Chances are fading that black leaders will have anything to do with South African President Pieter W. Botha's latest proposal for apartheid reform. Mr. Botha's credibility with blacks has sustained a series of blows in the past week -- at least one of them self-inflicted. This was Botha's rare public rebuke to his foreign minister for suggesting that a black might well be president of South Africa some day.
Botha's rebuke reinforced the view held by many blacks that Botha is chiefly concerned with right-wing white opinion and is not serious about meaningful political reform.
Most major black leaders had already rejected Botha's proposal of Jan. 31 to create a new council giving blacks an advisory role in government. Botha's assurance that this was a first step toward ``power-sharing'' for South Africa's 22 million blacks was met with skepticism.
But now, even the generally more conciliatory Chief Gatsha Buthelezi has joined the nay-sayers. Senior government officials feel that Mr. Buthelezi at least must join the Statutory Council for it to have any credibility with blacks.
Buthelezi, leader of KwaZulu -- the government-supported ``homeland'' for Zulus, South Africa's largest single ethnic group -- initially said he would consider the council idea.
But he issued a statement Monday night saying Botha's slap-down of the foreign minister had turned back the clock on reform. He said Botha's words had shocked blacks, and that, under the circumstances, ``I would not even [try to] seek a mandate'' from supporters to join the council.
Also complicating chances of black participation in Botha's proposed council, meanwhile, was the sudden resignation of the white opposition leader in South Africa's Parliament.
Upon resigning last Friday, opposition chief Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert charged that the Botha government was moving too slowly on reform and seemed intent on maintaining white dominance.
Botha's rebuke of the foreign minister was as important for what it symbolized as for what it said. The intervention followed a clash between the foreign minister and other officials over what the latest reform proposals actually meant.
The foreign minister, Roelof Botha (no relation to the President and known more popularly by his nickname ``Pik''), is unofficial leader of the ruling party's liberal wing. President Botha's rebuke in effect meant leaning toward the conservatives and seemed to reflect concern over further alienating the ultra-right wing by going too far on promises of reform.
Foreign Minister Botha's remarks about a black president were part of a generally liberal reading of the President's latest proposals, presented at the opening of Parliament late last month.
The minister, speaking to the foreign press, portrayed the Statutory Council as the intended start of a ``negotiating process'' with blacks. He said the council would be far more than ``an advisory voice.'' It would give blacks the chance of a ``direct voice in the running of this country.''
Asked about remarks by Education Minister F. W. de Klerk that the government would never let blacks into white public schools, the foreign minister suggested this was current policy. Everybody knew that.
Yet, once blacks started ``to negotiate with us,'' he said, they could bring their own views on such issues to the table.
The foreign minister's comment about a black president was not entirely new. South Africa's former Prime Minister John Vorster had voiced a similar view as early as 1977.
In addition, Foreign Minister Pik Botha linked the future emergence of a black president to ``structures mutually agreed upon'' between whites and blacks for the ``protection of minority rights.''
In other words, negotiation was the first step. Agreement on minority rights would guarantee ``we'll have security.'' After that, Foreign Minister Botha indicated, ``it will possibly become unavoidable -- unavoidable in future that you might have black presidents of this country.''
President Botha, in Parliament the following day, stopped short of explicitly ruling out the idea of a black president.
But he said he had no misgivings over Education Minister de Klerk's views on keeping public schooling segregated.
Botha said issues such as a black presidency were hypothetical.
However, clearly leaning toward the right wing of a divided constituency, Mr. Botha added: ``No member of the Cabinet has any right to compromise the party in such a way.''