THE key elements in South Africa's current dangerous transition from white-only rule to full black participation are black anger and Afrikaner fears. The angrier blacks become, the more fearful Afrikaners grow about their future in a post-apartheid society. Afrikaner response is to become more insistent on ``cast-iron guarantees'' of their future security as a prerequisite for engaging in meaningful negotiations with representative black leaders. But the more inflexible their stand, the harder it becomes to begin such talks. This further increases black anger, which in turn provokes more Afrikaner fears.
This cycle of anger and fear must be broken to rescue South Africa from disaster. Only the Afrikaners have the power to break it: Their own future and that of the rest of the country lie in their hands. How Afrikaners ultimately respond to the problem will decide the future of South Africa -- whether it is to be plunged into a decade of authoritarian and violent rule before collapsing violently, or whether it will move, albeit fitfully, through difficult but not excessively violent negotiations over the next two or three years.
Afrikaners are asking themselves fundamental questions: Where will they fit in a different kind of South African society? How can they ensure their own survival as a distinctive cultural and national group? How secure can they feel in a society no longer ruled exclusively by whites?
Afrikaners long have been separated from Europe, unlike many of the English-speaking South Africans. Whatever happens in the country, 80 to 90 percent of the almost 2 million Afrikaners have no other country to which they can retreat: Their future is tied to South Africa's.
Today, apartheid -- originally launched by Afrikaners, with themselves in the governing role -- has become an instrument that has turned against them. No longer top dog, they now are a minority obsessed with questions of their own survival.
The dramatic change in the Afrikaners' fortunes in a relatively few years has traumatized their society.
It is no longer possible to speak about an Afrikaner volk, one united and loyal to common ideals and leaders. The volk is now fragmented into a dozen political bits. Even government supporters are in three groups:
Those who accept a need for changes in apartheid, provided none of their white privileges are surrendered.
Those who accept that majority rule is inevitable but who are so preoccupied with working out the method of transition that they pay little attention to the future society.
Those who insist that the goals for a post-apartheid society must be clearly established, and that the nation must move decisively and urgently toward them.
A tiny minority of Afrikaners have decided that the only way to preserve their cultural identity is to create new small Boer Republics. The Oranjewao has bought two tracts of land where this self-imposed white apartheid is being practiced. In addition, at some universities intellectuals are attempting to restore the elements of Afrikaner family life. Along with similar-minded friends, they meet socially, share the traditional braaivleis, and play only Boer games.
Paranoia or aggressive violence manifests itself in the growth of paramilitary groups, some of which operate clandestinely, committed to assassinating black radicals and white liberals. They also threaten Afrikaners thought to be in collusion with the African National Congress or other radical black groups.
No clear signs now exist as to what the end product will be of this fermentation of political ideas, and reexamination of fundamental opinions and attitudes.
It is widely believed that right-wing parties can hope to win at most only one-third of the Afrikaner votes in future elections. If President Pieter W. Botha can rely on the other two-thirds of the Afrikaner votes, plus the majority of English votes, his Parliamentary majority seems unassailable. Then why his hesitation in moving forward more quickly? And why his sensitivity to the danger of a right-wing backlash?
There are several possible explanations. It is not at all certain that he has yet clearly formulated his policies for implementing change, although he has now fairly explicitly set out the objectives of his reforms. But it is easier to state objectives than to fulfill them, particularly since they call for major structural changes.
A second explanation some observers offer is that Mr. Botha so far has been unable to find black leaders of real weight with whom to begin negotiations. He knows that those leaders he now meets, mainly from the homelands, do not carry any influence in the urban areas, while some have no real support even in their own territories. Botha cannot begin talking to serious leaders, like Nelson Mandela, until he has made up his mind to concede the minimum demands he knows will come from the established black nationalist leadership.
Botha feels that despite his Parliamentary majority, he could face armed violence from white groups who would have at least the moral support of one-third of the Afrikaners. Some groups already are taking shape.
Botha's critics believe that delay is more likely to produce a right-wing backlash than a bold assertion of leadership and evidence that change is possible without disastrous consequences. By starting negotiations, the level of violence could be brought down rapidly, whereas the longer Botha delays, the angrier and more violent black militants will become and, therefore, the greater will be the fears of the whites.
The balance of advantage is on the side of those who want Botha to move forward more quickly and more determinedly. But what is most likely to influence him to follow this route? Will it be greater, or lesser, external pressures, and more, or less, internal violence?
Colin Legum recently spent a month traveling around his native South Africa after a 30 year absence.