SOUTH Africa's much trumpeted reform initiative rang harsh and hollow again this month. Shootings of black Africans throughout the Cape Province and parts of the Transvaal ended widespread hopes that United States pressure had persuaded South Africa's white rulers to conciliate and negotiate rather than kill. The governmental policies which ensured those deaths were coincidentally, but strikingly, even lavishly exposed on US television by President Pieter W. Botha of South Africa. President Botha's equivocations, rationalizations, and factual surprises provided a clear counterpoint both to black demonstrations and to widely published poignant photographs of Dr. Helen Suzman, a veteran opposition parliamentarian, sitting amid black protesters and taking note of their grievances.
President Botha did not explain the denial of the right to vote to South Africa's 23 million Africans.
Is there time? Black African protests against apartheid -- against their political powerlessness, their economic deprivation, and segregation in all other aspects -- were renewed in September when escalated rent increases were coupled with the establishment of a new tricameral Parliament that excluded blacks. Since September more than 600 Africans have lost their lives in or near the segregated townships, thousands have been wounded, and additional thousands of schoolchildren have boycotted classes to show their displeasure with the government form of education as well as the ``system.''
Last week's confrontation on the 25th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre between a police detachment and 400 marching mourners in Uitenhage, in which 19 Africans were killed by police rifle fire, symbolized how distant white South Africa was from peaceful reform.
Nothing that the state president said that very day provided reassurance. He defended the jailing without hope of rapid trial on charges of treason of the leaders of the United Democratic Front (UDF), the very moderate black leaders with whom a government bent on reform would want to negotiate. Instead, Mr. Botha called them communists. In counterpoint, American television viewers saw Dr. Allan Boesak, a Colored (mixed race), Afrikaans-speaking minister of the Dutch Reformed Church and a founding leader of the UDF, display his enmity to godless, Soviet-inspired communists.
President Botha appeared as a defender of a beleaguered faith. He claimed that he and his government would not be bullied by US antagonism. He reacted with sharp hostility to Secretary of State George Shultz's exasperated condemnation of South Africa's continued, senseless violence against blacks.
It is clear, nevertheless, that Mr. Botha and his colleagues in the National Party who run South Africa are desperately worried that their inability to stanch black protests undercuts their own attempts to persuade the leaders of the West that South Africa is reforming, and that there still is abundant time to enact peaceful reform.
Certainly the killings at Uitenhage, the inability of the Colored or Asian representatives in the new Parliament to mount an internal reform initiative, and the white government's refusal thus far to rescind the fundamental legal underpinnings of apartheid has added additional fuel to the rising divestment campaign in the US.
Despite what Mr. Botha implied on television, white South Africa can ill afford to do nothing. More repression is likely, for protracted disorder undermines white South Africa's image. But, since a combination of internal violence and Western pressure has hitherto always led to reform, new tactical retreats from all-out apartheid may also be anticipated. Once again, however, they will probably serve to appease the US State Department more than Africans, who desire the franchise, and nothing much less. Thus whites will think they are reforming and Africans, marginally consulted if at all, will dismiss concessions as cosmetic. Until white South Africa agrees to negotiate with blacks for the lasting future of the country, cycles of violence and repression are certain to continue.
Robert I. Rotberg is a professor of political science and history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.