Now in his eighth year at the helm in South Africa and approaching 70 years of age, President Pieter W. Botha provokes almost as much controversy as his contentious political policies. He has survived the crisis of confidence in him in the business community after the rand fell to its lowest level against the dollar at the end of August and as the rebellion in the black townships persisted despite of his decision to declare a state of emergency.
Demands for his resignation in the dominant white community have been matched by declarations that he should remain, if only because his sudden departure would create a power vacuum and precipitate a succession struggle which would do immense harm at a time when the country can least afford it.
Harvey Tyson, editor of the anti-government Johannesburg Star, South Africa's largest daily newspaper, expressed that view when he said in his weekly column, ``In the short term (and that is all-important these days) there is only one hope. It is P. W. Botha -- if he stays.''
L. G. Abramamse, chairman of a major investment company, said, ``I believe it would be a disaster for South Africa if Botha were to resign because there is nobody strong enough to follow him.''
Some South African notables, however, believe that the crisis has created new challenges and new opportunities for Botha. Thus Anton Rupert, perhaps South Africa's premier Afrikaner capitalist (founder and chairman of the Rembrandt Group), said recently, ``I think President Botha should take the lead. He has the opportunity in his grasp. He has a great chance to bring about a new order in South Africa. He is the man of the moment.''
But against these views are those who believe Botha should retire for his own good and that of the country. The influential weekly journal, the Financial Mail, closely in touch with thinking in important business circles editorialized: ``The man has gone as far as he can -- he has nothing to offer -- and he should, therefore, pay the appropriate penalty. . . . The man is hopelessly out of his depth. . . .''
A very similar view was expressed by Prof. Hennie Kotze, of Rand Afrikaans University, who said, ``He is out of his depth. The scope of it is too big for him.''
With the whiff of his retirement in the air, cautious maneuvering for advantage by his would-be successors has already begun. But Botha is not confronted directly on the need to give way for a younger, more flexible man for two reasons: First, because none of his colleagues has yet dared broach the question of his retirement. The second reason is quite simple: There is no obvious successor.
The leading contenders for the office of president represent an interesting though hardly a wide cross-section of South African politics:
Chris Heunis is a highly ambitious politician who has steadily built up his strength in the Cabinet. He is one of the prime architects of the new triracial Constitution. A recent reallocation of functions gave him responsibility for all black affairs, except education, outside the designated ``black homelands.''
Roelof Botha (no relation to President Botha) is another ambitious politician. Like Heunis, he is -- in South African political parlance -- a verligte or ``enlightened'' Afrikaner. He has great popular appeal among rank-and-file Afrikaners.
Gerrit Viljoen, who is in his late 50s, is perhaps the only geniune scholar in the cabinet. He is a former chairman of the once-secret and exclusive, and white, Afrikaner Brotherhood. The ``Brothers,'' as they are called, work for the ultimate ``Afrikanerizing'' of South Africa.
F. W. de Klerk is the youngest and most conservative of the four contenders. As Transvaal leader of the National Party, he has a powerful base. But to prevent further defections to the right-wing Conservative Party, he has adopted an essentially rightist stance.