Might the recent rash of detentions and other enhanced security measures in South Africa prove a precursor of reform? That is the improbable best construction capable of being put upon the present policies of a country where the mailed fist has often accompanied gestures with a velvet glove.
Fearing electoral backlash from the right (only whites vote), primarily from those whose minds are closed to revamping South Africa's legally maintained apparatus of segregation, the leaders of the country's dominant National Party may reason that only by first demonstrating their steadfastness can they propose measures of reform. Previous National Party governments have argued and occasionally acted with the same logic.
The detaining of 159 whites and blacks without trial (133 of whom are in detention indefinitely), the unexpected death of a young, white physician and labor union organizer who was undergoing police interrogation, the incarceration without charge of the black leaders of a particularly effective and troublesome trade union, and the silencing or banning of prominent white and black liberals - these hardly seem reformist in character. Certainly, by thus undercutting moderate black political spokesmen and radicalizing the African masses, these actions contribute in no overt way to an evolutionary consensus.
Nor has the reactionary talk and pronouncements of hitherto reformist cabinet ministers, and the refusal of the cabinet to accept the forward-looking recommendations of key official commissions on such issues as African education.
A new report on the press has further worried those who expect South Africa to move away from internal confrontation. An official commission has proposed licensing and regulating the conduct of reporters and foreign correspondents by a government-dominated control board and the punishment of newspapers which print reports by or employ anyone, local or foreign, who has been debarred. The commission also suggested a method of altering, and thereby hobbling, the manner in which the English-language, largely opposition, press is currently financed. Whatever Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha's National Party decides to do with the commission's recommendations, the press will probably undergo a spasm of self-censorship, as it did under similar circumstances in 1977. (In addition to self-censorship through a press council, reporting on defense, police, and prison matters is severely circumscribed by law, and investigative reporting curtailed by tough, easily enforced libel laws.)
In 1979 and 1980, Mr. Botha talked persuasively of the need for reform. He urged his countrymen to ''adapt or die.'' He spoke feelingly of the need to avoid and prevent a revolution. Last year, however, the far right demonstrated surprising popular appeal in national parliamentary elections. Since then, the prime minister has muted most murmurings of evolution and presided over a thickening atmosphere of toughness. In the session of parliament sitting now, he has introduced no progressive legislaton, nor sought to allay the fears of white industrialists, moderate blacks, and some of his own supporters that all hope of change has been lost.
Nevertheless, some leaders in the West, particularly in the United States, believe that Mr. Botha is as determined as before to set South Africa firmly on the path of acceptable evolution. Despite the exercise of the mailed fist, they think that a South African decision to settle the Namibian issue on Western terms will be forthcoming by April, and that the prime minister will then be able to take positive internal initiatives.
Thinking very optimistically, those initiatives could include the long-awaited decision to dismantle legislated barriers against multiracial marriages, to moderate the rules that prevent black males in industrial centers from living with their families, to make employment mobility easier for Africans , to let black secondary students enter at least fee-paying (and hence exclusive) white schools, and to relax the enforcement of the pass (identity document) laws. Africans are also waiting for new legislation which would transfer effective control over the day-to-day management of Soweto, a black city of 1.5 million persons near Johannesburg, to a popularly elected African council. Coloreds, or people of mixed-race background, have long anticipated being once again allowed to vote, initially at the municipal level.
South Africans of all pigmentations, and outside observers, would be startled if there were movement in any of these directions. Namibia may be settled because of outside pressure, but - despite the mailed fist - few expect any sober, calculated waves of the velvet glove. Industrialists and opposition leaders talk of the government's paralysis. The government, they say, has run out of ideas. Members of the prime minister's own party hint at a similar despair. They, too, see a time that is running out.
By failing to act progressively, South Africa may well be forfeiting a priceless opportunity to change. Its honeymoon with the American administration may not last forever, particularly if the Namibian negotiations falter, the press is shackled, and detainees are not brought to trial. Furthermore, the outlawed African National Congress, a black guerrilla movement financed by the Soviet Union, is much more active and effective within South Africa than ever before.
The dangers of doing too little, or of waiting too long, are obvious. Yet, for domestic political reasons, Mr. Botha may decide to do just that until the chance of reform is lost.