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Botha Reorganizes Cabinet, Replaces 2 Hard-Line Officers

November 05, 1986|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — President Pieter W. Botha on Tuesday replaced his two most controversial Cabinet members in a broad reorganization of his government.

Louis le Grange, the minister of law and order for the last seven years and the architect of the government's tough measures to deal with the continuing civil unrest, will be succeeded by his deputy, Adriaan Vlok. Vlok is widely regarded as a moderate who is much more sensitive to human rights issues.

Louis Nel, the blunt, tough-talking deputy minister of information, who has enforced press censorship under the state of emergency, will be replaced by Christoffel van der Merwe, a political scientist and former diplomat. As a leading member of the National Party's liberal wing, Van der Merwe has helped draft and sell its program of step-by-step reforms.

3 Ministers Retiring

Three other senior ministers are retiring, Botha said, and a dozen younger National Party members of Parliament will be brought into the government on Dec. 1 as deputy ministers, rejuvenating the Cabinet and giving it a more liberal image.

The three major contenders to succeed Botha as president--Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha, Constitutional Affairs Minister J. Christiaan Heunis and National Education Minister F.W. de Klerk--all retained their posts, as did Gen. Magnus Malan, the defense minister. The number of Cabinet posts was reduced to 17 from 20 in the reorganization.

To Botha, the changes were a further commitment to gradual but far-reaching political, economic and social reforms and a step toward national elections that he hopes will give him a broader mandate for change.

But opposition parties were not impressed with the new ministerial lineup, viewing it as no more able than the outgoing Cabinet to break the longstanding political impasse and resolve the country's deepening crisis.

"This group is certainly not able to break out of the political logjam created by the old Cabinet," Colin Eglin, leader of the liberal white opposition Progressive Federal Party, said in Cape Town. "Once again, Mr. Botha missed a golden opportunity of revitalizing a jaded Cabinet with some new blood from outside."

The new ministers and their deputies were hardly "a galaxy of liberals," Eglin said, and their sheer number will not increase the government's efficiency but "just the length of the Nationalist gravy train."

Removal Called Milestone

Yet the removal of Le Grange, whom Botha had defended through more than two years of caustic and unremitting criticism, is a political milestone, and it could signal a major change in the government's approach to dealing with the fundamental issue of black political rights.

Botha praised Le Grange, 58, for undertaking the "great task" of maintaining law and order in the past two years, particularly while battling glandular cancer. Botha also said Le Grange will be the government's candidate to become Speaker of Parliament, a nonpolitical post that would allow him to retire with honor after years of controversy.

But Botha's kind words to a longtime colleague were overshadowed by the promotion of Vlok, 48, a civil servant turned politician. In two years as deputy minister of both law and order and defense, he has demonstrated a commitment to resolving the problems of racial unrest and a personal openness, fairness and decency that have been acknowledged even by the government's most persistent critics.

This impression of an important change was confirmed by the appointment, at Vlok's request, of one of the National Party's most outspoken liberals, Roelf Meyer, a member of Parliament from Johannesburg, as the deputy minister of law and order.

Controversy on Song

The replacement of Nel, 49, as deputy minister of information had been expected after the heated controversy over a pop song the government's Bureau for Information had commissioned at an initial cost of nearly $2 million to promote racial harmony and gradual reform. The bureau's role in enforcing sharp news media restrictions under the state of emergency had already opened it to considerable criticism.

"Nel had to go because he was making the party and government look ridiculous," a liberal Nationalist member of Parliament commented, "that is, more ridiculous than we need to."

The bureau's song, modeled on "We Are the World," has probably generated more criticism of the government among whites than any action since its imposition of emergency rule in June. Its lyrics have been described as banal, inane, boring and meaningless by various critics. The music was written on speculation for a television commercial.

The enthusiasm and alacrity with which the bureau under Nel moved to censor both domestic and foreign news media under the state of emergency had already raised questions about its functions--and about Nel's professed liberalism.

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