President Pieter W. Botha's charge that South Africa's top banker financed controversial advertisements calling for legalization of the African National Congress has become the first issue in the country's approaching parliamentary elections.
The government's opponents have seized upon Botha's allegation, which has been strongly denied and so far remains unproven, to attack the ruling National Party and to question Botha's suitability to continue as president.
They describe the accusation against Chris Ball of Barclays Bank as the biggest blunder of Botha's long political career.
In an indication of the bitterness likely to mark the May 6 election, Colin Eglin, leader of the opposition Progressive Federal Party, charged that the president was using "smear tactics" to try to discredit his critics and hide his party's "political bankruptcy." He said the tactics are reminiscent of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist campaign in the United States in the 1950s. The anti-apartheid African National Congress includes Communists among its leaders.
Business leaders, including longtime Botha backers, expressed serious concern that Botha would publicly attack such a prominent executive, apparently without full facts or any discussion with him. Some said they fear a government vendetta against its critics, aimed at building right-wing support during the election.
Editorials in the nation's three English-language Sunday newspapers denounced Botha's action in harsh terms. They called him a "petty tyrant," accused him of "stopping at little to score points off any opponent" and described him as "indifferent to everyday standards of fair play."
Even the Afrikaans-language Rapport, which generally backs the government, warned in an editorial against believing "scare stories about revolutionaries" plotting to take over the country.
Botha, quoting what he described as "leftist radical circles," told Parliament here last week that Ball, managing director of Barclays Bank, the country's largest, provided the equivalent of $75,000 to pay for the advertisements in 22 newspapers last month.
Outlawed in 1960
The ads urged that the African National Congress, outlawed in 1960, be restored to legality so that it can participate in solving the deepening crisis over apartheid.
Ball, an outspoken critic of apartheid who has met with African National Congress leaders abroad, strongly denied the allegation. He challenged Botha to repeat the charge outside the protection of Parliament so that he can challenge it with a slander suit.
Bank officials said Barclays' only involvement with the advertisements was a bank draft for about $50,000 provided in a "perfectly normal transaction" at the request of a client. The money was used to pay the lawyer who placed and paid for the ads on behalf of 18 anti-apartheid organizations. Attorneys for the 18 organizations had concluded that the ads were within the law.
Both Krish Naidoo, the lawyer, and the United Democratic Front, a coalition of anti-apartheid groups that organized the one-day advertising campaign, said Ball was not involved in any way and that Barclays acted only as the front's banker in providing the bank draft.
The sponsoring organizations, which included the South African Council of Churches, the National Soccer League, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the National Medical and Dental Assn. and the Call of Islam, shared the cost of the ad, Naidoo said. He added that police investigators were given that information last month when they obtained a copy of the bank draft.
Botha has refused to withdraw the allegation against Ball.
"Rather than contradict the state president," a Botha spokesman said, "Mr. Ball should be contradicting the radical elements who linked Mr. Ball to the advertisements."
After Botha's allegation, Ball began receiving telephone death threats, according to bank spokesmen, and armed guards are now posted around his home.
Six Barclays branch offices were painted with slogans denouncing the African National Congress, and other branches received telephone calls threatening withdrawal of personal and company accounts.
"There is no question that the president's remarks are damaging to the bank," Ball said, while claiming "grass-roots support" from the most recent phone calls. "Some sectors of the population believe everything he says."
As criticism of his action mounted in and out of Parliament, Botha appointed Justice G. G. A. Munnik, president of the Cape provincial Supreme Court, as a one-man judicial commission to investigate who had placed and financed the ads.
From the outset, National Party stalwarts ducked all questions about the issue, either asserting that "the president must have good information" or objecting to opposition "attempts to make political capital" out of the matter.
The controversy nevertheless grew over the weekend with more criticism of Botha, not only from the Progressive Federal Party and the anti-apartheid opposition but also from National Party quarters.
"Mr. Botha should apologize to Mr. Ball--or he should resign," said Johan Rupert, managing director of a large liquor and tobacco business founded by his father, Anton Rupert, a longtime National Party supporter.
"The question is . . . who is next?" Rupert said. "If any businessman disagrees with Mr. Botha, will he, too, be criticized by him in Parliament and not be given an apology if the criticism is unfounded? Mr. Botha's behavior shows an arrogance of 39 years of political power."
Johan van Zyl, executive director of the Federated Chamber of Industries, said: "One assumes faulty information can be sourced back to the security services. This makes one concerned about the quality of the information fed to the state president on all major issues. Certainly, Mr. Chris Ball seems to have had a raw deal, but there are wider implications that make it all very, very worrying."
The Sunday Tribune in Durban declared: "President Botha's hand on the tiller of government appears ever more shaky and uncertain. . . . His smear of Chris Ball . . . as a front man for the African National Congress is astonishing.
"To use the ramparts of parliamentary privilege as a position from which to assault the reputation, damage the business and possibly endanger the life of a prominent critic is, to quote the leader of the opposition, 'disgusting.' "
The Sunday Times, the country's largest selling newspaper, which is usually sympathetic to Botha, said, "It is not only Mr. Ball or Barclays Bank that is on trial, but President Botha and his style of leadership."
The whole affair led Prof. Willem Kleynhans, a retired political scientist from the University of South Africa, to conclude that Botha was trying to direct attention away from the real issues facing the country by focusing on the "growth of Communist influence."
"I think we can expect more of the same," Kleynhans said. "The president is in dire trouble. The people want to know what his policies and plans are, and the moment he spells that out, he will be in trouble with either the left or the right, and so he is avoiding doing that. . . ."