October 8, 1982

October 8, 1982 | Backgrounder on Africa

The U.S. and Racial Reform in South Africa


(Archived document, may contain errors)

218 October 8, 1982 THE US. AND RACIAL REFORM IN SOUTH AFRICA INTRODUCTION I I I White South Africa now stands at a political crossroads, I i uncertain whether to take the first tentative steps down the westward path toward racial reform or to r einstitute classic apartheid-while retreating into international isolation. The fierce debate over this issue is splitting South Africa's ruling National Party in a way unparalleled in the history of the Repub lic. The modest reform proposals supported by Prime Minister P.W. anti-reform movement suggest that the opponents of racial reform may yet carry the day I I I I Botha of'the National Party have unearthed a powerful of some of the Prime Minister's original supporters in parliament I I I The results of a recent by-election and the wavering The outcome of the South African debate is of momentous importance for the United States. The Reagan Administration has abandoned the Carter confrontational approach to the Republic but still asserts that racial refor m is the price for continuing and improving Pretoria's relations with Washington. More immediately the weakening of the Botha government could threaten the outcome of the Namibian independence negotiations, upon which the Reagan Administration has staked m uch of its African policy prestige It clearly serves U.S. interests, therefore, to demonstrate support for the South African reform program. By so doing Washington also could assist the National Party during its current crisis.

Demonstrating support would not be difficult. The Administra tion, for example, could grant licenses for the sale of U.S marine reconnaissance aircraft to the Republic or arrange a meeting between President Reagan and Prime Minister Botha. 2 Failure to act at this critical juncture w ill leave the U.S open to charges of hypocrisy. Having pressed for change for so long, Washington cannot now seem to turn its back on the first glimmerings of racial reform in South Africa THE REFORM PROPOSALS i In May 1982, the President's Council, the P r ime Minister's I nominated advisory body on constitutional matters, unveiled its long-awaited report on constitutional reform. The Council recom mended that South Africa reject the central constitutional precept of the apartheid system, which has dominate d South African politics since 1948: that whites alone had the right to vote and to be directly represented in the central government. Beyond that, its proposals were relatively modest, reflecting the composition of the Council, which was made up of white, Colored, and Asian members, with no black representation. The Council proposed to enfranchise South Africa's 800,000 Asians and 3.5 million Coloreds people of mixed race Once this were done, the white, Asian and Colored electorates each would be represent e d in separate houses of a new, tricameral parliament. Policy differences between the three houses would be settled by a Permanent Select Committee representing all three racial groups. In the event of a Select Committee deadlock, the dispute would be deci d ed by the President's Council. South Africa's Asians and Coloreds would emerge as full citizens of their country, casting off the second class status that the National Party had forced upon them after South African independence in 1948 of U.S. aspirations . They ignore South Africa's 18 million black majority. The parliament envisioned by the President's Council will not be racially integrated, and whites will continue to wield the bulk of political power. Also unreformed are controver sial aspects of apart h eid that still affect both the Asian and Colored communities, such as the Group Areas Act (restricting areas of residence according to race) and the Mixed Marriages Act outlawing all interracial marriage These reforms are scarcely comprehensive and fall f a r short It would be a mistake, however, to disregard the Council's proposals. The very fact that white South African society is openly' discussing power sharing with any non-white group represents a giant step forward. The Prime Minister, moreover, has ac k now ledged openly that these projected reforms are only a first step toward broader and deeper changes in South Africa. Further reforms probably will be introduced before the Council's proposals are implemented communities dare not risk seeming to betray the interests of their own constituencies or of the moderate black leaders, such as Chief Buthelezi, who have been their traditional allies.

Therefore they will press for further concessions as the price for Colored and Asian entry into the new constitutional system.

Since P.W. Botha has staked his prestige upon the acceptance of The representatives of the Colored and Asian 3 the reform proposals, it seems likely that some of these conces sions will be granted.

REACTION TO THE PROPOSALS The fierce political reaction triggered by the proposals demonstrates conclusively that Mr. Botha has pushed his reform program to the current bounds of political feasibility in South Africa.

Arguments over constitutional reform already had split the National Party two months before the President's Council officially released its findings. Dr. Andries Treurnicht an ultraconser vative Cabinet minister and head o f the most powerful of the National Party's four provincial organizations, based in the Transvaal, openly attacked the Prime Minister in February.

Treurnicht asserted that Botha deliberately was undermining white supremacy in South Africa while pursuing a policy that aimed ultimately at racial integration. At least twenty National Party M.P.Is appeared ready to leave the party with Treurnicht, and it was believed that his support in the Transvaal provincial Congress was particularly strong.

