Plan of promise for South Africa gets a turndown

WHITES and blacks in Natal, one of South Africa's four provinces, have found a solution to the country's cataclysmic conflict of color. But the government of South Africa refuses to give it a trial. Late in November, after deliberations lasting eight months, representatives of 35 white, Asian, and African corporate and political groups finally hammered out a compromise formula for regional power sharing. Based on a universal franchise for Natal, the proposed blueprint would enable blacks and whites to elect a local parliament able to provide home rule.

Natal now includes fewer than 1 million whites and about the same number of Asians, plus about 3 million Africans, nearly all of whom are Zulu-speaking. Beyond Durban, a major seaport and one of South Africa's leading cities, and Pietermaritzburg, a smaller, sleepy governmental and university city 50 miles inland, Natal includes and is dominated by the KwaZulu homeland, a fragmented area of 20 major and 30 minor enclaves scattered throughout the province.

For six years Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, chief minister of KwaZulu and an outspoken opponent of apartheid and the South African government, has wanted an opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of joint black-white government. Power sharing at the regional level, he has long hoped, would prove a precursor to a multiracial rule throughout South Africa.

Chief Buthelezi has long advocated such cooperative government as the only realistic and least bloody answer to the bitter struggle that convulses South Africa. Three years ago a commission of politicians and scholars recommended such a program for Natal. This year an Indaba, or constitutional convention, has actually drafted and proffered a plan. If followed, it would deprive whites of sole authority within Natal; power would shift to blacks and whites acting together.

The plan calls for a merger between white Natal and black KwaZulu. It asks for new, local elections. But it proposes no secession from South Africa and no loosening of white South Africa's ultimate control over security, defense, foreign affairs, and national finances.

The new plan is localized, comparatively modest, and in line with the power realities of a province overshadowed by Zulu numbers. White businessmen in Natal have for several years been among the key advocates of the kind of blueprint drafted by the Indaba. Clearly Chief Buthelezi, the strongest figure in the province, has had his way, but patiently, and only after detailed negotiations and many compromises.

Despite apparent backing within Natal for such a shift, the white South African government last week condemned it. The plan, said the minister of home affairs, would ``lead to domination,'' presumably by Chief Buthelezi and KwaZulu. Unvoiced, but clearly behind the government's concern, was the fear that a Natal experiment might provide a precedent for other provinces and sections of provinces. Several years ago East London, the so-called Border district of the eastern Cape Province, and Ciskei contemplated a regional merger with many minority vetoes and other safeguards.

The central government may hold a national election next year and would not want any concessions to blacks in Natal to upset conservative whites. Moreover, what if the Natal plan seemed to succeed? Pressure to adopt it on a broader scale from business interests throughout the country and from black Africans and the West would become fierce. Also, the whites in Natal are largely English-speaking, and the government of South Africa is run by Afrikaners who suspect the motives and loyalties of their English-speaking opponents.

Paradoxically, the African National Congress, South Africa's key exile insurgent group, and the great mass of ANC sympathizers elsehwere in South Africa will be pleased that the government has rejected Natal's experiment. Attractive as regional autonomy might seem as a precursor to shared power in the republic as a whole, it would also detract from national unity and integrity.

The differences between the ANC and urban black Africans, on the one hand, and Chief Buthelezi, on the other, focus on the potential segmentation of South Africa. The ANC opposes regional experiments, because they could reinforce separate development, detracting from a white to black power shift on a national basis. Politically active urban blacks more and more express the same sentiments.

As sadly as the US State Department and other influential outsiders might regard South Africa's rejection of regional attempts to concoct an acceptable solution to the country's trial of strength, for now the steady battle that has engulfed much of the country since late 1984 will continue as before. The government of white South Africa still thinks it can triumph by force and very limited and very controlled doses of reform. The Natal plan will wait for clearer heads and, it seems, the spilling of much more blood.

Robert I. Rotberg is professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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