After announcing potentially far-reaching reforms that would come close to ending apartheid, its system of institutionalized racial separation, South Africa seems to have reverted to its harsh policies of the past--arresting opposition leaders on charges of high treason, putting down unrest with force and threatening even stronger action.
Sharp contradictions now run throughout the government's pronouncements and policies, leaving the impression that it is trapped between black impatience for real change and right-wing white resistance and is unable to find a workable compromise.
Last month, for instance, President Pieter W. Botha was proposing talks with the outlawed African National Congress and offering to free its imprisoned leader, Nelson Mandela, if he forswore violence. Meanwhile, the minister for law and order, Louis le Grange, was rounding up officials of the United Democratic Front, an anti-apartheid coalition advocating peaceful change, and charging them with treason.
Warning by Minister
While other ministers were elaborating the government's plans for a "national forum" in which whites and blacks could plan the country's future, Le Grange was warning that the activities of opposition leaders and organizations, including the multiracial, 2-million-member United Democratic Front, would not be tolerated much longer.
After the government promised to suspend and probably end the forced resettlement of blacks living in areas reserved by law for whites, it made preparations to move some of the 65,000 residents out of the Crossroads squatter camp outside Cape Town. The result was a two-day riot that left at least 18 blacks dead and more than 240 injured.
Footnotes, Fine Print
More than a dozen other government reforms--including opening downtown business districts to black entrepreneurs and allowing urban blacks to own homes--have, in the words of a black schoolteacher, "been qualified by so many footnotes and fine print that a lawyer would need a magnifying glass and a dictionary of 'whereases' and 'howevers' to decipher them."
Even the repeal of laws prohibiting interracial sexual relations and marriage was postponed, at least until June, because of "complications"--despite promises by the ruling National Party to the new Colored (mixed-race) and Asian members of Parliament that this would be one of the first actions of the new three-chamber legislature.
"Our government is becoming a kind of 'good news, bad news' joke," a liberal National Party chairman in suburban Johannesburg commented. "Every positive, progressive measure it decides upon is almost immediately undercut by some retrogressive blunder. They seem to be stumbling about when they should be moving ahead boldly."
Those who side with Botha argue that the government needs to maintain, even strengthen, its tight controls while it pursues reform. The pace must be measured, they say, so that radicals do not race ahead and reactionaries do not rebel. Similarly, the ultimate goals must be left vague so that blacks do not demand more than the government can give and whites do not put up even stiffer resistance to the loss of their highly privileged political, economic and social status.
'Adapt or Die'
There are also undeniable divisions within the National Party leadership. Le Grange is widely rumored in party circles to be on the way out, along with two or three other hard-line ministers. F.W. de Klerk, the internal affairs minister and National Party leader in the conservative Transvaal, South Africa's northern province, has said he needs more time to win white understanding for Botha's "adapt or die" strategy.
However, it is politically inconceivable that either Le Grange or De Klerk would act on such important matters as treason charges or delaying repeal of the interracial sex laws without consulting Botha, or in defiance of his wishes.
Younger Cabinet members, themselves impatient for change, cite a need to maintain party unity. Only the National Party, they believe, can lead South Africa to reform. Failure now, they say, would set the process back a generation and risk revolution.
"A common illusion about political change is that there is a symmetrical relationship between unrest and reform--the more reform, the less unrest, or vice versa," said Alexander Johnston, a political scientist at the University of Natal in Durban. "It simply doesn't work that way."
The reforms themselves appear, paradoxically, to be deepening black distrust of the minority white regime.
"So much is promised, but so little is delivered," the Rev. Frank Chikane, a black theologian and regional vice president of the United Democratic Front, said before his arrest on treason charges last month. "It's a shell game . . . .
"Worse, people's expectations are raised by seemingly attractive rhetoric, and then their hopes are dashed when the government not only does not deliver but inevitably shows that it is even more repressive."
'Edging Toward Crossroads'
As a result of these pressures, Prof. Lawrence Schlemmer, president of the South African Institute of Race Relations, sees politics here "edging toward a crossroads that, after centuries, could draw a divided and fragmented society into a more cohesive and legitimate system for all groups."
"It could also take a turn," Schlemmer warned, "toward heightened conflict, polarization and economic decay."
David Welsh, a political scientist at the University of Cape Town, also sees a likelihood of growing conflict from a deepening white-black deadlock over reform--and a growing need for negotiations to find a way out.
