The process of change has begun

Beyond the depressingly static headlines of South Africa's political conflict, major changes are occurring among the Afrikaans-speaking whites who have ruled the country since 1948. South African President Pieter Botha is part of the process.

Since assuming the leadership of his party and government in 1978, he has charted a forceful departure from some aspects of the apartheid system of racial segregation. Even on the conflict's central issue - power - his willingness to consider ``power sharing'' among races previously segregated and subjugated represents a major change.

But in the long run, changes in other Afrikaner institutions may matter even more. Last year, South Africa's Dutch Reformed Church - while stopping short of terming apartheid a sin or endorsing unification with its nonwhite ``daughter'' churches - did for the first time brand racism sinful and approve the idea of individual nonwhites' joining white congregations.

The Afrikaner Broederbond - a cultural group that helped invent apartheid and meld the ruling National Party, the Dutch Reformed Church, and leading Afrikaner educators and businessmen into a seamless underpinning for that ideology - has been changing. It has in recent years moved into line with Mr. Botha's reforms and cut loose conservative doubters. Now, Broederbond leader J.P. de Lange has embarked on a move to investigate new possibilities for cooperation and compromise across color lines.

Leading liberal Afrikaner Frederik van Zyl Slabbert has resigned as opposition leader in Parliament to pursue a similar goal - among militantly antigovernment blacks in individual communities or student groups.

At Stellenbosch University, Afrikanerdom's Oxford, a small minority of students has taken an increasingly outspoken tack against government visions of reform - even seeking contact with the exiled leadership of the outlawed African National Congress. At less posh Afrikaner universities, says an Afrikaner parliamentarian who has spoken to them, similar stirrings can be felt.

The effects of such change are likely to be felt very slowly. ``Afrikaner traditions of ideology and authority still run very deep,'' a Stellenbosch professor says. And there remains a widespread sense that an abandonment of racially determined political structures risks installing black rule that would be fiercely anti-Afrikaner.

But few Afrikaners dispute that a process of change has begun - that the volk, once a wide, solid foundation for apartheid, is showing fissures unimaginable a decade ago.

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