chairman of the council's important constitutional committee, noted recently that while the broad goal of the advisory group was a democratic constitution for South Africa, the question of just how democratic the end-product could be immediately "eliminated certain possibilities."

The President's Council is made up of 60 appointed members, including Colored (mixed race) and Indian representatives. It is these two racial groups that are expected to be incorporated into some form of voting scheme, perhaps initially at the local or regional level.

The history of the President's Council makes some analysts skeptical about its purpose. A government plan formulated in 1977 called for three separate parliaments for whites, Coloreds, and Indians. The constitutional proposals were never passed into law, and after being referred for futher study to several committees and commissions -- a result of insufficient political support, according to some knowledgeable analysts -- the question of constitutional reform has been delegated to the President's Council

Colin Englin, chairman of the opposition Progressive Federal Party, says if the ruling National Party was dedicated to constitutional reform for Coloreds and Indians it could act on its own without the need for the President's Council. He wonders if the council is not merely a device with which Prime Minister P. W. Botha hopes to shed responsibility for instigating reform, and thus lessen criticism from the right wing of his party.

Politics aside, Mr. Eglin says lack of black participation on the President's Council has so lessened the group's credibility that "articulate Colored leadership will have trouble accepting anything the council recommends."

Still, given the fact thata Coloreds and Indians have no vote now, the prospects of some form of new political representation are attractive to many members of those groups.

"This is the first sincere and honest attempt to undo some of the evils of apartheid," insists one Indian member of the President's Council.

The rationale of the President's Council in excluding blacks from membership is that blacks have already achieved more in political terms than Coloreds and Indians through the establishment of so-called self-governing "homelands."

While many blacks reject the legitimacy of the homelands, the National Party remains dedicated to the notion that blacks must exersice their political rights in these tribal territories.

Still, Dr. Worrall concedes that "for the long term, an accomodation will have to be found for blacks outside the national states." He is referring to the millions of blacks who live in townships near the cities and who provide the labor that keeps metropolitan economies afloat. Once considered only temporary residents, these urban blacks are now an acknowledged permanent feature of the cities.

Notwithstanding criticism over the President's Council's lack of black representation, there is grudging acceptance among some that the group will have some beneficial effects. The view is that any multiracial group will ultimately act to break down discriminatory government policies, and that the President's Council may, in fact, go furhter than expected in this direction.

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