A meeting between two of South Africa's most prominent adversaries on the government's policy of strict racial separation appeared imminent at the weekend. Should the meeting occur, President Pieter W. Botha and Bishop Desmond Tutu are expected to discuss South Africa's state of emergency -- and its underlying causes.
Bishop Tutu, a member of South Africa's Anglican Church and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has given notice of his intention to formally request a meeting with Mr. Botha. In the past, Botha has stressed his willingness to talk to any black leader who rejects violence, as Tutu has repeatedly and consistently done.
Their last meeting five years ago ended acrimoniously when Bishop Tutu, then general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, declined an invitation to visit the war zone in Namibia (South-West Africa) as the guest of the South African military. Shortly afterward Botha appointed a commission to investigate the activities of the Council of Churches, particularly its financial affairs and its support for conscientious objection to South Africa's ``unjust war.''
A wide gulf continues to separate the two men. Botha still sees the struggle against apartheid, South Africa's policy of strict racial separation, as largely communist-inspired. He has refused to commit himself publicly to what many blacks view as the minimum prerequisite for long-term peace: negotiations for sharing power with blacks within a single, unified South Africa. Tutu has with equal consistency described apartheid, even in its present reformist phase, as an evil comparable to Nazism and communism, and has pressed for its complete dismantling.
In expressing his willingness to meet Botha, Tutu said: ``There is no point in going into the talks prejudiced by past events.'' But, he made clear, it would be equally pointless to meet Botha for a polite chat. The talks had to be directed at the dismantling of apartheid, Tutu added.
For the bishop, meeting Botha is a calculated risk. It could discredit him in the eyes of many black radicals. Tutu, however, has never claimed to be a political leader. If, as expected, he uses the meeting to press for negotiations between the government and the imprisoned and exiled leaders of the outlawed African National Congress, he is unlikely to impair his influence in the black townships.
In the past, Tutu has been portrayed by government-controlled television and radio and by government-supporting newspapers as a devious ``political priest,'' using the cloak of religion to advance radical political objectives. His support of the disinvestment campaign in the United States has in particular aroused the ire of most of South Africa's more than 4 million whites.
But, in apparent anticipation of his pending meeting with Botha, the pro-government Afrikaans press began at the weekend to project Tutu with a modicum of sympathy.
In a column Dr. Willem de Klerk, editor of Rapport, an Afrikaans Sunday newspaper, specifically recalled that a recent poll commissioned by his paper showed that 75 percent of whites favored power-sharing with blacks and movement away from apartheid.
Meanwhile, a police constable was killed and six soldiers wounded in continuing violence in black townships at the weekend. Detentions under the nation's week-long state of emergency continued at a rate of 150 a day and approached the 1,200-mark yesterday, posing problems of where to accommodate the detainees.