JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — To its critics, South Africa's ruling National Party is the main obstacle to reform, the preserver of white privilege and minority rule, the originator and defender of apartheid.
But the Nationalists see themselves as the apostles of change, leading their strife-torn country through a sweeping but peaceful transformation that will make it a model of racial harmony for the rest of the world.
Party leaders, far from defending South Africa's apartheid system of racial separation and white-minority rule, say they are dismantling it with the same zeal with which they built it more than three decades ago.
Only Peaceful Way
And, they say, this is the only way short of all-out black revolution that change can come to South Africa because it is their supporters among the country's 4.9 million whites who must come to terms with its 25 million blacks on the nation's future.
This also means, however, that the scope and speed of reform are determined in large degree by the willingness of whites in a highly conservative society to accept the changes, as moderate and gradual as they are, that Nationalist leaders see as necessary.
"The basic political reality of South Africa is that the National Party holds power, the ability to carry out far-reaching change lies with it, and the initiative must come from it," C.R.E. Rencken, the party's chief information officer and member of Parliament from the Johannesburg suburb of Benoni, said the other day. He continued:
"The National Party accepts this responsibility, and it is now the main agent for change, not only in the white electorate but within the country as a whole.
"But we have to persuade people to accept change, and that takes a great deal of political education and a lot of time. It is simply not possible for this government to declare it will abolish apartheid all at once. It has to introduce reforms step by step to gain psychological acceptance for them and so that it can remain in power to carry out the whole program of reforms."
Commitment to Reform
Even F.W. de Klerk, the National Party's powerful Transvaal provincial leader and a strong voice for conservativism within the Cabinet, emphasizes the government's commitment to reform.
"The government is determined to carry out its reform program dynamically," he told a party conference in Pretoria last week, "but not because it is under pressure, not because of the sanctions threat and not because of the unrest. The government will continue because it believes it is necessary, because it strives out of an inner conviction for a permanent solution that will stand the test of justice."
While attention here and abroad has been focused over the last year on the civil unrest that has killed more than 725 people, most of them black, the real steps toward reform have been taken--in the Nationalist view--within the party and government.
"Compare us to where we stood a year or a year and a half ago, and you can see the progress," Albert E. Nothnagel, a Nationalist member of Parliament with a reputation as one of the party's verligte ("enlightened," in Afrikaans) liberals, said in an interview in Pretoria.
Repressive Acts Repealed
"We have repealed the Mixed Marriages Act (which barred interracial marriages) and the Political Interference Act (which outlawed multiracial political parties)," he said, and continued:
"We are prepared to recognize the South African citizenship of all blacks and to abolish influx control and the pass laws (which prevent rural blacks from moving to urban areas). And, most importantly, we have committed ourselves to the sharing of political power up through the highest levels of the government, both parliamentary and executive.
"We have to do much more--in many ways, we are just beginning this process of reform, although it has been under way for some time--but we have to take the people with us. You simply cannot achieve changes of the magnitude we need and truly want if you don't take the people along."
But white politics puts severe pressures on the reform process, giving it the zigzag, hesitant character that infuriates blacks and many white liberals and raises doubts about the Nationalists' real intentions.
Slow Process for Change
Reforms typically are preceded by study commissions and lengthy reports, prolonged discussion within the party and government, several public proposals and then finally legislation, the implementation of which is frequently delayed while implementing regulations are drawn up.
There is also a strong feeling by President Pieter W. Botha and other National Party leaders that the reforms should not appear to be carried out under pressure--whether domestic, in the form of black unrest or opposition criticism, or foreign, in the form of American and European economic sanctions.
"In our political culture, you stand up to pressure and resist with all your might," Rencken said. "American sanctions have probably slowed the pace of change here as a result."