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An Easing of Apartheid?

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President Pieter W. Botha has outlined a new direction for South Africa. He would restructure the republic with a revised form of the notorious apartheid that would no longer rely on the absolute exclusion of the black majority from all political and property rights within South Africa itself.

The proposal is as fundamentally flawed as the constitutional revisions of last year that extended political power to those of Asian and mixed-race descent. That flaw is racism.

But there is a concession within the proposals that could bring real reform. That is the commitment to enter negotiations with the black community for the first time.

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The sincerity of the offer of negotiations will be tested immediately. Nelson Mandela, the long-imprisoned leader of the prohibited African National Congress, has spelled out that test in an interview that, apparently by sheer chance, was published just a day after Botha outlined his plan before the South African Parliament. Mandela has offered an end to the use of violence if the prohibition on the congress is lifted and its leaders, held as political prisoners, are freed.

Mandela enjoys broad support, more than any other individual, among the blacks of South Africa. He is a man personally opposed to violence whose organization turned to terrorism only when its peaceful efforts to change South Africa were outlawed. He shares a hope for peaceful change with other opponents of apartheid--including Bishop Desmond Tutu, last year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, moderator of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and leader of the United Democratic Front, the opposition coalition in South Africa.

Tutu has dismissed Botha’s initiative as unacceptable “crumbs of concessions.” The United Democratic Front has called it “mere rhetoric.” So it would seem until proved otherwise.

Intransigence on the part of the black community will, however, serve no purpose except to make more certain a spreading violence that can only be to the disadvantage of all South Africans. Botha’s proposals will be judged minimal at best by the majority that has been repressed with racism. But the blacks have little to lose by testing his intentions, determining the parameters of his offer to negotiate, finding out just what he meant when he said that the blacks now “can themselves decide their own affairs up to the highest level” and can join the national decision-making process.

Botha himself runs political risks with these proposals, however modest they may seem to the majority. There are those more racist and reactionary than he within his ruling National Party, and there is also a venomous commitment to racism from the parties of the extreme right. They relish the privileges that apartheid has brought them, and resent the slightest concession, deliberately muddling moderation with Marxism.

So long as Botha holds the leadership, there is not likely to be a turning back. He has suggested actions, including property rights for blacks, that could be useful steps toward an appropriate restructuring of the nation. Matched with open negotiations, they could accelerate peaceful change to a pace that might dampen the increasing violence with an assurance to the majority that there is in fact a commitment to justice.

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