White voters in South Africa go to the polls today in five parliamentary by-elections that are regarded as something of a ``mini-election'' for President Pieter W. Botha. All the seats being contested are held by Botha's ruling National Party. Any significant drift of voters to parties to the left or right of the Nationalists could be evidence of white dissatisfaction with President Botha's handling of the on-going rebellion in the black townships, the country's unresolved financial crisis, and the growing international pressure for dismantling apartheid, observers here say.
In a major speech on the eve of five by-elections Botha called for a vote of confidence in his ``reformist policies,'' describing them as a ``path of justice'' and stressing that adaptation and ``renewal'' are indispensable to white survival.
Yet Botha's reformist policy seems to have alienated many white voters to the right and the left of the government, as well as failing to satisfy the demands of blacks. The reforms include abolition of the laws prohibiting interracial sex and marriage and multiracial political parties as well as promises to restore South African citizenship to nearly 10 million blacks and pledges to share decisionmaking on national matters with blacks.
But while calling for a vote of confidence, Botha has carefully protected his strong-ruler image by extending the state of emergency to the troubled western Cape Province, by refusing to countenance the idea of talks with the outlawed African National Congress, and by attacking South Africa's outside critics as hypocritical meddlers.
Botha has promised to heed the message of the voters. The contested seats in the five parliamentary districts are distributed throughout South Africa and cover all four of its provinces.
But the times are not auspicious for the beleagued National Party (NP), which has ruled South Africa since 1948. The rebellion in the black townships has continued unabated for more than a year and, in recent weeks has begun to percolate into white towns.
In the most recent episodes, two black men were killed at a white girls' school in Durban when a bomb exploded prematurely. In Johannesburg groups of young blacks from Soweto, carrying bags of bricks, broke shop windows and looted. Incidents like these have made Botha's handling of the black revolt as much an issue in the by-elections as his reformist policy.
The five seats at stake in this election are in the 178-member whites-only chamber of South Africa's tri-racial Parliament. All five are currently held by the NP in districts heavily populated by Afrikaners, the white descendants of the original Dutch settlers.
The challenge to these seats comes from the ultra-rightist Conservative and Herstigte (Reconstituted) National parties. The liberal Progressive Federal Party is contesting two seats, but is not expected to mount as serious a challenge as the parties to the right of the government. In all but one of the contests, the two far-right parties have reached a working agreement and are cooperating to defeat Botha's candidates.
Economic considerations weigh heavily with the voters, too. Recession is a dominant issue: Registered unemployment is up by more than 100 percent since a year ago. The rand is still below 40 cents (US) and only marginally higher than its all-time low of about 35 cents at the end of August. The latter figure prompted emergency suspension of the stock and foreign-exchange markets and South Africa's unilaterally declared monatorium on the repayment of foreign debt.
The threat of hard-hiting sanctions has since become more real, with both President Reagan and a majority of Commonwealth leaders agreeing on their use.
The student parliament at the University of Stellenbosch, alma mater of six of South Africa's eight prime ministers, has voted by 2 to 1 in favor of talks with the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) and for the abolition of compulsory residential segregation, in spite of the strong contrary stand on both issues by Botha.
The mood of the ultraright is summed up by an election slogan of the Herstigte National Party (HNP), which is a play on an earlier NP slogan. The NP advice to whites, exhorting them to sober-minded assessment of South Africa's situation, exclaims: ``Think -- don't shoot.'' The HNP propagandists have turned it about to read: ``Shoot -- don't think.''
Louis Stofberg, a veteran right-winger and HNP candidate, explained:``We're under attack. Sanctions is an act of war. The African National Congress, a communist organization, has been making war against us for 17 years. Now this rotten government tells us, in face of this onslaught, that we must think, not shoot.''
A key issue in one by-election is the recent marriage of a white man to a Coloured (an individual of mixed race descent) woman. The HNP has pamphleted white voters asking them whether they would like the couple, Gary and Dolly Van den Berg, to live in their street or their children to go to white schools.
It's blatant racism, but among South Africa's essentially conservative voters, it's effective. It has enabled the HNP to determine the political terrain on which the election campaign has been fought.
Botha's strategy, judging from his speech to a major NP rally last week, is to adopt a tough line on the ANC, rejecting it as a communist-led, terrorist group.
His Minister of Home Affairs, Stoffel Botha (no relation to the President), has indicated that he will confiscate the passport of a leading Afrikaans clergymen, Nico Smith, to prevent him from going ahead with plans to lead a seven-strong pary of clergymen to Zambia for talks with the rebel organization.
The Afrikaners have a proverb: swyg hulle dood (kill them with silence.) Botha may have that slogan in mind -- he has hardly mentioned the opposition in his election talks.
Silence may or may not work. It will be a close contest. NP candidate, Piet Coetzer, a former political journalist, and NP information chief, Chris Rencken, agree on that. At best the NP can hope for victories with reduced majorities.