S. Africa Ruling Party Sees Itself Not as Obstacle but as Force for Change

Times Staff Writer

To its critics, South Africa’s ruling National Party is the main obstacle to reform, the preserver of white privilege and minority rule, the originator and defender of apartheid.

But the Nationalists see themselves as the apostles of change, leading their strife-torn country through a sweeping but peaceful transformation that will make it a model of racial harmony for the rest of the world.

Party leaders, far from defending South Africa’s apartheid system of racial separation and white-minority rule, say they are dismantling it with the same zeal with which they built it more than three decades ago.

Only Peaceful Way

And, they say, this is the only way short of all-out black revolution that change can come to South Africa because it is their supporters among the country’s 4.9 million whites who must come to terms with its 25 million blacks on the nation’s future.

This also means, however, that the scope and speed of reform are determined in large degree by the willingness of whites in a highly conservative society to accept the changes, as moderate and gradual as they are, that Nationalist leaders see as necessary.


“The basic political reality of South Africa is that the National Party holds power, the ability to carry out far-reaching change lies with it, and the initiative must come from it,” C.R.E. Rencken, the party’s chief information officer and member of Parliament from the Johannesburg suburb of Benoni, said the other day. He continued:

“The National Party accepts this responsibility, and it is now the main agent for change, not only in the white electorate but within the country as a whole.

“But we have to persuade people to accept change, and that takes a great deal of political education and a lot of time. It is simply not possible for this government to declare it will abolish apartheid all at once. It has to introduce reforms step by step to gain psychological acceptance for them and so that it can remain in power to carry out the whole program of reforms.”

Commitment to Reform

Even F.W. de Klerk, the National Party’s powerful Transvaal provincial leader and a strong voice for conservativism within the Cabinet, emphasizes the government’s commitment to reform.

“The government is determined to carry out its reform program dynamically,” he told a party conference in Pretoria last week, “but not because it is under pressure, not because of the sanctions threat and not because of the unrest. The government will continue because it believes it is necessary, because it strives out of an inner conviction for a permanent solution that will stand the test of justice.”

While attention here and abroad has been focused over the last year on the civil unrest that has killed more than 725 people, most of them black, the real steps toward reform have been taken--in the Nationalist view--within the party and government.

“Compare us to where we stood a year or a year and a half ago, and you can see the progress,” Albert E. Nothnagel, a Nationalist member of Parliament with a reputation as one of the party’s verligte (“enlightened,” in Afrikaans) liberals, said in an interview in Pretoria.

Repressive Acts Repealed

“We have repealed the Mixed Marriages Act (which barred interracial marriages) and the Political Interference Act (which outlawed multiracial political parties),” he said, and continued:

“We are prepared to recognize the South African citizenship of all blacks and to abolish influx control and the pass laws (which prevent rural blacks from moving to urban areas). And, most importantly, we have committed ourselves to the sharing of political power up through the highest levels of the government, both parliamentary and executive.

“We have to do much more--in many ways, we are just beginning this process of reform, although it has been under way for some time--but we have to take the people with us. You simply cannot achieve changes of the magnitude we need and truly want if you don’t take the people along.”

But white politics puts severe pressures on the reform process, giving it the zigzag, hesitant character that infuriates blacks and many white liberals and raises doubts about the Nationalists’ real intentions.

Slow Process for Change

Reforms typically are preceded by study commissions and lengthy reports, prolonged discussion within the party and government, several public proposals and then finally legislation, the implementation of which is frequently delayed while implementing regulations are drawn up.

There is also a strong feeling by President Pieter W. Botha and other National Party leaders that the reforms should not appear to be carried out under pressure--whether domestic, in the form of black unrest or opposition criticism, or foreign, in the form of American and European economic sanctions.

“In our political culture, you stand up to pressure and resist with all your might,” Rencken said. “American sanctions have probably slowed the pace of change here as a result.”

A third factor, little appreciated outside Nationalist ranks but crucial within--and the motivation of Botha himself--is the conviction, according to party officials, that ending apartheid is morally right, that racial discrimination is wrong and that power-sharing is now a political necessity.

“The question of what is right, morally right, and what is wrong is now foremost in the minds of whites,” Nothnagel said. “We have come through a very painful soul-searching to realize that our whole society will be destroyed if the people of South Africa do not find each other. This is the inner driving force of reform today within the government, the National Party and the white community.”

Other Nationalist politicians, however, emphasize the party’s pragmatic motivation--"adapt or die,” as Botha summed it up several years ago--rather than the moral imperative for change.

“People tell us all the time that we should feel guilty,” one member of Parliament said, “but, in fact, we don’t. We think we have done a lot for the blacks, that we have built this country into what it is over three centuries but that, well, the time has come for some changes. Guilt? No, that is not what motivates us.”

As he introduces his gradual, step-at-a-time reforms, Botha feels compelled at the same time to ensure the country’s political stability, and thus he has taken tough measures, including a two-month-old partial state of emergency, to quell the continuing unrest.

