JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — President Pieter W. Botha's ruling National Party, facing a strong white voter backlash after a year of civil unrest, retained four of the five parliamentary seats at stake in crucial by-elections here Wednesday but lost one to an extreme right-wing party.
The Herstigte Nasionale Party, campaigning against racial integration and appealing to white fears of black domination, gained its first parliamentary seat since its formation in 1969. Its candidate won in Sasolburg, an industrial town 45 miles south of Johannesburg, in what appeared to be a widespread loss of support there for the government's policies of gradual reform.
In three of the seats they retained, the Nationalists faced strong right-wing challenges from the Conservative Party, which cut deeply into the support the Nationalists have long had among Dutch-descended Afrikaners.
The Nationalists won their only easy victory in the fourth race, where four rival candidates split the opposition vote.
The loss of the Sasolburg seat will not affect the National Party's control of the white House of Assembly in the country's tricameral Parliament. But the clear shift away from the Nationalists appeared to represent a rejection by many voters of Botha's step-by-step reforms, the main issue of the election.
All five seats at stake had long been held by the Nationalists, who have been in power since 1948, and the strength of their popular support is now in question.
Much will depend on how Botha and his party interpret the election results--as a signal to slow and shrink the political, economic and social changes they have been gradually introducing, or as a narrow mandate to continue the step-by-step reform of apartheid, South Africa's system of racial separation and minority white rule.
Although Botha has continued to pledge far-reaching changes, he has been even more cautious than usual over the last four months in anticipation of these elections, which all analysts saw as an important indication of white voter opinion.
Going into the election, the Nationalists had 124 seats in the 178-member House of Assembly; the liberal Progressive Federal Party had 26; the Conservatives 18; the New Republic Party 5. Since last year, there have also been houses for Asian and Colored (mixed-race) representatives--but not South Africa's black majority--in the new Parliament. However, effective control remains with the whites.
The Sasolburg by-election result was particularly significant since the contest between the Herstigte Nasionale's general secretary, Louis Stofberg, and the Nationalist candidate, Willem Odendaal, revolved almost exclusively around racial issues and white fears that the country is headed toward black majority rule. Stofberg defeated Odendaal, 6,606 votes to 6,239.
Mixed Marriage Issue
A local racially mixed marriage between a white man and a woman of mixed race, permitted under recent legislation sponsored by the Nationalists, greatly inflamed political passions during the election campaign, as did the continuing civil unrest in nearby black townships. The local Nationalist campaign slogan of "Don't shoot--think!" was turned around by the Herstigte Nasionale Party into "Don't think--shoot!!!" in a call for tougher police action to end the unrest.
With its large oil-from-coal complex guaranteeing almost full employment, the district has largely escaped the impact of South Africa's severe economic recession, and the National Party was confident that it would retain the seat, though probably with a reduced majority. The campaign of the Herstigte Nasionale Party was dismissed as "too racist" to succeed.
The strength and extent of the backlash was also clear in Springs, an industrial town 30 miles southeast of Johannesburg, where the Nationalist candidate, Piet Coetzer, defeated the Conservative Party challenger by only 749 votes out of more than 11,600, compared with a Nationalist plurality of nearly 2,500 in the last general election in 1981. A third candidate from the liberal Progressive Federal Party trailed badly.
The Conservatives also mounted strong challenges in Bethlehem, a rural district in the Orange Free State 140 miles south of here, and in Vryburg, another rural district in northern Cape province, 220 miles southwest of Johannesburg. In Bethlehem, the National Party's 1981 margin of more than 3,800 votes was reduced to fewer than 1,200 of the more than 12,000 votes cast, and in Vryburg, it also won by fewer than 1,200 votes, half of its 1981 margin.
While the Conservatives made greater inroads than ever into Nationalist strongholds, they are certain to be disappointed at not having wrested a single seat for themselves, although they had backed the Herstigte Nasionale candidate in Sasolburg.
Opposition Vote Split