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Blacks' Stand Dims Reform Hopes, S. Africa Aide Says

February 10, 1988|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Prospects for faster political reform in South Africa have diminished significantly with the refusal of most black leaders to accept President Pieter W. Botha's broad proposals for "power sharing," the government's chief negotiator acknowledged Tuesday.

Stoffel van der Merwe, the deputy minister for information and constitutional planning, asserted that "the process has not come to a complete standstill," but he admitted that he is uncertain when it would gather the momentum necessary for resolution of the prolonged crisis in minority white rule.

"We did make some progress in that there is a larger degree of readiness (among blacks to negotiate), but it is not quite enough," Van der Merwe said, reviewing the government's efforts over the last year to get negotiations under way. "We need a critical mass of people ready to step forward and talk."

For most black leaders, the key issue remains a commitment by the ruling National Party to a democratic political system based on the principle of one person, one vote rather than on race.

Oppose Government Plan

They have opposed negotiations that would bring the country's black majority into the government by sharing power among various racial groups, as proposed by the Nationalists.

Even those black leaders most ready to compromise insist that Botha must first end the present state of emergency, free all political prisoners and legalize the African National Congress as the conditions for negotiations. As a result of this impasse, Van der Merwe has not been able to win agreement on a negotiating forum, such as the national council proposed by Botha three years ago to draft a new constitution for the country and to bring blacks into the top levels of South African government for the first time.

The only item on the government's reform agenda this year, Van der Merwe and other officials said, is relaxation of laws that racially segregate residential neighborhoods and business districts.

"This may seem very small from a foreign perspective, but they are very significant for South Africa," Van der Merwe contended, because the law will permit, for the first time in nearly 40 years, whites and blacks to live in the same neighborhoods, although on a limited scale. "This introduces a new mobility into South Africa."

Van der Merwe, again emphasizing that reform will continue, also said that the government is not insisting on the national council as a negotiating forum or on "power sharing" as the basis of a new constitution, but would discuss both issues as part of a negotiating process--if it could find any partners to talk with.

"We are hoping for commensurate changes among radical (black) leaders so that we come within talking distance of one another and so we don't have to shout," he said.

Sees Political Deadlock

But Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, former leader of the liberal Progressive Federal Party, described the political situation flatly as a "deadlock" that no element--whether the government, its opponents on the left or the far right--has the power to change for perhaps the next two or three years.

"We are not yet in negotiations, not even in the pre-negotiation phase," Slabbert, now the head of the independent Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa, said in an interview here. "We are still at the end of the confrontational phase, and there is no way out of that yet."

Perhaps the government's most serious setback came with its release from prison in November of Govan Mbeki, the ANC's national chairman.

"One could have hoped that the ANC would have responded positively and said at least this shows there may be bona fides on the part of the government," Van der Merwe said. "This then may have led to a change of the ANC attitude on violence. . . . But there was no recognition at all that this was a magnanimous gesture."

Mbeki, 77, had been imprisoned for 24 years after being convicted with Nelson R. Mandela and other ANC leaders on charges of attempting to overthrow the government with a campaign of sabotage.

His release was widely interpreted as a trial run for freeing Mandela as part of a far-reaching government initiative to get negotiations under way.

Within a month, however, Mbeki had been restricted by police orders to Port Elizabeth, barred from addressing political gatherings and prohibited from even giving interviews to the press.

"If we had let it go, he would have become a rallying point of a radical campaign," Van der Merwe said. "So, it became necessary to restrict him. That turn of events was not encouraging for the release of others."

The government would like to release Mandela--now seen by many whites as well as blacks as a key figure in resolving the country's problems--into what Van der Merwe called "a climate of peaceful negotiation" where he would be able to join in drafting of a new constitution for the country.

But current circumstances, as Slabbert said, make it difficult to free him. "If they release Mandela tomorrow, what does he do?" Slabbert asked. "Whom does he talk to, and about what? How does he get a mandate with his organization banned?"

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