THE government of South Africa still believes that whites can continue to rule without beginning to share power with blacks. That is the clear message of President Pieter W. Botha's much-heralded speech last week. Despite a year of rolling rioting that has killed nearly 700, and a state of emergency that has exacerbated rather than calmed African townships and race relations, President Botha's regime remains reliant upon repression, to be followed, as he hinted, by moderations of several important constraints under which blacks habitually live out their years.
To have failed to have offered specifics, or even the outline of a program of evolution, instead of the usual clich'es, only serves to enrage militant blacks. As the state of emergency polarized black and white, so President Botha's speech has widened the gulf further. His address was the despair of moderate Africans, both for its combative tone and for what he failed to say.
President Botha intended to define logic and reality: Whites, especially Afrikaners and the dominant National Party, are not yet prepared to share or even to divide power. Nor can they (or anyone sensible) contemplate partition. Yet whites are at last ready to erode privilege and to provide reasonably equal opportunity for many blacks in commercial and social spheres.
South Africa's ruling whites believe they can offer sufficient reform in these broad areas to stem the tide of revolt. Such changes, after all, are significant for whites accustomed to generations of unquestioned supremacy and unparalleled high standards of living in a blissful climate. Mr. Botha and colleagues also hope that the gradual enunciation of ``reforms,'' such as a modification of the past laws, an abridgment of influx control, and admission of some form of common citizenship, will appease the
United States and the West.
But a year of rioting, the absence of any governmental appreciation of what the massive violent protests mean, and the words of the President have left politicized Africans (now the vocal majority) unwilling to be co-opted by well-meant and beneficial social and economic changes. Africans are now demanding to participate fully in the political restructing of their country. They demand negotiations, and shun being merely consulted. Whether or not Africans would accept less than ``one man, one vote,'' the y do assume that only political influence now matters. That is the shift that the events of 1984-85 have wrought.
``If and when the Pretoria regime dismantles apartheid,'' a black Roman Catholic priest said last week, ``we will be willing to sit down and discuss the future social order of this country.'' Another activist was quoted as summing up the change in black thinking even more simply: ``We don't want to settle for half a loaf anymore. We want the whole thing.''
President Botha is gambling that his immensely strong military machine, and his weaker, stretched, but still powerful police force, can soon cordon off the black townships and curtail the African anger that erupts from day to day in various parts of the country.
In the past, except for 1976-77, whites have managed to limit black violence. But today the alienation of Africans is much more widespread than ever before and psychologically much more entrenched. Africans are every day more numerous overall, and in the urban areas. There are almost 24 million Africans and fewer than 5 million whites, plus 2.7 million Coloreds (peoples of mixed descent) and 800,000 Asians.
The cities, where most whites live, are dominated numerically by Africans. Sixty-five percent of all Africans live in and around the white population centers. And the African population is increasing twice as fast as is the white. The economy is dependent on Africans' labor, as next week's announced strike by black miners of gold and coal may show. No part of South Africa is exclusively white, or able to function without integration of white and black skills, white and black capital, and white and black
President Botha gave cold comfort to his black antagonists, to white businessmen who want reconciliation and a return to national prosperity, and to foreigners. Those in Washington (and Santa Barbara) who may have hoped that President Botha would announce drastic steps to end violence misjudged their target, as the Reagan administration policy of ``constructive engagement'' has systematically done since 1981. South Africa listens to the United States, but more so when Congress threatens to impose sancti ons, which will happen next month, than when the executive branch wrings its hands piously.
South Africa has crossed a Rubicon internally. Black patience, always stretched, has now worn out. Thanks to the inactions of Mr. Botha's government, the toughs of the streets have largely taken political leadership away from the likes of Bishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Nthato Motlana, the Rev. Allan Boesak, and Chief Gatsha Buthelezi.
Internationally, South Africa has lost its friends as well as their ambassadors. Its capital market and its supply of investors are slowly drying up. Constructive engagement, writhing in the wake of South Africa's refusal to evolve rapidly, died in the wake of Mr. Botha's address, leaving South Africa bereft of overseas psychological support.
It is hard to think that Mr. Botha could drive South Africa deeper into tragedy. But violence, more violence, and still further episodes of militant protest are clearly ahead for South Africa, until President Botha and his colleagues decide to take bold moves like prolonged negotiations over how best to take South Africa politically into the next century.
Robert I. Rotberg is a professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.