South Africa Creeping Doubts About a Support

Botha's defiant stand causes anger and confusion

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Once again, there was an air of expectancy. Under intense pressure, at home and abroad, to lift the gloom created by his refusal a week earlier to indicate any path away from apartheid, P.W. Botha had a chance to clarify his intentions. Some 4,000 young people at the University of Pretoria greeted South Africa's State President with cheers, whistles and applause. But Botha did not budge. Portraying himself as a moderate operating between "radical Communist forces" and "conservative elements who shout murder and fire," he delivered much the same message as he had in his speech to members of the ruling National Party in Durban a week earlier. "Reform does not come overnight," he declared. "We shall not be stampeded into a situation of panic by irresponsible elements. We shall not be forced to sell out our proud heritage."

Botha's continued intransigence only aggravated the disappointment and confusion that his earlier speech had generated. His refusal to make any major concessions was especially puzzling in light of the many hints from senior South African officials that the government would propose major policy changes. The mood of despair was evident in black townships, where at week's end the authorities caused a furor by arresting more than 700 black children, some of them under ten, for not attending school. As violence continued, the death toll for the past month rose to 129.

In the U.S., officials seemed uncertain of what steps to take next. Four years of "constructive engagement," a policy of quiet diplomacy designed to nudge the South African government toward racial reform, have produced few results. Initially, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane urged South Africans to seize upon the vague hints of future reforms in Botha's Durban speech. He suggested that "those leaders on both sides who are looking into the abyss of massive violence" should "challenge this government, ask them to put their money where their mouth is." But later, White House Spokesman Larry Speakes took the unusual step of publicly asking Botha to "clarify" his intentions, adding that "there is a crisis of confidence in South Africa."

The U.S. also seemed uncertain of how to deal with Desmond Tutu, the black Anglican bishop of Johannesburg. When Tutu refused to join a group of leading South African clergymen at a meeting with Botha, the White House publicly scolded him, without referring to him by name. Said Speakes: "A refusal by any party to meet and negotiate only worsens the prospects for understanding in South Africa." A senior State Department official explained that the U.S. has been urging the South African government to negotiate, and "we also have to make the same point with influential leaders like Tutu." But then the Rev. Jerry Falwell, one of Ronald Reagan's strongest supporters, returned from a trip to South Africa and called the bishop "a phony" for claiming to speak for all blacks in that country, a claim Tutu has never made (see RELIGION). Embarrassed by Falwell's outburst, the State Department then praised Tutu as "a recognized black leader, a man of great personal integrity, one of the black community's legitimate spokesmen, a voice of moderation."

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