The bitter resignation of South African President Pieter W. Botha has attracted much attention. But behind the event lies something of greater importance than an aging leader's critical broadside at his successor.
It is the dilemma that faced Botha and now faces the man in his place, Frederik W. de Klerk, and it will surely face any leader of white South Africa.
It is this: How to carry the white minority into a political arrangement that will satisfy the black majority?
Botha, after moving surprisingly far in a reformist direction, foundered on these rocks in the South African political sea. He did much to turn South Africa away from the racial discrimination that, as a young party firebrand, he did so much to cultivate in years past.
Yet when it came to addressing the central issue in South Africa--black power--Botha lost his nerve. His last four years in office represented a holding operation against the very force that he had rekindled by his reform movement: black revolt.
The fact is that even if apartheid in socioeconomic spheres were totally to disappear, blacks demand more. They demand a rightful share, as the majority, in the political destiny of the country. They demand what whites enjoy as their birthright--one person, one vote, in one South Africa.
At present, a majority of whites will not countenance this demand for blacks--and will turn out any leader who dares sponsor it. Yet all the old power equations are changing. It could just happen that even under the cautious De Klerk, the central problem of South Africa--black political rights--will be addressed. De Klerk might not do so out of inclination, but he could be forced to do so by the momentum of events.
The old monolithic vehicle of white power, Afrikanerdom--the dour coalition of mainly Dutch-descended people who gained power in 1948 by clustering around the banner of the ruling National Party--has crumbled. Some Afrikaners have splintered off to the right, notably to the Conservative Party of Dr. Andries Treurnicht; some have shaved off to the left, joining forces with the liberal opposition (which is, incidentally, delighted at the turmoil caused in the ruling National Party by President Botha's departure).
Botha's old party used to speak for a majority of Afrikaners; De Klerk's cannot. De Klerk can be sure of ruling the country only with the support of allies in the more pragmatic English-speaking community or in the colored (mixed race) or Indian (ethnic Asiatic) minorities. The realization is sobering for an Afrikaner nationalist.
The "communist threat" has also changed. In ways that would make McCarthyism look tame, the South African government has wreaked havoc against its opponents by using the communist scare. Events in past years have dented this strategy. In the same way that Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" rhetoric evaporated in the face of \o7 perestroika,\f7 so the "total communist onslaught" against South Africa sounds less credible. The Conservative Party might still believe in it, as do some in the security forces. But events have marched on, and Afrikaner academics, journalists and others have been going in numbers to Moscow to get to know the Soviets as the Kremlin has switched from a policy of outright support for guerrilla war to encouraging negotiation between white and black in South Africa.
So, too, are black nationalists changing. Reluctant revolutionaries in the first place, they now have to take account of the facts that the Soviets refused to provide an endless supply of guns for revolution in southern Africa; that the Cubans are withdrawing from Angola; that war- and poverty-ravaged black neighbors of South Africa refuse to be used as springboards for warfare against Pretoria.
The country also has the jailed but vast presence of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela to call upon--someone who, because of his 27-year incarceration, has not made the political mistakes of ordinary men. His role as a respected facilitator in the interest of a settlement could be critical.
There is thus, despite the signs of political deadlock, a credit balance in South Africa on which peace can feed--given much luck and the right nudges from powerful international forces. And the push for peace from the West and the Soviets has never been stronger nor more united.
Whether De Klerk will summon the statesmanship to risk all in a quantum leap and settle with black aspirations, or whether he will battle on inconclusively as Botha did with a state of emergency and heavy reliance on the South African military machine, remains to be seen.
But there are even odds that--not because he wants to, but because he really has no choice--De Klerk will in time settle with black South Africa and that whites will find playing a role commensurate with their numbers (which are small) and their economic clout (which is big), is not that intolerable. That is the peaceful way ahead.