`OUR race laws were like a series of outer barriers which we Afrikaners built,'' reflects a prominent South African politician. ``One by one, they have been coming down. Now, we are left with the core, the central issue: political power.'' The year 1986 will be remembered as a time in which South Africa's political conflict was reduced to this essential. Thrown off balance for some 18 months by the worst period of racial unrest since the birth of the apartheid system of racial segregation, and by unprecedented pressure from the West, the Pretoria government has hit back hard on both fronts.
To black insurgents, the message is: ```Liberation' is not around the corner.''
To the outside world: ``Only we, the South African government, can resolve our problems. Neither disinvestment nor sanctions will force us to accept outsiders' formulas for change.''
To a considerable extent, the government's counterthrust has succeeded in the nine months since President Pieter Botha imposed a nationwide state of emergency to crush black unrest. This victory has come at a political price. Abroad, it has embarrassed and angered a United States administration more sympathetic to Pretoria's predicament than any since the ruling National Party came to power on a platform of apartheid in 1948. At home, it has sown new bitterness among even moderate black political leaders, notably Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi.
Yet at least for now, there can be no denying that the crackdown has broken the momentum of the antigovernment unrest.
Many of the unrest's leaders and supporters - somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 depending on whose figures are used - have been jailed. Some 2,400 other people, almost all black, have been killed - by the police, Army, or rival blacks. Antigovernment rallies or funeral protests, a major feature of the political landscape a year ago, have all but disappeared under tightened restrictions. A long black school boycott, by an odd consensus between the government and agonizing black community leaders, has been halted, at least for now.
`WE are winning the struggle,'' the anti-apartheid Archbishop Desmond Tutu told foreign journalists recently. Indeed, some forms of boycotting rumble on. Black unrest goes on, if at a reduced level. Mr. Botha has yet to win visible black support for his vision of racial ``power sharing.''
But other antigovernment activists, in Monitor interviews, add an important postscript: This ``struggle'' will be longer, more fiercely fought, more difficult, than they had come to assume.
The nature of the conflict here has changed. Until the 1980s, much of the controversy surrounding South Africa involved overt racial discrimination. There were laws to bar mixed marriages; to segregate hotels, buses, toilets, sports facilities, and just about everything else. There were laws, also, to jail accumulated millions of blacks for living or working in ``white'' cities without government approval.
Botha, in changes unthinkable only a few years ago, set about repealing those statutes one by one. ``Adapt or die,'' he told an Afrikaans-speaking white power base to whom his predecessors had preached apartheid as the only alternative to community suicide.
Some apartheid laws remain - such as the Group Areas Act, which carves up South Africa's residential areas by race. Some public facilities have yet to be desegregated. Still, the trend seems irreversible. ``Petty apartheid'' - as such overt discrimination is locally termed - is on its way out.
Yet despite - perhaps because of - such reforms, the focus of South Africa's political conflict has shifted to the issue of power. Who will rule South Africa - its roughly 4.5 million whites, the nearly 25 million blacks, or some compromise combination?
Senior officials here complain they have fallen victim to an unfair ``moving of goal posts.'' Even as many race laws have been repealed, the outcry against apartheid has reached a new, more violent pitch. Even as Pretoria has legalized black labor unions and loosened curbs on the influx of black workers into the cities, Western governments have imposed sanctions and Western companies have rushed for the exit gates. Even as Botha aired the idea of freeing Nelson Mandela, the jailed patriarch of the outlawed African National Congress, if he forswore the use of violence, a US secretary of state for the first time held talks with ANC president Oliver Tambo.
A slice of Afrikaner gallows humor best sums up the predicament. Botha, the story goes, wakes up one morning in 1995, strides to the podium in Parliament, and announces, ``I've decided that the game is up. I am hereby resigning and turning over my job to President Nelson Mandela.'' At which point, a voice breaks in: ``Too little! Too late!''
But perhaps what has moved are not so much outsiders' goal posts as apartheid's own perimeter defenses. Leading black activists no longer cry out for integrated trains. They barely blinked when Botha last year repealed the urban ``pass laws,'' which restricted where blacks could work, live, and travel. Instead, the demand is for a wholesale scrapping of the core of apartheid: the idea that South Africans, and South African political power, must be carved up by race.
Sooner or later, argues the Rev. Allan Boesak, an activist clergyman, a black population still denied a vote in national affairs will have to get one - in a system that counts these votes by person, not race. In this context, he says, the government's security crackdown is merely a delaying action. White elections set for May, billed as a means of moving the ``reform process'' forward, are irrelevant, in his view.
Dr. Boesak, though stressing he opposes violence, feels violence is certain to resurface gradually - and to change direction. So far, the main targets of black-insurgent ire have been fellow blacks, seen as collaborators or informers. Yet ultimately, says Dr. Boesak, whites will become the targets.
The government's central aim in 1987 is to prove such predictions wrong - with carrot and stick.
The stick has already taken form. The state of emergency, officials say, is working. Especially given the fact that sanctions and the loss of foreign investment are already a fact of life, they say, the crackdown will not be loosened one instant before ``law and order'' is firmly in place.
The carrot? There are two of them, really, one political and the other economic. The first involves a plan for power sharing with South African blacks. Majority rule is not on the agenda: This would mean black ``domination.'' Instead, Botha envisages including blacks on some form of national policy council.
THE second carrot involves enormously greater state investment - and, officials hope, private funding - for housing, employment, education, and other social programs to benefit a largely impoverished and unemployed black population.
Will this work? Much may depend on elements outside the government's control. One factor will be the nation's overall economic climate. For much of the 1980s, the country has been in the grips of both a severe drought and the worst overall economic recession on record. The drought has broken. Officials are predicting record harvests. The recession picture is less clear, but a recent rebound in the price of gold - which accounts for the lion's share of South Africa's hard-currency earnings - has fueled cautious official predictions that the worst may be over.
Another key to the government's fortunes may be how effectively, if at all, it moves to soften the edges of its present power-sharing proposal.
At least in one South African province, Natal, the white minority has joined with Chief Buthelezi's Zulu community and other regional groups in formulating a locally unprecedented accord on a power-sharing arrangement. Though it includes racially defined minority guarantees that the ANC and some other black political groupings strongly reject, it would almost certainly make Buthelezi or a Zulu ally regional ``prime minister.''
So far, the central government has stopped far short of giving its indispensable endorsement to the plan - though in recent months Botha and other senior officials have tempered an initially chilly response by suggesting the Natal accord might provide the basis for discussion and refinement.
YET other leading black activists contend that even if the Natal option were eventually adopted in some form, the core question of a ``nonracial'' South Africa would remain unresolved, and aboil.
One young black activist says, ``Although the government is right to assume that South African blacks basically prefer peace to confrontation, the effect of the past two years' unrest has been to force people to become radical. When a friend or relative is arrested, or killed, do they really expect a person not to react?''
``In earlier years,'' adds another activist, ``people felt that the government, its policies, were wrong. Now, the feeling is that the system itself is illegitimate.''
But hasn't the ``struggle'' been irrevocably slowed? Doesn't this, at a minimum, give the government breathing room to dangle carrots alongside its state-of-emergency stick? Dr. Boesak argues no; he says this would be true only if blacks could be convinced that the government's view of reform offered a real chance of achieving the political aims of the past 27 months' unrest - or ``if people could be brought to believe that what they have done up to now has been in vain.
``But the state of emergency has not only strengthened the original opposition,'' he says. ``It has created new opposition.''
These reports were written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.