There has been only a muted response from the South African government to the most stinging indictment yet of its policy of forced racial segregation known as apartheid. The surprising aspect of the attack is that it comes from within the country's white establishment, from the authoritative Human Sciences Research Council, which is funded by the government and controlled by government-appointed experts.
Following a four- year study involving more than 100 researchers from South African universities and senior officials of the government, the report effectively calls the apartheid policy a disaster and warns the government that ``catastrophe'' looms unless there are fundamental changes.
So far President Pieter Botha has said only that the government is studying the report and that it will respond at a suitable time.
The principal voice of the ruling white National Party, the newspaper Die Burger, took a conciliatory approach. It said that the government realized some time ago it must change its tack and that recent political ``reforms'' are evidence that the government is ``extending democracy,'' something the research council insists is essential.
Meanwhile, just days after the research council released its report, the government was made uncomfortable on another matter when the death of black leader Steve Biko was raised once again. Two doctors were found guilty by the South African Medical and Dental Council of improper conduct for their treatment of Mr. Biko, who died in police custody eight years ago.
At that time an inquest courtfound that Biko had died of brain injury ``apparently'' suffered during questioning by the security police. It also said there appeared to have been misconduct by two doctors who treated Biko while he was in detention.
No charges were brought against the two doctors until recently. Last Friday Benjamin Tucker was found guilty of ``disgraceful conduct'' for his actions in the Biko affair, and Ivor Lang was found guilty of ``improper conduct.'' Dr. Lang was reprimanded and Dr. Tucker, who is soon to retire, was sentenced to be suspended from the roll of doctors for several months.
The research council's report focused its main attack on the central pillar of the apartheid policy, the carefully constructed labyrinth of laws designed to keep the various races apart -- economically, socially, and politically.
For most of the nearly 40 years it has been in power, the National Party has justified apartheid by saying the different races in South Africa are so vastly different that the only way to keep them from fighting is to keep them away from each other.
The Human Sciences Research Council report says this is definitely not so.
The formal process of separating the races has estranged and alienated the races to a degree that is creating a ``high conflict potential,'' the report says.
The council urges the government to abandon the system of racial separation and set about creating an open society in which there is complete freedom of association.
And it emphasizes that all South Africans must take part in political decisionmaking at all levels -- local, regional, and national.
In spite of the generally bleak picture the report presents of South African society, it does recognize some recent government reforms as positive and hopeful steps.
It commends the government's acceptance of the right of some blacks to live in the country's urban areas.
It also says there is an increasing willingness by different racial groups to engage in dialogue.
Generally, the report says, there is an economic ``upward mobility'' of people.
The government has been hearing such criticism for years from political opponents such as the Progressive Federal Party, which is the main opposition party in the white House of Assembly in Parliament. Similar criticisms have been heard from some of the country's English-language newspapers.
But the Human Sciences Research Council is a different kettle of fish.
It has high standing academically and is untainted by any traces of what the National Party contemptuously calls ``pink liberalism.''
For these reasons, the report could be seen as an encouragement to realistic government reform.