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S. Africa Moving Harshly Despite Promise of Reform

March 03, 1985|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — After announcing potentially far-reaching reforms that would come close to ending apartheid, its system of institutionalized racial separation, South Africa seems to have reverted to its harsh policies of the past--arresting opposition leaders on charges of high treason, putting down unrest with force and threatening even stronger action.

Sharp contradictions now run throughout the government's pronouncements and policies, leaving the impression that it is trapped between black impatience for real change and right-wing white resistance and is unable to find a workable compromise.

Last month, for instance, President Pieter W. Botha was proposing talks with the outlawed African National Congress and offering to free its imprisoned leader, Nelson Mandela, if he forswore violence. Meanwhile, the minister for law and order, Louis le Grange, was rounding up officials of the United Democratic Front, an anti-apartheid coalition advocating peaceful change, and charging them with treason.

Warning by Minister

While other ministers were elaborating the government's plans for a "national forum" in which whites and blacks could plan the country's future, Le Grange was warning that the activities of opposition leaders and organizations, including the multiracial, 2-million-member United Democratic Front, would not be tolerated much longer.

After the government promised to suspend and probably end the forced resettlement of blacks living in areas reserved by law for whites, it made preparations to move some of the 65,000 residents out of the Crossroads squatter camp outside Cape Town. The result was a two-day riot that left at least 18 blacks dead and more than 240 injured.

Footnotes, Fine Print

More than a dozen other government reforms--including opening downtown business districts to black entrepreneurs and allowing urban blacks to own homes--have, in the words of a black schoolteacher, "been qualified by so many footnotes and fine print that a lawyer would need a magnifying glass and a dictionary of 'whereases' and 'howevers' to decipher them."

Even the repeal of laws prohibiting interracial sexual relations and marriage was postponed, at least until June, because of "complications"--despite promises by the ruling National Party to the new Colored (mixed-race) and Asian members of Parliament that this would be one of the first actions of the new three-chamber legislature.

"Our government is becoming a kind of 'good news, bad news' joke," a liberal National Party chairman in suburban Johannesburg commented. "Every positive, progressive measure it decides upon is almost immediately undercut by some retrogressive blunder. They seem to be stumbling about when they should be moving ahead boldly."

Those who side with Botha argue that the government needs to maintain, even strengthen, its tight controls while it pursues reform. The pace must be measured, they say, so that radicals do not race ahead and reactionaries do not rebel. Similarly, the ultimate goals must be left vague so that blacks do not demand more than the government can give and whites do not put up even stiffer resistance to the loss of their highly privileged political, economic and social status.

'Adapt or Die'

There are also undeniable divisions within the National Party leadership. Le Grange is widely rumored in party circles to be on the way out, along with two or three other hard-line ministers. F.W. de Klerk, the internal affairs minister and National Party leader in the conservative Transvaal, South Africa's northern province, has said he needs more time to win white understanding for Botha's "adapt or die" strategy.

However, it is politically inconceivable that either Le Grange or De Klerk would act on such important matters as treason charges or delaying repeal of the interracial sex laws without consulting Botha, or in defiance of his wishes.

Younger Cabinet members, themselves impatient for change, cite a need to maintain party unity. Only the National Party, they believe, can lead South Africa to reform. Failure now, they say, would set the process back a generation and risk revolution.

Political Illusion

"A common illusion about political change is that there is a symmetrical relationship between unrest and reform--the more reform, the less unrest, or vice versa," said Alexander Johnston, a political scientist at the University of Natal in Durban. "It simply doesn't work that way."

The reforms themselves appear, paradoxically, to be deepening black distrust of the minority white regime.

"So much is promised, but so little is delivered," the Rev. Frank Chikane, a black theologian and regional vice president of the United Democratic Front, said before his arrest on treason charges last month. "It's a shell game . . . .

"Worse, people's expectations are raised by seemingly attractive rhetoric, and then their hopes are dashed when the government not only does not deliver but inevitably shows that it is even more repressive."

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