JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — As black waiters quietly cleared luncheon dishes, member of Parliament Hennie Bekker invited questions from a small group of his white constituents in a private restaurant room a few days ago.
A white-haired woman, speaking Afrikaans, wanted to know what the National Party planned to do about segregated neighborhoods. Were they on the way out? And, if so, how would whites be able to maintain the "standards" of their neighborhoods?
The genial politician smiled nervously. The Group Areas Act, the pillar of residential segregation, will be gone by next June, he predicted, and everyone should "wave goodby to it."
As for those "standards," he added, no protection based on skin color was contemplated. Zoning laws and health regulations would have to do.
Most of the diners seemed to embrace the rightness of the party position. But there was no applause. They didn't have to like it.
"We mustn't bluff ourselves," said Jack Steyn, a constituent who lives in a "white" area where 50,000 blacks also live in defiance of the law. "We have to accept that we whites can't have the First World anymore. We are moving into a Third World atmosphere."
Such are the anxious exchanges heard across South Africa these days as a powerful white political party and its loyal members undergo the most rapid, jarring change of direction in the country's history.
The National Party, the birthplace of white Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid, has been the slickest and most enduring political machine on the continent of Africa.
It has survived the assassination of one leader, a major political scandal, worldwide condemnation, biting economic sanctions and 30 years of guerrilla war waged by two black liberation movements.
And yet in four decades it has not lost a national election. Through the social engineering of apartheid, savvy politicking and brute force, it has managed to maintain white political control and privilege in a country where blacks heavily outnumber whites.
Today, though, the National Party faces the biggest challenge in its 75-year history. Its leaders are trying to break with the past and sell whites on a package of reform that will mean a swift end to apartheid, an end to white privilege and an end to the party's firm hold on the country's future.
The sales job, for members of Parliament like Bekker, has been every bit as difficult as anyone could have predicted. And it got even more difficult earlier this month when the party leader, President Frederik W. de Klerk, announced plans to throw the party's doors open to all races.
"A major part of the National Party constituency has been traumatized by this," said Robert Shrire, a professor of political studies at the University of Cape Town. "The Nats have irrevocably cut their links to the past, and they will either succeed in becoming a middle-of-the-road party or quite soon vanish from the political scene."
The move, already ratified by two of the four provincial party congresses, is largely symbolic because blacks cannot even vote in national elections. As Pallo Jordan, spokesman for the African National Congress, remarked upon hearing the news: "A few blacks may join, but I can't imagine why."
But ending its racial exclusivity will allow the Nationalists to more easily join forces with moderate black groups in negotiations for a new constitution. At the same time, though, it gives additional ammunition to the right-wing Conservative Party, the only whites-only party in Parliament, whose rolls have swelled in recent months with National Party defectors.
No one knows for sure if the National Party can survive the reformist ideas of De Klerk and other party leaders.
But many agree with Jack Steyn, Hennie Bekker's worried constituent in Johannesburg, who says, "If we had to have an election tomorrow, I shudder to think what the results would be."
Preaching equal rights for poverty-stricken black people to privileged whites already has cost the National Party a substantial number of its core supporters--the Afrikaners, ancestors of the first white settlers.
The National Party was founded by Afrikaners who feared that British capitalist interests would lead to the demise of the Afrikaner. They strongly opposed those more liberal parties that supported greater cooperation between Afrikaners and English-speaking South Africans.
The Nationalists held power for four years in the early 1930s and regained it for good in 1948 on a straight apartheid ticket. They not only ushered in racial segregation and white domination of the black majority, they also instituted an unwritten "Afrikaner-first" policy.