``Suddenly, I'm a `subversive' in my own country,'' remarks one of South Africa's most prominent white business leaders privately. The nationwide ``state of emergency'' has hurled white-liberal opponents of President Pieter W. Botha's government into a crisis. The unprecedented curbs on what can be said, read, written, or reported have affected the lives of whites, South Africa's privileged minority, as no other government move during the political violence of the past 21 months.
Even some of President Botha's staunchest supporters seem disturbed at the news-media restrictions. These include a six-paragraph restraint on ``subversive'' statements that could, depending on interpretation, bar virtually all criticism of the emergency and of various other aspects of government policy.
Officials refuse to give any guidance on how rules will be interpreted, saying that the onus of proof of ``nonsubversiveness'' will be on the offender.
Johannesburg's Citizen newspaper, with a record of firm backing for the government, has run an editorial complaining that the emergency ban is so woolly it forces ``self-censorship.'' The paper said, ``We cannot see how the media can fulfill their basic function of keeping the public informed.''
Still, the crackdown is likely to please the government's main, white Afrikaner constituency -- which yearned for a new firmness from the government, whatever the direction. And it should help stem the recent exodus from Mr. Botha's National Party to rivals on the extreme right.
The extremists, who broke up an attempted NP rally in late May, made no move to oppose his appearance in the same town two days after the state of emergency went into effect.
One question that remains unanswered is what will be the response of thousands of former National Party opponents in the white community who crossed over to support Botha in a referendum on gradual race policy reforms. Many of them are accustomed to letting off steam by reading, writing, or conferring in ways that might now be seen as ``subversive.''
What is unquestionable is the disarray and anguish reflected in the remarks of those whites who are more firmly opposed to Botha's reform proposals. They say the reforms are insufficient to meet minimum black political demands.
Many, especially the young, had in recent months joined the United Democratic Front -- a multiracial alliance of community, labor, church, and other groups favoring the wholesale scrapping of apartheid, South Africa's policy of strict racial separation. As the UDF sees it, this would be the first step toward negotiated accord on a ``new South Africa.''
Although the UDF has not been outlawed, it was grouped with the banned African National Congress (ANC) -- the most prominent black nationalist group fighting to topple Pretoria -- and ``other radicals and anarchists'' in Botha's explanation of his decision to proclaim the emergency. The UDF was one target in the series of arrests that accompanied the emergency decree. But few of its white members seem to have been detained.
UDF supporters appear to be at sea since the clampdown. One group went so far as to attend a rally by the Progressive Federal Party, the white-liberal opposition in Parliament. Until the emergency, the UDF had scorned the PFP as an exercise in irrelevancy -- and hailed the resignation earlier this year of its leader, Frederik van zyl Slabbert.
The spiritual fulcrum of the PFP is veteran apartheid critic Helen Suzman. She notes that one irony of the government's otherwise unprecedented ``serious breach of civil rights'' has been to redeem her longtime assertion that Parliament is ``the only place to force the government to be accountable, to make things public.'' Under the emergency, remarks by legislators inside Parliament are one of the few items exempt from the press restrictions.
During an earlier crisis, following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre of black protesters, South African reporters, barred from printing various information, passed it on to Mrs. Suzman, who read it into the parliamentary record, from which it could then be reported. Under the present emergency, opposition legislators have begun to play a similar but less successful role. New regulations on reporters' access to areas of unrest have limited their ability even to secure information for relay.
And, Suzman points out, ``Parliament adjourns for two months in 10 days' time.'' She says the PFP will try to get the session extended, but does not expect to succeed.
The white business executive remarks: ``My own feeling is that the emergency proves the irrelevancy of Parliament -- since it could do nothing to prevent its imposition.'' He says he feels he faces a crisis over how to have meaningful influence on his country's future.
``I've been scheduled for some time to make a company report,'' he notes, and says he will go ahead with it. But some of his planned remarks deal with the ANC, and, under the ``subversion'' regulations, these remarks must go unreported.