South Africa's whites vote for limited 'reform'; blacks say it hardens race divide

The white minority of South Africa has embarked on a path of so-called ''reform'' amid strong criticism from blacks that it is a dangerous false start. But considered important here is the fact that at least the concept of reform has been endorsed by this deeply conservative and anxious white population. This has altered the white political landscape, introducing some fluidity to a previously fossilized situation.

Whites have overwhelmingly - by about 2 to 1 - endorsed a new constitution that is a mixed bag of softening racial divisions at the periphery while apparently hardening them at the core.

The constitution breaks the color bar at the central government level by bringing Coloreds (persons of mixed race descent) and Indians into the all-white Parliament. But whereas blacks have been excluded from Parliament by law, they are now shut out constitutionally.

Critics, especially blacks, charge that the net effect of the new constitution is to strengthen, rather than weaken, apartheid.

Nonetheless, the 66 percent of the whites that supported the new constitution clearly perceived it as an act of ''reform.''

Analysts see the main implications of the vote as:

* Favorable world reaction arising from an impression that South Africa's whites are willing to move toward a more just society. Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha predicted voter approval of the constitution would have a ''big influence internationally.'' Pretoria has keenly sought a favorable overseas response, partly to ensure continued flow of Western investment.

* Perhaps a more durable power base for the white Afrikaner government.

* A further ''radicalizing'' of the black majority, which is already undergoing a political revival in opposition to what it sees as its final exclusion by whites.

The position of the banned African National Congress, which claims violence is the only remaining means of obtaining political rights, could be enhanced.

* The strengthened leadership position of Prime Minister Botha, who has carved out a broader middle ground in white politics. He is expected to be emboldened to continue on his ''reform'' path, although within the confines of apartheid.

Botha was pleased with the vote. ''It is such an overwhelming result,'' he told a press conference, that the government felt ''strengthened'' to ''go further with proper reform.''

However, there is no indication that ''proper reform'' includes reconsidering the government's policy toward blacks. That policy aims to confine blacks politically and, as far as possible, physically to tribal ''homelands.'' Blacks reject this policy and it lies at the core of their deep and growing discontent.

Extending political rights across the color line was a highly emotional issue among whites - particularly Afrikaners. But it is peripheral to the main issue here of gradually intensifying conflict between black nationalism and white nationalism.

By all accounts the extension of rights to Coloreds and Indians is part of Botha's strategy to make white rule more durable. It helps the white government cope with three major pressures - demographic, economic, and strategic - building against it.

In demographic terms, some 3.4 million Coloreds and Indians would join 4.5 million whites in government, although not on terms that threaten white control.

Economically, granting rights across the color line has earned significant support from the English-speaking business community - the one power center the Afrikaners have never been able to dominate.

Strategically, Botha has made clear it will not be long before Coloreds and Indians are conscripted to do military service to help the government deal with any outside or internal threats.

These benefits were sought at considerable cost by Botha. He split his National Party when he first committed himself to ''power sharing'' and when, by asking whites to vote on the constitution, he put the Afrikaner community through the most bruising and divisive political campaign since the Nationalists won power in 1948.

Prof. Willie Esterhuyse of Stellenbosch University said Afrikaner unity is now lost for good. But in its place Botha has forged a broader political alliance with English speakers. It is estimated that at least one-third of the English-dominated Progressive Federal Party - which urged its supporters to vote no - voted in favor of the constitution.

Professor Esterhuyse said the National Party would now feel obliged to reward its newfound English supporters with a greater role in government. To the extent these English speakers are committed to progressive change, the pressures toward more substantial reform would grow, he predicted.

But as this constitutional debate has shown, there remains a wide - and perhaps widening - gulf between what whites regard as ''reform'' and what blacks regard as more of the same.

The next step for the constitution will be a test of opinion among Coloreds and Indians before its implementation.

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