As S. Africa rulers dig in, prospects for reform dim

Signs are increasing that the South African government has put off any major new retreat from the apartheid system of race segregation for at least five months - and probably for closer to a year. Escalating Western sanctions, the likelihood of an early white-South African referendum or election, and the government's primary concern with quelling political unrest are all keeping political reform squarely on the back burner.

This, at least, is the private view of a variety of political analysts here, including members of President Pieter W.Botha's governing National Party, academics, and foreign diplomats.

``I think it is clear that reform is on hold at least through April,'' comments a politically moderate professor at Stellenbosch University, the academic mecca of South Africa's dominant Afrikaans-speaking whites. ``The open question is what will happen after April.'' The professor says his personal view is that the moratorium on the repeal of major apartheid statutes is likely to last considerably longer.

April is the month most South African newspapers predict that Mr. Botha will call an early election - to seek a reinvigorated mandate from whites amid right-wing backlash from the earlier repeal of some apartheid laws. The President has not announced an election date. But he has said that the election - due only by 1989 - may well come earlier.

Botha's June declaration of a national state of emergency to quell some two years of political unrest gave way to widespread predictions that reform would be put on hold. Sources in the National Party have confirmed that the government's strategy is to clamp down hard on unrest, and seek a fresh white electoral mandate, before any major new move to dismantle apartheid.

A number of recent political developments seem to have confirmed this. Among the most significant are:

The publication of an official study on the Group Areas Act, which segregates residential areas by race, has been delayed. Expected late last month, the report has been sent back for refinement by its authors, members of the advisory President's Council.

The government's minister of home affairs has thrown cold water on last Friday's dramatic announcement of a blueprint for multiracial government in Natal Province. Minister Stoffel Botha was quoted as saying the draft accord did not sufficiently guarantee the rights of whites and other minorities, though he did add Monday that he hoped some way could be found to use the proposal as a starting point for further discussions.

These developments, at least, make it unlikely that either the Natal proposal or the amendment of Group Areas regulations will come up in the next session of the national Parliament, which opens in late January. The National Party holds a comfortable parliamentary majority. The Natal agreement, which would mean South Africa's first multiracial election, needs Parliament's approval to go into force. The Group Areas Act - until the state of emergency - had been the next major apartheid statute due for reassessment under Botha's program of phased political reform.

Government sources cite a number of reasons for delay in publication of the President's Council report. One is a concern that even the partial repeal of segregated-housing laws - understood to be one of the possibilities raised in the draft report - would redouble pressure for more widespread changes.

Generally, diplomats add, South African officials seem reluctant to press ahead with political reforms until they feel they have a firm handle on black political unrest.

Violence has continued in some areas, notably the sprawling black township of Soweto outside Johannesburg. According to official figures, some 235 people have died in unrest since June. A group of Stellenbosch professors that met privately with Botha some two months into the emergency received a strong rebuff when suggesting the emergency be revoked, a delegation member said.

The effects of United States and other outside pressure in recent months for speeded reform is a matter of dispute among politicians and diplomats here. But whatever the effects, they have been reduced by the world sanctions campaign. ``The sense among officials,'' a senior Western diplomat says, ``seems to be that if the [US] and others are going to go the sanctions route anyway, why should their pressures make any difference.''

This report was filed under South Africa's emergency regulations, which prohibit reporters from being ``within sight'' of any unrest, any ``restricted gathering,'' or any ``police actions''; from reporting on arrests made under the emergency regulations; and from relaying information deemed subversive.

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