A rivalry of lights is under way in South Africa. At noon yesterday, the Southern Hemisphere's summer sun blazed through a tiny aperture in the roof of Pretoria's Voortrekker Monument. The rays shone on a stone slab inscribed with the words: ``We are for you, South Africa.'' So it goes each Dec. 16.
This national holiday, known as the Day of the Covenant, marks the 1838 victory over Zulu warriors by a far smaller force of Afrikaans-speaking whites.
At 7 o'clock last evening, in the black city of Soweto outside Johannesburg, other lights flickered to life. Many residents switched off their electric lighting and lit candles in keeping with a protest call by a coalition of antigovernment groups, pressing for an end to white dominance. In some areas of Soweto, adherence to the call to light candles was by no means total. But in other areas it seemed near unanimous. And a symbolic candle-lighting service was held in downtown Johannesburg.
The rival lights of Dec. 16 illuminated rival visions - and a battle between them that South Africa's Afrikaner-led government is newly determined to win.
The Voortrekker Monument rite - telecast nationwide - reflects an Afrikaner credo that long predates the political unrest that has raged in many of the country's segregated black residential areas during the past two years. The Afrikaners - deeply Calvinist burghers, mostly from Holland, who became farm-holding boers on their trek inland - spent three centuries securing the political dominance that has been theirs since South African elections in 1948.
The counterassault against black unrest is, for the Afrikaners, both a matter of survival and of divine mission. It is God, many Afrikaners believe, who gave them their improbable triumph over the Zulus at Blood River, in Natal in 1838. It is God - older Afrikaners believe, and the sometimes less self-confident younger Afrikaners have been taught - that chose them to ``civilize'' the southern portion of Africa. And it is God - with a more modern mandate - that will help the Afrikaner defeat ``communists,'' inside and outside the country, who would install a ``dictatorial regime'' in Pretoria.
The candlelight of Soweto is part of a 10-day campaign in black communities against racial segregation and the six-month-old state of emergency. Under recently tightened emergency rules, this rival festival of lights is one of few aspects of the protest campaign that citizens may legally advocate and the news media cover.
The intended centerpiece of the protest - a boycott of white businesses - falls under a ban introduced last week against ``news or comment'' on ``particulars of the extent to which such action or boycott is successful or of the manner in which members of the public are intimidated, incited, or encouraged to take part.'' Yesterday was a holiday, and most stores were closed.
On the eve of the protest campaign, the authorities imposed further restrictions on two local newspapers: the Weekly Mail, which is the most influential white publication on the political left; and the Sowetan, the largest of a number of South African newspapers catering to urban blacks. The newspapers - one of which had just published an advertisement for the protest campaign, minus any reference to a boycott - were enjoined from running further such statements.
Separately, government censors banned publication of the latest issue of a provincial newsletter representing the white-liberal opposition in Parliament, the Progressive Federal Party (PFP). No specific reason for the refusal was given. But the newsletter is understood to have included details on antigovernment unrest, which cannot be reported without official clearance.
The refusal prompted new charges from PFP members that the tightened restrictions on antigovernment statements would have the general effect of limiting public debate. Officials have denied this, saying the target of the new regulations was merely ``subversion'' or attempts to overthrow the government. But PFP leaders have voiced increasing alarm, especially given President Pieter Botha's hints at an early referendum or election by the country's whites sometime next year.
The new rules exempt remarks made by opposition members on the floor of Parliament. But there is no such provision for opposition statements outside Parliament - for instance, from a campaign stump.
Government officials have indicated that, if an election campaign does take place next year, this will be taken into account in applying the regulations. But PFP leaders are insisting on a clear-cut assurance that their campaign statements - and publication of them - will be unfettered by censorship.
This report was written with advice from South African lawyers and in conformity with South African government news media restrictions.