President Pieter W. Botha, who suffered a mild stroke six weeks ago, announced Thursday that he will return to duty as chief of state later this month, ending weeks of speculation that his retirement was imminent.
The decision by the tough-minded, 73-year-old South African president to remain in office surprised some in the ruling National Party who had called for him to resign so they could begin planning for the future with a new, younger man at the helm.
Last month, Botha seemed to signal his withdrawal from public life by resigning as leader of the National Party. Botha's minister of education, 52-year-old Frederik W. de Klerk, was then elected to lead the party that has ruled South Africa for the last 40 years.
Botha revealed his decision to De Klerk, Acting President Chris Heunis and other Cabinet ministers during a brief visit Thursday to his Cape Town office.
"I informed them I intend to return the week after Easter (March 26)," Botha said in a statement, "to . . . pay attention to matters of the day, such as constitutional adjustments, possible election dates, foreign affairs, security matters and the economy of the country. I will then resume my task as state president."
Botha added that he had made the decision after consulting with his doctors and "taking into consideration the progress I am making concerning my health."
The Citizen, a daily newspaper that often reflects government thinking, reported Thursday that the "general expectation" among government officials was that Botha would step aside soon after returning to the presidency and allow De Klerk to take over before the next general election. The president must dissolve Parliament and call a new general election within the next 12 months.
De Klerk has had a reputation as representing the conservative wing of the National Party, and in recent weeks he has expressed his continued support for racially separate neighborhoods, schools and other facilities for those who want them.
But De Klerk has also stressed his support for the step-by-step apartheid reform program begun by Botha.
"Things will have to change drastically" in South Africa in the coming decade, De Klerk told party supporters at a public meeting Wednesday night. He said the party is still committed to a new constitution offering full participation for all races in South Africa.
Currently, South Africa's 26 million blacks, who account for roughly three-fourths of the population, have no vote in national affairs. Liberal whites as well as anti-apartheid groups believe that the pace of National Party reform is too slow.
If Botha does not step aside, some political analysts say, a split could develop in the party between the president and the party leader.
"For the sake of the National Party, President Botha must give Mr. De Klerk a chance," Hendrik Schoeman, a former Cabinet minister, told the public meeting Wednesday. The National Party leader's "hands are tied if he is not state president," Schoeman added. "We need a young man now."
Botha's decision to return appeared to scuttle, for the time being, talk of an early general election.
Many National Party supporters favored an early election, arguing that the party would be able to capitalize on the general disarray among white liberals and the embarrassing black consumer boycotts that have beset towns controlled by the right-wing Conservative Party, which had been gaining support among whites.