Botha: a commitment to share power. But is offer too late, too limited to defuse political crisis?

After eight months of bitter infighting, the South African government has finally committed itself publicly and unequivocally to power-sharing with the nation's black majority. That interpretation of President Pieter W. Botha's speech earlier this week to the last of the 1985 congresses of his ruling National Party was offered by a well-placed government official in a key ministry in Pretoria.

But whether this apparent shift in the thinking of South Africa's ruling National Party can defuse the country's political crisis is open to question. Mr. Botha faces an uphill task convincing black leaders that they should talk with the government, so skeptical are they of his intentions to grant them any meaningful political power. Indeed, Botha's idea of sharing power apparently excludes at the outset the 5.1 million blacks resident in four tribal homelands set up by Pretoria as independent states.

The decision by the government to ``share its power of decisionmaking with other communities,'' as Botha expressed it on Monday, was the result of the ``accumulative effect of several different factors,'' the official said.

The key motivating force, however, was the country's economic crisis, triggered by foreign perceptions of South Africa's political situation, according to the official.

``The government underestimated the impact of political factors on the economy,'' he said, referring to the refusal of foreign banks to extend loans and the fall in the value of the rand to an all-time low against the dollar at the end of August.

Other factors pushing Botha into concessions include heightened black expectations, township rebellion, internal pressures for decisive government action to end the violence, and external pressures like limited sanctions.

Power-sharing with blacks was foreshadowed last January in Botha's address to Parliament when he spoke of the need to give black communities living in South Africa -- as distinct from South Africa's four ``independent'' homelands -- ``a say at higher levels.''

The government had shied away from the implications of the January speech until last Monday, when Botha took what for him was a major stride toward a power-sharing solution of South Africa's race problem.

But if Botha took what whites might regard as a major stride down the path to power-sharing, black political leaders saw it as only another tiny, reluctant step away from apartheid, South Africa's policy of strict racial separation.

Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, leader of the Zulu-based Inkatha movement whom the government wants to lure into negotiations about a new constitution, dismissed the speech as a ``weak performance'' containing one new idea: possible inclusion of blacks in the largely advisory President's Council. A close reading of the speech shows that such inclusion was not the central issue in Botha's address. Its core consisted of three interrelated statements.

First, Botha made an unambiguous commitment to power-sharing at the highest level between all South Africans. ``The government is prepared to share its power of decisionmaking with other communities,'' he said.

Second, the speech contained a pledge to negotiate the precise formula for power-sharing with the leaders of all communities. Significantly, perhaps, Botha did not specifically exclude the African National Congress (ANC), the outlawed black nationalist group fighting to overthrow the Pretoria government.

He spoke instead about ``traditional leaders, chosen leaders, political leaders, church leaders, and the leaders of specific interest groups.'' If, in the context of South Africa's blacks, ``traditional leaders'' is taken to mean tribal chiefs and ``chosen leaders'' is meant to refer to blacks elected to office within government-approved stuctures (legislative assemblies in the ``black homelands'' and township councils), then the phrases ``political leaders'' and ``church leaders'' could easily include leaders of radical black opposition movements like the United Democratic Front, the ANC, and high profile political clerygmen such as Bishop Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak.

Third, while recognizing the right of the four homelands which opted to accept ``independence'' from Pretoria -- Transkei, Ciskei, Bophuthatswana, and Venda -- to retain their so-called independence, Botha accepted that the rest of South Africa constituted a single polity which would have to find a common solution for all the people living within its boundaries. As Botha put it, ``I thus finally confirm that my party and I are committed to the principle of a united South Africa, one citizenship and a un iversal franchise.''

A South Africa without the four ``independent'' homelands is, of course, not a truly united South Africa, as Chief Buthelezi pointed out. Even so, Botha is now committed to accommodating politically the 18 million blacks who live within South Africa but outside the boundaries of the four ``independent'' territories. (No country besides South Africa recognizes the four homelands as independent states.)

Most observers agree: Universal franchise and single citizenship within a united but truncated South Africa can be achieved only in a federal framework. Botha acknowledged as much when he spoke of the need to recognize geographic and ethnic units, adding, ``Each unit should have autonomy on matters that only affect that unit, while the units on the central level should jointly manage matters of mutual concern.''

Botha, however, did not use the words ``federation'' or ``federal'' because he has repeatedly rejected these concepts as relevant to South Africa's particular problems. But, as Prof. Hennie Kotze of Rand Afrikaans University remarked, National Party politicians are adept at introducing previously unacceptable concepts under new names. The rubric chosen for Botha's latest innovation was ``agenda for reform.''

Grafted onto the federal core might be a confederal structure linking a united but truncated South Africa and the supposedly independent homelands. It was presaged in Botha's statement about cooperation between South Africa and these states in ``an overall framework.''

But confederations often evolve into federations and the eventual reunification of South Africa under Botha's formula cannot be ruled out, especially in view of the vastly greater economic strength of even a truncated South Africa and the strong ties of kinship between millions of its citizens and those that live in the four supposedly independent states.

Two critical tests lie ahead for Botha.

He still has to draw black leaders of stature into negotiations. He holds the trump cards: power and patronage. But so far blacks are holding back. Second, he must ensure that his power-sharing commitment is not sabotaged by his own party. As the high-placed official noted, Botha has not canvassed members of the National Party caucus about power-sharing. They may yet try to obstruct him.

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