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Analysis : Botha's Vote Victory Sharpens Lines of Conflict

May 10, 1987|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The dramatic victory of President Pieter W. Botha's National Party in last week's whites-only parliamentary election has drawn the lines of conflict more sharply than ever in South Africa--just as many had feared, but others had hoped, that the poll would do.

After years of trying to finesse the contradiction between black demands for majority rule and the white minority's unwillingness to yield real power, South Africa now appears to be moving toward direct political, and probably armed, conflict on an even broader scale than before to resolve the issue.

No longer do the "soft" solutions of a negotiated evolution, a "middle way," toward majority rule with protection of minority rights seem possible, as many white liberals had hoped. In giving the National Party a mandate to negotiate a new constitution based on "power sharing," white voters at the same time made clear the limited nature of their concept of reform by defeating a dozen advocates of a multiracial government in Natal province.

Must Shift Strategies

No longer can anti-apartheid forces base their strategies on winning substantial support from significant numbers of whites. Put under pressure, the National Party, a political monolith that has ruled South Africa for nearly 40 years, was strengthened rather than weakened. Together, all the moderate candidates won an inconsequential 18% of the vote, and the National Party's only significant losses were to the far-right Conservative Party.

No longer can the government pretend to view its opposition solely in parliamentary terms, for blacks showed they are the true opposition with a general strike on election day, in which more than 1 million workers and 500,000 students stayed home to protest the whites-only vote. Blacks themselves say increased militancy is a certain reaction to the election and the voters' swing to the right, and the outlawed African National Congress called over the weekend for stepped-up efforts to end minority white rule.

These prospects, taken together, alarm many white and black moderates, who fear the bloodshed that increased polarization could cause in a nation already deeply and bitterly divided after nearly three years of political violence.

"I fear for the future," Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, the powerful Zulu leader, said in Durban, warning of "a deepening of the gulf between blacks and whites" and of increased radicalism in black politics as a result of the large white shift to the right.

Peace Hopes Diminished

"The white electorate has given more justification to the arguments of those who say that only escalated violence can bring whites to their senses," Buthelezi added, saying he sees only diminished hope of a peaceful resolution of the country's problems emerging from the election.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, described the results as "a right-wing government confirmed in its right-wing views." He said the election marked South Africa's entry into "the darkest age in its history" and expressed concern that "an escalation in the intransigence of this government, an escalation in oppression and intolerance of any dissent" will soon follow.

Similar assessments came from the moderate, anti-apartheid Progressive Federal and New Republic parties, which lost a third of their seats, as well as from three independent candidates who broke with the Nationalists over the pace and scope of reform but won just a single seat, and from white liberals who have long hoped for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

"There is no doubt that the election in its totality represents a lurch to the right," Colin Eglin, leader of the Progressive Federal Party, said. "Although the parties to the right can take some consolation, there is no consolation for South Africa because the future is not going to be determined by white politics but by the ability of those in authority to deal with South Africa as a multiracial country."

Some See New Impetus

But others, whites as well as blacks, see the results, rather paradoxically, as propelling the country toward a faster resolution of its conflicts.

Within the National Party, which won three-quarters of the seats at stake in the election, increasing its parliamentary majority at the expense of the two center parties, the belief is strong that the government now has the mandate it sought to negotiate a new "power-sharing" constitution and that blacks will see they have little choice but to accept the Nationalists' terms.

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