``If the South African government held an election in my town today,'' the retired white Army officer shouted above the din of the right-wing rally, ``it would lose!'' Elections aren't expected for at least two years. Originally due this year, they were deferred when the government introduced a new Constitution creating separate parliamentary chambers for whites, Asians, and people of mixed race. Blacks remain excluded.
Few officials seem to fear the government will lose the next election outright, all the more so after the rightists' ``unity'' rally here Saturday drew at most 10,000 people.
But there is deep concern over the extremists' growing self-confidence, determination, and momentum in recent weeks -- all in evidence at the weekend rally. The meeting was held on South Africa's Republic Day at the ruling Afrikaners' national shrine, after an initial refusal to allow use of the site. This very fact seemed to attest to a changing balance of political forces.
Last Thursday evening, moreover, supporters of the right-wing Afrikaner Resistance Movement managed for the first time to disrupt a speech by a government minister in the eastern Cape Province, an area once thought immune from such activity.
Complicating the government's position further is relentless violence by blacks who consider its reforms insufficient.
``Botha is giving everything away to the blacks,'' complained one businessman in the crowd at the weekend rally, referring to South African President Pieter W. Botha's gradual retreat from the government's policy of strict racial separation, known as apartheid. ``We've decided we're going to take it back.''
A well-dressed real estate salesman interjected: ``I fear there will be a lot of violence before this country's future is sorted out. And I think it will start with white against white.''
Since the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, or Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), disrupted a rally by the foreign minister last month in the northern town of Pietersburg, the government has moved to retake the initiative by cracking down on similar attempts. Amid a crisis of confidence among National Party supporters, the pro-government daily Beeld claimed a victory of sorts in Information Minister Louis Nel's managing at least to hold Thursday's rally in the eastern-Cape town of Uitenhage, despite AWB heckling. Beeld headlined its report: ``Uitenhage: No Pietersburg.''
But the rightists at Saturday's meeting seemed to take heart from the fact that beefed up police protection and the brief arrest of 26 rightists had been needed at Uitenhage. There was a heavy police turnout as well when Law and Order Minister Louis Le Grange followed up the Pietersburg scuffle by giving a speech in a northern border area soon afterward.
``Scaredy pants on the run!'' taunted a right-wing news sheet passed around at the Republic Day rally, which claimed that white backlash had forced President Botha onto the defensive.
In Parliament Friday, the one right-wing parliamentarian from Cape Province heckled the government for diverting police to protect ministers' rallies at a time when order has disintegrated in black townships. He added: ``If you are too soft to fight for the white man, you must not take it amiss when I do.''
Mr. Nel, who has called a news conference for today, charged that the rightists are merely playing into the hands of black revolutionaries. Meanwhile, he and other officials suggest that the government is determined to push ahead with its reform strategy by proposing at least some form of black participation in national government. The form and extent of the initiative are expected to be announced by late summer. Botha has called a National Party congress and an extended sitting of South Africa's Parliament for August.