Head of S. Africa's white opposition quits in bid to unite reformists

South Africa's parliamentary opposition leader has moved to jolt dispirited white liberals and bickering blacks into effective alliance against the government's ``false start'' at reform. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert told surprised legislators Friday he was resigning from Parliament, where President Pieter Botha's National Party holds a big majority. Mr. Slabbert's move followed a series of failed campaigns since 1983 to prod Mr. Botha into scrapping the apartheid system and negotiating a new, nonracial constitution with black leaders.

Still, Slabbert's Progressive Federal Party has moved from 17 to 26 seats in the nearly-200 member white Parliament since he took over in 1979. He has become a media cult figure -- a debonair former rugby star and university professor, whose anti-apartheid fervor grew from Afrikaner roots as thick as President Botha's.

The resignation speech came a week after Botha, keynoting a new legislative session, called apartheid ``outdated.'' This won at least cautious praise from recent critics at home and abroad. Yet to Slabbert, the address seemed to differ more in packaging than in substance from earlier policy. He felt the country's continuing violence demanded far bolder reforms.

Last year Slabbert tried to form an alliance of blacks and whites committed to a peaceful search for a new, nonracial power system. The scheme foundered. Local analysts say major black political, church, and academic leaders were ready to cooperate with Slabbert, but less ready to ally with each other.

``I am one of the walking wounded of conciliation politics,'' sighed Slabbert at a lunch with this reporter 24 hours before announcing he would resign. He seems to have been agonizing his future. He said he was feeling discouraged in Parliament and had even half-jokingly suggested to Progressive Federal Party colleagues that they all resign. But he added: ``I do feel someone has to be in there asking the government questions, making the government provide answers.''

The resignation speech was hailed as ``heroic'' by the main black opposition group -- the outlawed African National Congress. Two key anti-apartheid church leaders -- Bishop Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak -- also praised the move.

It was not yet clear whether this would help Slabbert's aim to explore chances for uniting blacks and whites committed to the peaceful overhaul of South Africa's system. Much may depend on internal black politics or on the estimated 30 to 35 Parliament members from Botha's own party with Progressive Federal Party-like misgivings over the direction and pace of reform.

Since Botha submitted a new Constitution to a referendum of white voters in 1983, Slabbert has argued its approach was doomed to fail. The new Constitution created separate Parliament chambers, with limited say on national issues, for Indians and mixed-race Coloreds. It won hefty white support, even from ``liberals'' who argued any reform for the disenfranchised nonwhites was a step in the right direction.

But Slabbert said that in addition to omitting the country's black majority, the new setup ``merely changes the status of the Colored and Asian minorities from being repressively dominated to being co-optively dominated.'' In his resignation speech, Slabbert rejected as similarly flawed Botha's latest proposal -- to give blacks an advisory voice on race-related laws, via a new Statutory Council. ``My gut feeling was, `Here is the 1983 referendum all over again: everybody getting excited about something which I simply could not see, no matter how hard I tried.' ''

``It is a false start,'' Slabbert said. He favors instead early moves to negotiate a nonracial system with all parties, including the African National Congress. ``Apartheid is not up for negotiation. It has to go completely. What is up for negotiation is its alternative.'' -- 30 --

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