S. Africa vote could pave way for reform. Early election meant to rally support of conservative whites

The South African government announcement that it will seek a new mandate from its white electorate could pave the way, officials say, for a resumption of race-policy reforms this year. The gradual repeal of segregation laws has been on hold since President Pieter Botha declared a state of emergency six months ago and began a crackdown on black unrest.

Mr. Botha and other officials have made it clear that ending such violence is the government's top priority, and that only once this is accomplished will there be any major new retreat from the apartheid system of racial segregation.

The other prerequisite, the officials say, is to rally support for such reform from their conservative white constituents. Many of these have been shifting their allegiance to extreme rightist parties.

After intermittent hints at an early election, Botha used his nationally televised New Year's Eve message to confirm that he would go to the white electorate sometime in 1987, a year ahead of schedule. Botha said that he would announce a date for the election when Parliament reopens on Jan. 30. Under South African law, this means the vote could be held anytime after late March.

Botha repeated his opposition to international pressure for black majority rule. Instead, he has proposed negotiating a system of ``power sharing'' with guarantees for white ``self-determination.'' In a TV interview after his address, Botha said he would go to the electorate with ``certain proposals ... to further the reform process.''

In a separate New Year's message earlier this week, the country's main moderate black leader, Zulu chief Gatsha Buthelezi, in effect rejected negotiations with Botha unless the parliamentary session produced a ``message of hope'' that such talks would be unfettered by white attempts to ``prescribe'' their outcome.

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