WHITE South Africa last week took another painful step down the path of political paralysis. In the first-ever all-races municipal elections, blacks turned out in low numbers and bitter Conservatives gained control of nearly 60 percent of the white municipalities in the Transvaal, the most populous of South Africa's four provinces. On the white side of the country's political ledger, every Conservative gain was achieved at the expense of the National Party of President Pieter Botha. The National Party has ruled the country since 1948, and controlled nearly all important cities and towns in the Transvaal until now. But as the National Party retreats hesitantly from all-out apartheid (or segregation), so the young Conservative Party capitalizes on the fears and prejudices of rural and blue-collar whites who oppose concessions to blacks.
The population increase among blacks is about double that of whites. Already there are more than 26 million Africans, 3 million Coloreds (people of mixed descent), 1 million Asians, and not quite 5 million whites.
During this decade, President Botha has led the National Party in a guarded retreat from apartheid. Mixed dining, drinking, and marriage are permitted, if not necessarily encouraged or welcomed. Asians and Coloreds have some representation in a national Parliament and elect their own legislators in separate elections.
Until last week's vote, Africans cast ballots only in the government-created rural homelands and in selected segregated municipalities. They do not have the vote nationally. Nor can they choose where to live. The Population Registration Act still compels babies to be listed by race classification.
About 500,000 blacks voted last week, at most a third of the low level of those registered to vote. Only half of the black seats on local councils were contested, and there were many towns where no candidates stood at all. In Alexandra, a dense, tense black slum within Johannesburg, blacks totally boycotted the process. In Soweto, 11 percent of the eligible Africans voted. In several black towns, mayors who had established good relations with Mr. Botha or the white central government were ousted.
As proof that the National Party's reforms had captured the hearts and minds of the country's black majority, the municipal election failed. On the other hand, the government held its narrow ground and, as a result of several polling innovations and widespread pre-electoral jailings, it fared no poorer in terms of black participation than in previous black-only local elections.
Until the government gives black local authorities real power, including the ability to tax and spend without central interference, or until white South Africa commits itself to the national enfranchisement of its majority, blacks will largely disdain attempts to co-opt them. White town and city councils, however, have long had substantial power to dispose and spend. Hence the glee with which the Conservatives greeted last week's results. Moreover, despite their failure to gain many seats in provinces other than the Transvaal, the tide of Conservative sentiment has not ebbed since that party won 22 seats in the 1987 general election.
If white South Africa is compelled to call a national election next year, last week's level of commitment could translate into 50 Conservative seats in a Parliament of 166 elected and 10 appointed members. The National Party would still hold a plurality of the seats, perhaps 85 or 90, but defections toward the left (and right), and new coalitions, would become possible for the first time since 1948.
The government claimed a victory last week on the strength of its ability to retain control of the larger cities, especially Pretoria, where it edged the Conservatives, and Bloemfontein. It managed to wrest Johannesburg decisively from the Progressive Federal Party. In Natal, it also won Pietermaritzburg from a Progressive coalition. The drift rightward was unmistakable, although the Progressives did take Randburg, in the Transvaal, from the National Party.
The Conservatives spoke of victory, too, since their control of key towns in the largely Afrikaner Transvaal will enable their representatives to thwart tendencies toward desegregation. The central government has said it would never allow resegregation to recur; some interesting battles between the right-wing National Party and its further-right opponents should ensue.
The final word probably belonged to Zach de Beer, the new leader of the liberal Progressives. He said that the local elections did little to alter the status quo, except in the direction of added white confusion and worry.
South Africa will continue to drift under Botha until he decides to accept demographic and economic realities and sits down with legitimate Africans to plan the future of his country. Releasing the imprisoned Nelson Mandela will be essential to this process of meaningful change.
The results of the municipal elections show that nothing less will win black support. Tragically, the electoral outcome also demonstrates that tentative reform without a vision and without black backing exacerbates white fears. Only strong leadership and a high and determined profile by Botha can regain the confidence of whites and blacks alike.