JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — In a rebellion that could reshape South African politics, liberals in President Pieter W. Botha's National Party are pressing him hard to accelerate the pace of reform, threatening to break away unless the government moves ahead more boldly toward ending apartheid.
Botha, who intended to fight the far right in the country's approaching parliamentary elections, is now confronted with such serious defections from the left that his policies and his party leadership are being questioned in some Nationalist circles.
One of the party's most prominent liberal members of Parliament, Wynand Malan, has already quit, declaring that under Botha "reform is dead" and calling for urgent negotiations on a new political system for the country.
A Lost 'Sense of Purpose'
The South African ambassador to Britain, Denis J. Worrall, another prominent member of the National Party's liberal wing, resigned in protest over government policies and returned home last month to seek a seat in Parliament, also as an independent on a reform platform.
Two issues must be addressed in the campaign for the May elections, Worrall said, if South Africans are to recover "a sense of purpose and direction and vision."
"One is a real end to apartheid," he said, "and the second is proper attention to the granting of political rights to black people, a real mandate that speaks to black South Africa. . . . "
Other Nationalists, among them prominent businessmen, academics, sportsmen, journalists and local party officials, who had until now supported Botha's program of gradual political reforms aimed at power sharing, have publicly backed these calls for bolder reforms and expressed their strong disappointment with the government. Each day, more announce that they are leaving the National Party.
"I am afraid that the National Party can no longer meet the political aspirations of the South African people as a whole nor provide the vision of a new, united and free country," said Malan, 43, the son of an old Nationalist family, who quit the party in what he called a crisis of conscience.
The Nationalists had once declared bold principles for reform, Malan said, "but when we had to give meaning to them, we retreated and refused to accept the consequences of what we had said."
Worrall, 51, a political scientist and constitutional lawyer, was equally critical, accusing the government of destroying the diminished hope that South Africans had for the future of their strife-torn country.
He himself had despaired of progress under Botha and the Nationalists, Worrall told newsmen, when the government rejected a proposal two months ago for a multiracial government in Natal province based largely on the principle of one-man, one-vote, and at about the same time postponed for a year or more reform legislation that would have allowed local communities to desegregate residential neighborhoods.
Faster Reform Sought
Worrall plans to run against J. Christian Heunis, the minister of constitutional reform, whom he holds responsible for the slow pace of reform.
In breaking with the Nationalist leadership, Malan and Worrall have defined the issues for the election, and they hope that they can continue to do so and thus force the party to make a greater commitment to reform.
"One of the realities of the election is that the National Party will be returned to power," Worrall commented, and thus the only "real option" for government critics on the left, including those such as Malan who are known as the "New Nats," is to force it into broader and faster political change.
"The government," Worrall said, "is putting to voters the issue of a mandate, and the consequences of that mandate will be very far-reaching."
Black militants find these defections interesting, likewise the discussion they cause, Murphy Morobe of the United Democratic Front observed. But, he added, it is all "still part of white politics," which many blacks suspect is really aimed at preserving minority power and privilege in a different form.
"What we are waiting for are the white politicians to quit that sterile game entirely and come over to the people if they want to participate in building a free, democratic, non-racial South Africa," Morobe said. "For us, these parliamentary elections remain a great non-event."
As the separate Malan and Worrall challenges have drawn increasing support, Botha has unexpectedly been faced with what many in the party concede is much broader disaffection within the party than the leadership had acknowledged.
"The feeling that a significant group of voters are now waiting for the next installment of reform grows stronger by the day," the Johannesburg Afrikaans newspaper Die Vaderland commented, summing up views within the party that has governed South Africa for 39 years.