South Africa focuses on Botha-style reform - what it is, what it isn't

Wanted: History's first black participants in South Africa's central government. Radicals need not apply.

Whites will remain in charge.

This, reduced to its essentials under the pressure of an approaching election, is the ``power sharing'' strategy of President Pieter Botha's ruling National Party. There have been growing signs in recent days that, no matter the outcome of the May 6 vote, the current government is determined to hold fast to this strategy.

Political analysts here feel the outcome of the election may indeed affect race-policy reform - but only the pace of Mr. Botha's gradual retreat from various segregation laws, not his overall vision of sharing power with blacks.

In itself, this vision represents a major departure from apartheid, the system of enforced segregation on which the National Party came to power in 1948. The change has been sufficiently jolting to many National Party members to energize a campaign challenge by the Conservative Party, which broke away from Botha in 1982.

The power-sharing plans, ``ultimately must lead to black-majority rule,'' charged senior Conservative Party member Connie Mulder at a news conference last week.

On the other end of the white parliamentary spectrum, some members of the opposition Progressive Federal Party quip quietly that they hope Mr. Mulder turns out to be right.

Yet Progressives, more liberal-minded National Party parliamentarians, conservative National Party sources, and political analysts interviewed in the past week agree that any such shift seems at least a distant prospect.

They say it is hard to envision, at least until the 71-year-old Botha retires from politics, a move expected sometime before the next required national election in 1989.

Botha, though accused of many things by political foes, can hardly be charged with lying to his voters, or the world. From the start of his campaign to repeal race-segregation laws nearly a decade ago, he has held fast to the apartheid-era assumption that South Africa is a country of racially defined ``minorities'' - whites, Asians, mixed-race ``Coloreds,'' and an assortment of separate black tribes.

Though he admitted Asians and Coloreds into Parliament - into separate houses - he has made it clear that he has no intention of allowing the nonwhite chambers to overrule whites on key issues. When necessary, a separate President's Council on which the National Party holds a secure majority has been used to ensure this.

Blacks - Botha said again last week - will not be admitted as a fourth parliamantary chamber. Instead, they will be accommodated in some form of national ``council,'' ultimately leading to a full-blown Council of State.

This, Botha said in his keynote speech to Parliament, ``could consist of leaders and other representatives of all groups and communities who could participate in the formulation of policy on the basis of consensus decisionmaking on matters of common interest.''

Especially since last June's state-of-emergency crackdown on black political unrest, Botha has been similarly consistent in charting the limits of such power sharing. Among them:

A bar on ``domination'' of one ``minority'' by another.

``Self-determination'' for minorities.

A ban on participation by the main anti-apartheid organization, the outlawed African National Congress, until it forswears the use of violence and cleans its house of Communist Party members.

Refusal of any simple ``one-man, one-vote system in a unitary state.''

Put differently, by Cabinet minister Gerrit Viljoen last week, the Nationalists reject as unworkable the ``absurd dogma'' of a totally nonracial system.

National Party officials portray the May election as a search for a ``reform mandate.'' They say their hope is to humble the Conservative Party and other ultraconservatives at the polls, paving the way for blacks to enter central government.

The apparent breakdown over the weekend of attempts at a wide far-right alliance for the election could greatly increase the chances that the ruling party will emerge with its hefty white-parliamentary majority intact, suffering relatively minor losses on both right and left.

Equally, however, National Party sources stress that the ``mandate'' would not be used to make changes in the fundamental power-sharing vision. Instead, the hope is to convey to black leaders, already freed by the state-of-emergency from alleged radical ``intimidation,'' a sense that the only rational road to political participation is to go in on Botha's plan for a national council.

His critics on the left - white and black - say this will not happen. They argue that the effect will instead be to delay an inevitable reckoning with the issue of blacks acquiring an elected share in national government. ``White politics,'' says the Rev. Alan Boesak, a black-activist clergyman, ``are an illusion - a reflection of the silly notion that the South African government can bring about change in this country.

``More and more people are coming to understand that there is no fundamental difference between P.W. Botha and the right.''

White-liberal parliamentarians also see Botha's strategy for power sharing as an inadequate tool for going at the question of black political participation. But they say this does not mean ``white politics'' are irrelevant.

Progressive Federal Party leader Colin Eglin, outlining his strategy, says he does not expect to come close to besting the National Party in the election.

His hope is to demonstrate greatly strengthened support, and thus force a shake-up in the ruling party that could gradually lead to the possibility of a new governing coalition. This would include liberal National Party members and the Progressives.

This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.

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