SOUTH AFRICA's political landscape is shifting. Of that there's little doubt. President P.W. Botha, after much resistance, appears set to step down this fall, making way for a new generation of leaders represented by National Party (NP) leader F.W. de Klerk. Both the left and the right are pulling voters away from the long-dominant ``Nats,'' perhaps forcing the party to reach in new directions for support. The strategic picture in the region is changing with the independence of Namibia and the rise of black majority rule there.
But will any of this result in the political overhaul needed to satisfy the aspirations of blacks within South Africa?
Though Mr. De Klerk's record is one of staunch conservatism, even by NP standards, some of his statements have hinted at a more open-minded and flexible approach. His political track record suggests he is a realist above all, which could mean a receptivity to compromise and change.
It's to be hoped, at least, that under his leadership South Africa will tackle the key issue of meaningful political rights for blacks.
His government could take the crucial step of talking to, instead of jailing or banning, the leaders recognized by most black South Africans - anti-apartheid activists and the African National Congress. A good place to start would be unconditional freedom for Nelson Mandela. That would indicate real change.
The trail toward genuine dialogue with blacks is being blazed. Liberal white South Africans have already met openly with ANC leaders. And the government is leaving behind its demonological view of the Soviet Union. Pretoria has long portrayed the ANC as a Soviet tool for seizing South Africa's riches.
A De Klerk government should lift the state of emergency that has intensified repression of blacks and silenced voices of dissent.
But nothing is assured in the tug and pull of South African politics. Economic measures and diplomatic pressures from outside the country will continue to serve the purpose of emphasizing the damaging results of repressive policies. The US and other nations should keep these pressures on, while making it clear that a loosening of sanctions could follow tangible change.
But the pressures within are the fundamental catalyst. Black labor unions are strong, and their members are less willing than ever to put up with the indignities of ``whites only'' apartheid. The country's largest municipality, Cape Town, has asked for exemption from the Groups Areas Act, which enforces segregated housing. Bits of apartheid are chipping off, but there's a long way to go - not only in removing segregation, but toward the core goal of political rights.
Most important, the underlying fear of a ``black peril'' - black repression of whites if voting were made universal - has to fade. Blacks in South Africa are hardly monolithic. Their participation would bring a diversity of views into the political process, and the sooner the way is open for that, the better.