Treurnicht, ho wever, has never been a skilled party politi cian. On the other hand, the Prime Minister, who rose to promi nence in the National Party's Cape organization, is a consummate manipulator.of the party's political machine. At a March 1982 meeting of the Trans v aal.Congress of the National Party, Botha defeated Treurnicht by 172 votes to 36, expelling Treurnicht and seventeen of his most dedicated supporters from the National Party. They then formed an anti-reform opposition movement, the Conservative Party 1 De s pite P.W. Bothals show of strength at the Transvaal Congress, many National Party M.P.'s remained suspicious of his reform proposals. His triumph at the Congress should not be equated with broad popular support for his program. of the Cape Province, Botha is distrusted in the Transvaal, the heart of National Party strength. He suffers further from having risen to the Prime Ministership in the wake of the "Muldergatel scandal, which removed from power both former Prime Minister John Vorster and his designat e d successor, Conhie Mulder. Consequent ly, many white Afrikaaner and English voters believe that Botha's advancement was fortuitous and undeserved. They felt vindicated in this view when the new Prime Minister asserted harshly that white South Africans mu s t learn to "reform or die As a native The August by-election in Germiston, a suburb of Johannesburg, demonstrates that the Prime Minister's position is not strong. The National Party fell far short of an overall majority. The traditional far right-wing op position Herstigte Nasionale Partei received 1,638 votes, the new Conservative Party 3,559, and the National Party 3,8

67. Had the head of the H.N.P Jaap Marais, 4 a Y.1 and Treurnicht formed some sort of working alliance, as would seem possible in the fut ure, the anti-reform movement would have won a commanding victory. And, had the official opposition, the liberal Progressive Federal Party, fielded a candidate, it most likely would have attracted sufficient votes away from the National Party to assure a Conservative victory particularly ominous since P.F.P. leader Van Zyl Slabbert refuses to support the reform proposals of the President's Council on the grounds that they do nothing for the nationls black majority.

Should the P.F.P. maintain this stance an d run candidates in future elections, it could woo enough voters away from the National Party to ensure the victories of anti-reform candidates This possibility is Other aspects of the Germiston by-election are equally disturbing. Support for the two anti -reform parties cuts across both class and ethnic boundaries. White-collar workers and professionals were no less opposed to reform than the traditional ly conservative blue-collar sector registered dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister's program.

Most s urprisingly, in a nation of voracious news readers, the Conservatives and H.N.P. polled their joint majority without the endorsement of a single major newspaper. All of these factors seem to point to a deep-seated anti-reform sentiment in the Transvaal En glish and Afrikaaner alike The Prime Minister's position thus appears considerably weaker after Germiston. National Party M.P.'s ill at ease with reform now will prove less reluctant to express their opposition.

If future by-elections confirm a rising tide of Conservative support, some National Party members certainly will be tempted to defect to Treurnicht, if only to guarantee reelection in their constituencies. The next test comes in November at the by elections at Parys in the Orange Free State, Stelle nbosch in Cape Province, and Walvis Bay in South-West Africa. National Party defeats there--or even narrow victories--could prompt serious defections from National Party ranks and weaken the re form movement.

CONCLUSION WHAT THI s MEANS FOR THE U.S.

What role should the U.S. play in this unfolding drama? To be sure, racial reform in South Africa is fundamentally a domestic question, to be resolved by South Africans themselves. Overt foreign pressure for reform typically has had the effect of strengthening South Africa's anti-reform sentiments other hand, the U.S. cannot ignore the.situation. While pressure for further reform probably would prove counterproductive, Washing ton nonetheless could bolster the National Party image by recog nizing that the Party is engaged in a reform process at some cost to itself. This would enhance Bothals prestige and defuse the Conservative argument that it does not pay to try to win U.S approval as Washington will settle for nothing less than the immediate establishment of a one man, one vote unitary state On the 5 How can such U.S. support be expressed? One very useful measure would be for the Reagan Administration to license the sale of marine reconnaissance aircraft to South Africa. The few aging South African Shackletons (converted World War I1 Welling ton bombers) that still fly out of Simonstown naval base are far too old and unsophisticated to perform the key tasks of tracking shipping around the Cape of Good Hope and of performing air-sea rescue operations for distres s ed shipping. More important, the vintage Shackletons have become a focus of South African national consciousness, a symbol of the Republic's determination to carry out its security responsibilities despite its international isolation. Replacement of the S hackletons by Lockheed PC-3 Orions, or by the modified Boeing 737 currently being considered by the U.S. Coast Guard, would have considerable impact in South Africa, probably vastly exceeding the nature of the concession itself.

These U.S. aircraft, moreov er, could play no role in helping Pretoria to maintain apartheid or to deal with black opposition either at home or abroad. The Boeing 737 is clearly a civilian aircraft. The Orion, meanwhile, is a superior reconnaissance aircraft that is slow moving, wit h little maneuverability. It boasts extremely long-range and sophisticated radar and electronic equipment, but could not be used against South Africa's neighbors, since its low speed makes it vulnerable even to the most primitive fighter aircraft or ground to air missile. Moreover since neither the Africa National Congress (the chief violent anti-government movement in South Africa), the South-West Africa People's Organization (the armed opposition to the South African presence in Namibia), nor any of South Africa's neighbors have much naval capacity, marine reconnaissance aircraft would not strengthen the white government's hand in dealing with its oppo nents.

A crisis point will be reached in South Africa, should Prime Minister Botha abandon his reform policy or South Africa's new Conservative Party win power. In either event, it then will be too late for Washington to influence the course of events in South A frica. The U.S. and South Africa will be on a collision course on racial questions and, in the event of Treurnicht's success on the Republic's relations with its neighbors as well.

To avoid this, the U.S. must demonstrate support for the reform process bef ore such gestures become irrelevant. While the sale of marine reconnaissance aircraft or similar concessions may not guarantee the success of South African racial reform, it will enable Washington to assert that it fulfilled its moral obligation to assist the course of reform in South Africa. The U.S at least, will have tried.

Ian Butterfield Policy Analyst

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