ON September 6, the white electorate of South Africa will go to the polls. For many in the anti-apartheid movement in the United States this will be an irrelevant event, one more evidence of the continuing exclusion from the democratic process of blacks in that country. Yet, in many ways, it is not irrelevant to the prospects for internal change. The political era dominated by P.W. Botha and his generation is ending. A new and younger leader, Frederick de Klerk, possibly more willing to take initiatives on racial issues, is emerging.
At the same time, the backlash created by the modest steps Mr. Botha took is manifested in the rise of the right-wing Conservative Party. Polls taken before the campaign started suggested that the Conservatives might win as many seats as Botha's National Party. With an anticipated increase in seats for the minority Democratic Party, South Africa could have a deadlocked parliament.
Contacts are taking place across the racial spectrum and among opposing black groups. Events such as the talk between Botha and the imprisoned African National Congress leader, Nelson Mandela, efforts of black movements in Natal to bury their differences, and meetings between whites and the ANC in Lusaka suggest that both sides are exploring ways of ending the deadlock.
Observers say that the negotiated settlement on Namibia and a changed attitude in South Africa toward the Soviet Union has had an impact on domestic politics, convincing many that South Africa's problems can be resolved, often in unanticipated ways.
Given these developments, the forthcoming election is critical; a resurgence of the right could set back current steps toward change. The emergence of a leadership and a parliament prepared to explore the removal of apartheid could be a hopeful sign.
The US anti-apartheid movement, however, heeding US domestic politics and the more strident voices of the ANC, believes change can only come about when the white leadership in Pretoria is overthrown. They see US sanctions and disinvestment as contributing to that possibility. Many observers closer to the scene believe that change through evolution within the present system is more likely and more desirable than through revolution. If this is true, those who follow policies based on an assumption of revolution are likely to be increasingly isolated from the political currents that will bring change.
Such a situation presents the opponents of apartheid in South Africa and in the US with a classic dilemma. Those who have bitter hate for a regime do not wish to acknowledge partial steps for fear that their acceptance will be seen as relieving the pressure for greater change. They do not wish to renounce violence because they see that as their one instrument of pressure. Even though radical leaders may be more moderate in private conversations, they do not wish to temper public rhetoric lest they lose their followers. Major elements on both sides still see their cause more effectively advanced by a polarization of the issue in which elimination of ``the enemy'' is the only answer.
This dilemma is present also in the Middle East. For years Arabs and Palestinians regarded the internal politics of Israel as irrelevant. Yet as the prospects for a total elimination of Israel have receded, the Palestinians have come to realize that what happens in the Cabinet, the voting booths, and the Knesset of Israel has significance for them.
In South Africa, perhaps, the time has also come for Americans who wish to see the end of apartheid to look more closely at the internal political developments in that country. Few impartial observers see the likelihood of a violent overthrow of the Afrikaner-based government. At the same time, reports from Pretoria suggest that, more than ever, elements in the National Party are looking for a solution.
Influencing the outcome of that search is more likely to be effective if it comes from those on the outside who watch and understand the political process than from those who, by rhetoric and the advocacy of measures of isolation, distance themselves from the process.