South Africa's ruling National Party suddenly faces its most forceful white-liberal challenge since gaining power four decades ago. Not even the most rash of the challengers are predicting their push for speedier and farther-reaching race-policy reform will imperil the National Party's white parliamentary majority in a May 6 national election. They aim to show that the ruling party has erred in assuming its most formidable campaign rival will be the extreme right, which says reform has gone too far.
By doing so, they hope to spawn a new anti-apartheid coalition that can make a serious bid for power in the expected 1989 election.
``The National Party called the present election to put the right wing in its place,'' says Sampie Terreblanche, a longtime National Party supporter who has become the newest and most surprising addition to the challengers' ranks. ``Now, suddenly these other things have happened.''
These ``other things'' have included the following:
Two prominent National Party members, parliamentarian Wynand Malan and longtime ambassador to London Denis Worrall, announced they would run as pro-reform independents in the May poll.
Mr. Worrall chose to contest the parliamentary seat for Helderberg, a constituency in the rolling wine country near Cape Town now represented by Chris Heunis. As minister of constitutional development, Mr. Heunis is the major architect of Pretoria's race-policy reform. As National Party leader in Cape Province, he is seen as a top candidate to succeed Mr. Botha.
The Progressive Federal Party, the white-liberal opposition, has announced it will not field candidates in constituencies where ``new Nats'' like Mr. Malan and Worrall run as reform independents.
Several prominent white Afrikaner professionals and academics have broken with the government's reform strategy, declaring support for an overall realignment of politics. Mr. Terreblanche and James Fourie - professors at Stellenbosch University, Afrikanerdom's Oxford - broke long ties with the National Party over the weekend. And a leading Afrikaner businessman delivered a public attack on apartheid.
``All this amounts to a rebellion of sorts,'' says Terreblanche. ``How big, is hard to say. What has become clear above any doubt is the need for a complete realignment of parties in this country. The question, now, is whether this will happen.''
There are potential obstacles to any such shift. For one thing, the Progressive Federal Party is hampered by the image of a perennial opposition force, representing mainly English-speaking whites in a country whose dominant Afrikaans speakers retain decades of resentment and mistrust of such ``Brits.''
The National Party, by contrast, commands a wide loyalty among Afrikaners, to whom it delivered economic and political power against challenges from English-speakers and the country's black majority. In recent years, it has become the political home for middle-class Afrikaners attracted by its promise of gradually dismantling much of apartheid without risking ``dominance'' by South Africa's blacks.
``Still, there is a kind of political no-man's land between the PFP and the more enlightened members of the NP,'' says Terreblanche. ``It is this territory that the new independents like Malan and Worrall seek to occupy.''
For their bid to catch fire, local pundits agree, at least three things must occur. First, Malan and Worrall must win their seats May 6. Malan is given a good chance. Worrall, however, faces in Heunis a tough campaigner who has always kept close ties with his constituents.
Second, the tacit alliance between the Progressives and the independent candidates must emerge with decidedly more than the Progressive's present 17-seat slice of the nearly 180-member white house of Parliament.
Finally, there is a need for ``reform'' leadership with nationwide credibility. Worrall, an English-speaker, is unlikely to fit that bill. Malan, an Afrikaner, could have trouble doing so alone. Another often cited figure, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, former chief of the Progressives, opted out of parliamentary politics last year. And Terreblanche? ``This is not my role,'' he says with a chuckle. ``I'm not a parliamentarian. I'm a professor.''
This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.