“One should not read the security policy as anti-reform, as many do,” Wynand C. Malan, another verligte Nationalist member of Parliament, said in Randburg, outside Johannesburg. “Security policies must work in tandem with reform. Any reform leads to political instability, and instability must be coped with if the reform is to succeed. We can debate the measures employed by the security forces, but clearly we cannot allow our country to fall into anarchy and jeopardize the reforms.”

Each reform is also accompanied by firm assurances from Botha and other Nationalist leaders that, while there will be change in society as a whole as a result of the moves, the lives of whites will not change much.

De Klerk, for example, said that although the government is committed to sharing power with blacks, to equal opportunity for all and a common South African citizenship, there must still be “group security and the protection of group interests” so that one group, meaning the black majority, does not “dominate” any other--meaning the white, Indian and mixed-race Colored minorities.

“If you expect whites to give up their own community lives, including schools and residential areas,” he said--touching perhaps the two most sensitive areas for whites--"then you are waiting in vain.”

Nor, he added, would South African whites accept a subordinate political role, as have those whites who remained in Rhodesia under black rule when it became Zimbabwe five years ago.

Without such restatements of the “framework of reform,” as De Klerk termed it, “we would panic our people,” another minister said, asking not to be quoted by name.

“White backlash is a tiger that must not be uncaged,” he went on, “because it would devour all of us. . . . If people think they are being pushed into a black majority-rule situation, even if they are not but just think it, they will resist everything we try to do.”

Andries P. Treurnicht, leader of the ultra-right Conservative Party and former Transvaal leader of the National Party, who broke with Botha three years ago over earlier reforms, warned this month that whites, particularly the Afrikaners descended from Dutch, French and German settlers, would take up arms and fight if pushed too far.

“If this government continues on its present course,” he said, “that day may not be too far away. . . . These ‘reforms’ of P.W. Botha are leading us into, and not away from, a civil war. We must stop (the reform program) and reverse it while we can.”

To the Nationalists, Rencken said, the Conservatives are a serious political threat, far more so than the liberal Progressive Federal Party, which opposes apartheid. He said there is the larger danger of racial polarization that could result from the strong Conservative appeals to white fears.

“Our electorate does not welcome with joy or glee the reform program,” he said, “and the whole process of change makes them very apprehensive. In the back of their minds are the numbers of black people, a ratio of about 5 to 1, and the rapid growth rate of the black population.” He continued:

“It is against this background that our rejection of one-man, one-vote in a unitary system and our insistence on the preservation of minority rights must be seen. . . .

“Most whites’ real fear is, quite frankly, a black government. They have watched what has happened in the rest of Africa, and they feel that they would have to leave if a black government of that sort came to power here. But they don’t want to. This is their country, and there is nowhere else for them to go. And that means we have to solve our problems in such a way that whites accept the changes and are reassured.”

Although such considerations seem to many blacks just a continuation of white rule in another form, some black moderates, including Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, the Zulu leader, have backed away from previous calls for a one-man, one-vote system in order to ease such white concerns.

Offsetting white fears, liberal National Party members say, has been the growing acceptance of the need to share political power and end white hegemony here.

“At the grass-roots level, white voters are absolutely convinced that quite dramatic changes are coming, and coming soon, and they have made up their minds to accept them,” Nothnagel said. “Some are still hesitating, wanting a little more time to get used to what reform will mean, and a few frankly are resisting it, but the vast majority of whites no longer think, as the National Party did before, that it is possible to exclude blacks from political power.

“Power-sharing is accepted with all that this will mean in the way the country is governed. The question of constitutional structures is not settled, and we must work this question out with black participation and agreement. We have made a breakthrough on this basic issue, and it is of fundamental importance.”

Malan acknowledged, however, that whites’ acceptance of the need for change has grown rapidly over the last year as unrest has continued in the country’s black townships.

“In Randburg, my constituency, the concern now is that the government may not succeed in its efforts at peaceful change, that the government and party are not carrying out the reforms as quickly and efficiently as the people, at least my constituents, want,” Malan said.

Nothnagel, whose middle-class Pretoria constituency is significantly more conservative and includes many government employees, agreed.

“The conscience of a large portion of the white community has been awakened by the violence,” he said, “and it is now easier for National Party politicians to get across the message that law and order will flow from a more just society and not from applied force.”

As the Nationalists assess the situation, the major problem in the reform effort now is the government’s difficulties in beginning a dialogue with black leaders across the political spectrum on how to share political power.

“The negotiating process has now become of crucial importance,” De Klerk told the Transvaal party conference. “The state president will take the initiative in the near future to broaden and strengthen this process.”

A forum that President Botha established in January and invited black leaders to join has met with little enthusiasm. Some prominent black leaders, such as Buthelezi, have insisted that the government first commit itself in a “declaration of intent” to end apartheid and share power, but others have rejected it entirely as merely a way to work out continued white rule here.

“We are ready to move forward a lot faster than we are given credit for,” Rencken said, “but the problem is how. We will not again try to prescribe to other communities--that is a mistake we will not repeat--but it is bloody hard to get anyone to talk to us.

“There is a lot of mistrust that needs to be broken down first in this current phase of pre-negotiations. We hope then, when a forum shapes up for a full dialogue, there will be sufficient trust and good will to proceed.”