"While I am mistrustful of all the 'time-is-running-out' predictions, I think it is safe to say that South Africa is approaching some kind of crossroads," he said. "It could be that government becomes impossible without increasing amounts of force to put down recurrent outbursts of violence. At the same time, however, the chances of a violent overthrow of the state seem even remoter than they ever were.
"Everything points to a deadlock that could be resolved only by negotiations among the adversaries . . . . A negotiated settlement in South Africa would have to rest on a whole series of compromises and trade-offs."
Riots Seen as Warning
But the cost of failure in such endeavors could well be prohibitive. The riots outside Cape Town last month were for many here a vision of what could happen if such efforts fail.
"Just multiply the 18 dead, 240 injured, by the nearly 100 major black townships we have," a National Party member of Parliament said. "If we fail (in reform), we are talking about civil war. The people of this country--all the people, black, white and brown--must sit down and resolve its problems and work out its future. That is what the state president (Botha) is trying to do."
Not only do many blacks doubt the sincerity of such statements, but white good will is now a political issue in itself.
"The state has offered an informal forum for consultations, but it is determined to smash the people's organizations even before it sets that process in motion," Patrick Lekota, publicity secretary of the United Democratic Front, said after the arrest of more of the group's leadership on treason charges.
Bishop Tutu's Views
Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace laureate, asked how real reform can be achieved if even peaceful opposition to apartheid is regarded as high treason punishable by death.
"If you are effective, just be sure they will chop off your head," Tutu told a meeting in support of the 16 anti-apartheid activists and labor organizers facing trial on treason charges in Durban.
In the minds of blacks, this trial has virtually negated many of Botha's proposals. These include providing a national political forum as well as his offers to involve blacks in decision-making at all levels, to grant tribal homelands greater autonomy and a voice in national policies, and to open a dialogue with the African National Congress and free political prisoners if they renounce violence.
Blacks are still weighing, although skeptically, the announced government moves to allow blacks to own their own homes and businesses, to open stores downtown, to move into urban areas to find work and to stay in places reserved by law for whites only.
Bit by bit, the government over the last two months has proposed potentially far-reaching changes in apartheid. It has accepted the principles that blacks will live in the country's nominally white urban areas, that their economic and social conditions must be rapidly improved and that their political rights should be recognized.
Afrikaner Survival Creed
For Afrikaners, the descendants of the Dutch settlers who have held power since 1948, all this comes close to revolution. Their resistance to Botha's "adapt or die" strategy is strong.
For most blacks, though, the government's reforms, even if carried out as promised, are at best only half measures.
Put another way, reforms that a decade ago, even last year, might have been widely welcomed by blacks and gone a long way toward improving race relations in South Africa are now seen as simply transforming apartheid and ensuring continued white control of the country.
This skepticism is increased by Botha's list of what is "not negotiable," which in the eyes of blacks sets severe limits on what changes are really possible.
The first "non-negotiable" item is the "non-abdication" of whites--that is, there will be no end to overall white political control. The others are rejection of the concept of one man, one vote in a unitary state--that is, black majority rule--and the impossibility of a fourth chamber of Parliament for the 11 million urban blacks.
"There is no point in taking part in a national forum as long as the government still treats blacks as a separate entity," said Dr. Oscar Dhlomo, secretary general of the important Zulu political group Inkatha, the country's largest black political organization. "Black people want the vote and want to be part of the general political process. They do not want the separate structure the government is talking about."
Dr. Nthato Motlana, chairman of the influential Soweto Committee of Ten and the president of the Soweto Civic Assn. in Johannesburg's black sister city, says distrust of the government runs so deep in the black community that only very bold, dramatic steps will succeed in drawing blacks into a real discussion with whites.
As a minimum, according to Motlana, the government should abolish the Group Areas Act, which sets aside 87% of the country for whites, and the "pass laws," which require blacks to get permits to enter white areas.
'The Bottom Line'
"That's the bottom line," he said. "The question is whether the government has the courage to do this . . . . The problem is that the longer they delay, the more difficult it will become. Black demands are growing, not diminishing."
This trend worries white supporters of reform who fear that this "shifting goal-post phenomenon" will discourage the National Party overtures if more moderate elements in the ruling group find that their proposals, however improved, are always rejected as inadequate.