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Whites Guarding Political Power : After Some Gains, Reform Is Stalled in South Africa

August 25, 1986|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The South African Parliament met here last week for a rare special session called by President Pieter W. Botha to bring the country's black majority into "decision-making at the highest levels of government."

The session was billed as the first major step toward political "power-sharing." But the legislation on the agenda consisted largely of the odds and ends of bills left over from the regular January-to-June session--ranging from establishment of a motor vehicle accident fund to requirements for high school graduation.

Nowhere to be found was a promised bill establishing a national council in which black leaders would sit with whites to lay the foundation for the new power-sharing constitution that Botha sees as the solution to the nation's deepening political crisis.

The Colored (mixed-race) and Indian chambers of the racially segregated, three-chamber Parliament had so little to do that within two days they suspended most of their sittings and returned home, while the white chamber debated the 10-week-old national state of emergency.

'Facade . . . Collapsed'

And although government spokesmen insisted, as state-run Radio South Africa put it, that "the reform process has gained a momentum that cannot be stopped," Botha made no speech outlining his vision of the future or calling for enactment of reforms beyond those already passed.

"Even the facade of reform has collapsed now," Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, former leader of the white opposition Progressive Federal Party, said as Parliament met. "That does not mean they won't try to rebuild it, but for the moment even the pretense of reform seems to be gone."

Members of Botha's ruling National Party insist this is not so, but they acknowledge that, as one senior government official said, "For the moment, we are stalled."

"Establishment of a national council is not really a matter of legislation but of negotiation, and for negotiations we need relative calm that we don't have at the moment," says Christoffel van der Merwe, a leading National Party member of Parliament.

Progress Slow, Difficult

Whites as well as blacks are coming to realize that reform in South Africa no longer revolves around issues of desegregation and equal opportunity but around the question of political power. That makes progress slower, more difficult and, for the present, more doubtful.

"When we say we want the abolition of apartheid, we are not talking about integrating restaurants and bars, nor even about the desegregation of schools and residential areas," Archie Gumede, co-president of the United Democratic Front, a coalition of anti-apartheid groups with more than 2 million members, said in an interview in Durban.

"What we are talking about is political power, the power to recreate society on the basis of what the majority of people in this country want."

There have been changes, however, and even Gumede acknowledges their scope.

Laws requiring blacks to get government permits to live and work in urban areas were repealed last month.

Blacks Regain Citizenship

Nearly 3 million blacks who lost their South African citizenship when four tribal homelands received nominal independence have had it restored.

Blacks may now own their homes and businesses, rather than just lease them from the government, and they may set up shop in downtown areas previously reserved for whites. Black businessmen will shortly be freed from many other government regulations to encourage entrepreneurship.

Blacks were appointed last month to new provincial administrations for the first time and will also get jobs on new regional councils.

And hundreds of millions of dollars worth of government funds have been promised for development of the country's black townships, particularly for new housing, and to create jobs that will relieve black unemployment, which exceeds 60% in some areas.

"I don't say the government is not doing things, because it is, but mostly it is undoing things that should never have been done, and often they are done with a sleight of hand that means things don't change all that much," Gumede said.

Reforms Discounted

Blacks have complained that many of the reforms have offered less than meets the eye.

For instance, the blacks who had their citizenship restored represented less than half of those in the nominally independent tribal homelands. Only those born in South Africa or meeting other requirements benefited.

Repeal of the hated "pass laws" that restricted blacks from entering urban areas were followed by police raids on squatter camps and tougher controls on "illegal immigrants," mostly homeland residents whose South African citizenship was not restored. And while downtown areas were being opened to black, Indian and Colored businessmen, nonwhite shopkeepers were still being moved out of adjacent areas zoned for white merchants only.

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