DESPITE President Pieter Botha's recent resignation as head of South Africa's ruling National Party, government insiders say he isn't about to relinquish control of the country. On the contrary, they see Mr. Botha hunkering down to some serious state business. His strategy: By divorcing himself from party politics, Botha effectively is free to take the relatively radical steps needed to bring disenfranchized blacks into national government. It's a plan colleagues believe the President long has been itching to implement.
``Botha wants to go down in history as the man who unified South Africa,'' explains a ranking government official close to Botha. ``I think he'll stick around for at least another year to try to get this thing off the ground.''
The move to distance himself from his party, say political analysts, is highly significant. For starters, many view it as the culmination of Botha's steady accumulation of power during his decade-long presidency. Officials concede that now - at least technically - the President isn't accountable to anyone.
Perhaps more important is the substance of what he apparently wants to attempt. For despite the boldness of Botha's potential moves, many analysts contend, he still won't be willing to negotiate an end to white political control. And the bottom line for most blacks, analysts say, is apartheid's total abolition.
No matter how far removed he is from the Nationals, ``Botha still is a prisoner of his own history,'' says Mark Swilling of the Centre for Policy Studies. ``Unless he's willing to sacrifice his and his party's history of white domination, there is no way he can be the great statesman who forges a new social compact.''
Botha's resignation took most here by surprise. This, despite the fact that his five-year term as President is up in September and, under the Constitution, he then is required to call an election within six months. Many analysts had expected him to run again and so opt for an early ballot - mainly to preempt fallout from rightwingers opposed to South Africa granting Namibia independence on April 1.
But Botha suffered a stroke in January and suddenly all political planning was up in the air. That is, until last Friday, when Botha submitted his resignation to a National Party caucus some 10 minutes before it was set to meet. After three hasty ballots, Frederik de Klerk - the conservative-minded leader of Transvaal Province - replaced Botha as party leader.
Party members and analysts alike think it a stunning strategic move. Catching the caucus off guard probably prevented a long and messy succession struggle, they say. That could have played into the hands of the opposition ultraright Conservative Party.
Moreover, Mr. de Klerk's election apparently just about clinches the matter of a prime minister. Botha has talked for some time about reestablishing that post and intends to push the legislation through this sitting of Parliament. The government official says the President wants to cut a deal wherebey De Klerk will be named prime minister to take over the daily burden of running the country - thus freeing Botha to concentrate on reform issues.
Part of the deal, the official says, would include an agreement for an early election in which the Nationals would put up Botha as the presidential candidate - an unprecedented move, since the party leader has always been nominated. And, as he would not be running for a parliamentary seat, Botha would be freed of taxing campaign matters.
In exchange - assuming he were elected - Botha would stay on only for a year or so, then pass the presidency to De Klerk, the official says. ``To do what Botha wants to do,'' the official says, ``he needs time and needs to throw off responsibility for the party.''
That's because, faced with a white backlash to limited reforms already introduced, many party members would be reluctant to go any further. Political scientist Swilling calls Botha's circumventing of the party ``the logical conclusion'' of a trend to create an all-powerful presidency.
Swilling contends that ``by ridding himself of the party, [Botha] has thrown off the last vestige of democratic consensus.''
But the goverment official insists that Botha will carry the party along with him on the force of his initiatives. ``It's the right political climate,'' he says, ``and Botha is the right man.''
Prof. Sampie Terreblanche, a former National Party member, isn't so sanguine. ``Botha is a product of the National Party which built apartheid. To dismantle apartheid means dismantling not only the Nationals' ideology but its privilege. No party man could do that.''