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South Africa: Botha Talks, World Waits : Hopes Tied to Less Violence

February 09, 1986|John de St. Jorre | John de St. Jorre is author of "A House Divided: South Africa's Uncertain Future."

NEW YORK — President Pieter W. Botha appears to have regained political initiative in South Africa. His speech last week promised specific reforms and set conditions for what now seems to be the imminent release of Nelson Mandela, the jailed black leader. Botha has not, however, charted a clear course for the future nor begun to bridge the chasm that separates white from black in his troubled country.

Botha's speech was as conciliatory as his previous major address last August had been belligerent. He talked about an undivided South Africa with a single citizenship for all South Africans; equal education for all races; scrapping the hated pass laws that inhibit black migration; freehold rights for blacks; involving all groups at the provincial (secondary) level of government, and a new "national statutory council" where white and black leaders would "consider and advise on matters of common concern."

Looking ahead, Botha stressed that the political aspirations of all South Africans must be accommodated in a democratic government: "We have outgrown the colonial system of paternalism as well as the outdated concept of apartheid."

In a follow-up, two-page advertisement in the Sunday newspapers, Botha elaborated on his speech in punchier language. And he broadcast his message on South Africa's segregated black radio and television networks, appealing for cooperation.

The pass laws would be scrapped by July 1, 1986; thereafter, all South Africans would carry the same identity document. The proposed national statutory council would not just be a "forum for talkers" but the first step toward "institutionalized power-sharing where black leaders can have a voice in central government."

Finally, using a curious rhetorical device, Botha eased his terms for the release of Mandela, leader of the banned African National Congress (ANC), who has been in jail for 23 years. Botha had made Mandela's release conditional on the latter's rejection of violence; his latest speech, however, made "humanitarian grounds" the criterion, linking Mandela's case with the release of two Soviet dissidents and a South African military officer held by Angola.

Now, the Soviets have scheduled the release of one of the dissidents, Anatoly Shcharansky, for next week; and by Friday, Mandela's family and supporters were already expecting official word of his freedom.

How does Botha's package affect the internal crisis and South Africa's increasingly isolated position in the world?

First, it is important to understand that two realities exist in South Africa. Changes that seem major, even apocalyptic, to whites, appear minor, even absurd, to blacks. During 18 months of black revolt and external pressures, white concessions and black expectations--never correlated--are now wholly out of sync.

Second, there is the government's direction (strategy is too grandiose a term). When Botha talks about a unified, democratic South Africa accommodating the aspirations of all South Africans with a common citizenship, he is not speaking about one person, one vote in a unitary system. And when he stresses equal education and other rights for blacks, he still does not intend to integrate South Africa's schools, hospitals and residential areas.

Botha's speech is full of the key code words that indicate white control will be maintained through some form of loose federal system. While blacks will have an increasing say in their "own" (i.e., local) affairs, whites will retain ultimate control over "general" (i.e., national) affairs.

The word communities rather than individuals occurs time and again in government rhetoric. Power is to be shared between communities, without one group dominating the other. The concept that South Africa is a nation of "minorities," the same idea that underpinned apartheid and the tribally based homelands, is as much a part of government philosophy as it ever was--meaning there is not and can never be a black majority in power.

Reaction has been building. Thursday, Botha publicly reprimanded his foreign minister, Roelof F. (Pik) Botha, for having remarked that a black might one day become president of South Africa. White reformers remained dissatisfied, and on Friday opposition leader Frederik van Zyl Slabbert resigned from parliament.

Zulu leader Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi once flatly rejected the government's attempt to participate in a joint consultative body. But now he has been saying that he would have no problem with the new council if there were a flexible agenda--leaving himself a loophole for a quick escape. Buthelezi has become increasingly isolated from the ANC and other black nationalist movements and seems keen to find a way of consolidating his power by creating some form of federal entity between his fragmented, impoverished Kwazulu homeland and neighboring Natal Province. The government, for its part, seems eager to drive a broader wedge between its black opponents by wooing Buthelezi.

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