South Africa's winter of reform

Winter's chill in South Africa is being accompanied by hot debate over an initiative of reform which could conceivably result in the sharing of power between people of differing color.

The plan, put forward by the government in May, is also intended to bring about radical shifts in the way South Africa is ruled. But, along with new opportunities for Coloureds (peoples of mixed descent) and Asians, the plan ignores Africans, the overwhelming majority of South Africa's population.

In South Africa, where only whites now vote, Coloureds and Asians are considering whether they want to welcome a plan, no matter how limited, which at least begins to rearrange the manner in which national power is distributed. Pointing South Africa in a fresh evolutionary direction, even critics say, could prove positive.

But the reforms that have thus far been proposed and discussed constitute a response to the past, not the future. They address the wrong issues too grudgingly to be the salvation of South Africa.

The reform plan has a number of components, few of which have yet been spelled out in detail. Basic to the concept of shared power, however, is the notion that Coloureds and Asians would take seats in South Africa's parliament. They would probably be elected on separate ethnically restricted voter polls, and sit in separate assemblies, not alongside whites.

Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha, leader of South Africa's ruling National Party, has pledged never to share power with Africans. The new proposals specifically reject one-man/one-vote as an option. Yet the country (including residents of homelands excised in recent years from the Republic), has an African population of about 20 million. Coloureds number nearly 3 million; Asians, nearly 1 million; and whites about 4.7 million.

In addition to the possible grant of some legislative power to Coloureds and Asians, the reform scheme also takes away much of the present authority of parliament. Instead of a prime minister and cabinet responsible to parliament, with a ceremeonial president (as at present), South Africa would be run by an executive president elected not by the people (as in France), but indirectly by members of parliament for a fixed seven-year term. The president would appoint a prime minister and his potentially triracial cabinet. He could also dismiss parliament. But he would not be answerable to it. Unlike the American presidential system, that suggested for South Africa would have few, if any, checks and balances.

For several years, an influential body of National Party opinion has favored an autocratic, rather than democratic, form of government. Editors and politicans have argued that a strong president, backed by the military, would be able to change South Africa rapidly. Unimpeded by a white electorate, change could be imposed. But, in a country lacking a Bill of Rights, and in most instances, judicial review, authoritarian rule could be risky.

A third part of the present reform proposal, and legislation to be enacted next year, seeks to provide a new deal for urban Africans. It grants greater powers, and some fiscal responsibility, for the first time to black municipalities to be run with new autonomy by Africans elected on a broad local franchise. The reform proposal provides for some as yet unspecified kind of power sharing at the metropolitan (smaller than province, greater than city) level. But how the groups who are not white will share or divide power is crucial, and murky.

Penetrating the fog of intention is difficult. Furthermore, the proposals still remain to be debated by various echelons of the National Party, responded to by Coloured and Asian political groups, and refined and then accepted by the prime minister and his colleagues.

So far, the proposals have cost the prime minister support within his own party, several legislators having recently defected to the staunchly pro-apartheid Conservative Party. The proposals have also been hotly criticized by the liberal white opposition and by much of the press, both of which greatly fear the absence of discussion and the tight control of dissent which would result from a strong presidential system.

The proposals hold nothing for Africans. Prominent African politicans have condemned them outright. How, they have asked, can South Africa evolve peacefully without coming to terms politically with the aspirations and problems of her enormous African majority?

The future of South Africa is at stake. Whites, Africans, Coloureds, and Asians all want a meaningful evolution, and want it to begin now.

The present proposals hardly meet that objective, being yet another attempt to coopt malleable sections of the population. Even if politically legitimate Coloureds and Asians decide to align themselves with the National Party's essay of reform, and many will not, Africans will remain beyond the pale.

By the year 2000, nearly 75 percent (up from 48 percent now) of all urban South Africans will be African. Attempts at cooptation might have worked at the beginning of the 1970s, when these figures and African expectations were radically different, but they can no longer be expected to serve the very real needs of an increasingly tense society more and more antagonistically divided in the 1980s along legislated lines of color.

Only by reshaping the present proposals to include Africans, and probably by greatly modifying the gift of autocracy, can the ideas now being debated serve the needs of all of South Africa in the 1980s.

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