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An Ides of March Drama in S. Africa

<i> Anthony Hazlitt Heard is the former editor of the Cape Times newspaper in South Africa. </i>

When I tuned in to the state-controlled radio to find out who was running South Africa, there was studious avoidance of the high drama playing itself out here.

Radio news, frequently browbeaten by government, tends to wait for bulletins from on high and not to speculate dangerously.

The closest thing I heard on the radio broadcasts that amounted to recognition that there was a government crisis over who leads the country--President Pieter W. Botha or National Party leader Frederick W. de Klerk--was the sound of a very funny record. It was called “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga.” After all, it was the Ides of March, and Brutuses abounded as Botha defied his party, determined to rule in spite of his two-month absence after suffering a stroke, and despite De Klerk’s election as party leader this week. After the record, a heavy voice whispered, “Beware . . . ,” and the announcer added: “Emperors have a habit of falling.”

But will Botha follow Caesar, politically speaking? And how? This is the question as the drama plays itself out.

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People are, indeed, stunned, intrigued or amused--depending on their allegiances--by the battle royal between Botha and De Klerk. Without warning, the event has thrust the country into a new political situation. Strangely, ultra-rightist Eugene Terre Blanche, usually a Botha critic, offered him support, explaining that he was “less bad” than De Klerk. With friends like that, does Botha need enemies?

The outcome of the battle could powerfully determine the direction of the reform process. Whether a South African government without Botha could draw significant black support remains to be seen; but under Botha, it is certainly not possible, in my view.

The controversy comes as new initiatives for a reformed society are being tentatively considered in authoritative quarters--including a remarkably liberal proposal by the government-appointed South African Law Commission favoring a legally enforceable bill of rights. This, the commission says, would have to be based on votes for everyone over 18, including blacks, and the abolition of all discriminatory laws.

There are other signs of reform. There is a significant thaw in relations between the white and black Dutch Reformed churches, based on the former’s repudiation of apartheid and on sustained government support for internationally agreed independence in Namibia. The Soviets’ reluctance to give much military backing to the guerrilla movement, the African National Congress, completes a new picture favoring peaceful change.

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With Botha away, new, conciliatory sounds have been emanating from the ruling party’s spokesmen, confirming the prospect of a more enlightened era ahead without Botha. He is increasingly being seen as the major block in the way of reform, in spite of his protestations to the contrary.

By skillfully using TV, press interviews and the tactical release of correspondence demonstrating his determination to rule, the embattled 73-year-old Botha has gone over the head of his party in an apparent attempt to seek support from the public at large. His inexplicable blunder was in relinquishing his critical power base, the leadership of his National Party, which has always gone with leadership of the country.

The party, in effect, has told Botha to resign and make way for De Klerk. He must choose whether to go gracefully.

In theory, Botha can operate independent of the party until next March by which time elections must be held. (The new president would be the nominee of the party’s caucus, which supports De Klerk.) At least until the election, Botha could attempt to rule the country using the power base of advisers and security forces that he has built up over the years.

As if in preparation for this, Botha turned his relatively limited post of prime minister into a powerful executive president in 1984. He can, in theory, suspend the constitution and rule by decree.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Botha can brazen it out in open revolt against the party he has served for 50 years. The process of passing legislation involves a symbiotic relationship between president and the ruling National Party. The prospect of up to a year’s deadlock, marked by national drift and decay, is almost unthinkable. The right-wing Conservative Party would greatly exploit the situation.

Those in the party Establishment, including some of Botha’s most loyal friends, are likely to press him to withdraw gracefully (in moves reminiscent of Sen. Barry Goldwater’s pressure on President Richard Nixon to resign).

The nub of the dispute is that the party has firmly set its will against Botha’s notion that the position of party leader (De Klerk) should be separated from that of president (Botha). Clearly, the party wants De Klerk to hold both posts, and soon.

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But short of the politically messy process of impeaching him, or refusing to pass his budget--courses that ironically would have to be supported by the mixed-blood “Colored” and ethnic-Asian “Indian” houses of the three-chamber Parliament--it is difficult to see what constitutional procedure can be used to ease him out.

Hence, there are strong new indications in the government-supporting press that party diplomacy and not confrontation must solve the problem.

One thing is clear: Unless--and until--the ruling party sorts out its leadership problem, government reforms of apartheid will languish.


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