When police killed seven blacks during riots last week in the Northern Cape region, South African newspapers paid little attention. But, if South Africa's 4.8 million whites have become innured to the violence in black townships, they are certainly concerned about the consequences of the turmoil. The value of the rand has plummeted and housing prices have declined. Whites are emigrating in increasing numbers.
One dramatic sign of whites' deepening worry is a plan by top South African businessmen to travel to Lusaka, Zambia, for talks with the outlawed African National Congress, the leading black anti-apartheid organization. According to well-placed sources, the businessmen hope to lay the ground for talks between the South African government and the ANC. Many observers believe such talks -- and a lifting of the ban on the ANC -- are indispensable to any long-term resolution of South Africa's problems.
The businessmen's plan represents a marked divergence away from government thinking by sectors of the business community. President Pieter W. Botha has formally forbidden members of his ruling National Party to talk to the ANC. Reports at the weekend stated that the businessmen had obtained clearance from President Botha for their planned discussions, but the reports could not be confirmed yesterday.
The businessmen's initiative almost certainly involves the giant Anglo-American mining corporation, which has companies in Zambia and contacts with Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. The Zambian leader has offered to act as go-between for the ANC and Pretoria.
One fact more than anything else has brought home the price of unrest: the drop in the value of the rand. On Friday, the rand-dollar exchange rate hovered at about 40 South African cents a dollar, barely above the all-time low of 38.5 cents that it hit recently. Businessmen sent urgent signals to the government on the need for highly visible political reform to stem the financial crisis.
Gavin Relly, chairman of Anglo-American, exhorted the government to launch political negotiations with ``all significant groupings about South Africa's future.'' He added that all South Africans, and the world, should know ``who is talking to whom and about what.''
Negotiations for reform would break the ``spiral of confrontation and isolation'' and enable South African companies to ``aggressively seek out new investment opportunities, create jobs, forge and maintain business partnerships,'' Mr. Relly said.
In the past, Relly has hardly been a harsh critic of the white-minority government. In 1983, he advocated acceptance of Pretoria's controversial new constitution, which set up chambers in Parliament for Indians and persons of mixed race, but not for blacks.
Relly's speech came as another conservative businessman, Raymond Ackerman, announced plans to form a ``Committee of 10'' from the ranks of businessmen to pressure the government into further reform. His decision was made in response to his ``feeling of helplessness'' after President Pieter W. Botha's recent speech dampened hopes that major reforms were in the offing.
Another barometer to gauge anxiety in the white community is emigration statistics. The latest official figures tell their own tale. During the first quarter of this year, emigration rose by 240 to 2,005 (in round figures) from 1,765 for the same period last year. Immigration declined more sharply by 2,330 from 8,040 for the first three months last year to 5,710 for the same period this year.
That was before President Botha declared a state of emergency in 36 magisterial districts on July 21. When emigration-immigration figures are released for the period since Botha's declaration, the upward trend in emigration is almost certain to be more clearly manifest. The situation was neatly summarized by the pro-government Afrikaans newspaper, Beeld, which proclaimed in headlines across an eight-column report last week: ``Many more leave South Africa in these times.''
At the United States Consulate in Johannesburg, more emigration visa applications have been issued already this year than for the whole of last year. The consulate is now receiving about 50 emigration inquiries a day.
Another pointer is the fall in housing prices, a result in part of the depressed economy and the decline in number of buyers but also of an increase in sellers who want to emigrate. One real estate agent in Johannesburg estimated that about 60 percent of the house sales his company handled were on behalf of people planning to leave the country.
Some of the emigrants are, of course, motivated by the ailing economy. But the recession and related problems are, in turn, caused by political factors.
White South Africans are even beginning to talk about the ``chicken run,'' a phrase used to described an escape route from the looming crisis. It was used, perhaps significantly, by white Rhodesians in the last days of white-ruled Rhodesia. The ``chicken run'' might have been much busier but for the fall in the rand. The low exchange rate of the rand makes it difficult for many prospective emigrants to leave without making huge financial sacrifices. They have become, in South African journalese, ``curre ncy detainees.''
In Tuesday's Monitor it was incorrectly stated that the exchange rate for the South African rand was 40 South African cents to the dollar. It should have stated that the exchange rate was 40 cents (US) to the rand.