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S. Africa's Botha: retreating from promised race reform?

A commitment to reform of racial policies is coming home to roost for South African Prime Minister P. W. Botha. He is being pressed on the one hand to back away from those reforms and on the other to get on with the process.

Brilliant lavender jacaranda blossoms have signaled the end of a prolonged winter here in South Africa's capital. But there was a decided chill at the just-ended Transvaal congress of the National Party for the ''adapt or die'' rhetoric Mr. Botha prompted during his first two years in office.

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The Transvaal branch of the ruling National Party is the heart of Afrikaner (Dutch descendants in power) conservatism. This year's congress pressed for renewed commitment from the prime minister on racial segregation, or ''separate development,'' as it is termed by the government.

At the same time, the South African prime minister is bracing for a Nov. 12 meeting with top business leaders who are expected to tug in the other direction for a renewed commitment to a more reformist path.

The business conference is a repeat of a session held in 1979. At that gathering Mr. Botha generated considerable expectations for reform and signaled a willingness to pursue a freer, more open economy. It marked what seemed to be a significant shift from the traditional Afrikaner suspicion of the more liberal , English-dominated business sector.

Business leaders and Transvaal party members represent opposing views, but both are pressing for one thing in common: They want to know just what Mr. Botha now has in mind in the way of reform.

''We are all in complete agreement,'' insisted one loyal National Party delegate at the Transvaal congress. ''It's just that we want some specifics.''

Some political analysts believe few answers will be forthcoming. Since the April parliamentary elections in South Africa, where 30 percent of the white vote went to the far-right Herstigte National Party (Reconstituted National Party or HNP), Mr. Botha has been vague and cautious about what reforms he has in mind.

The reforms are viewed skeptically by many of the nonwhite members of South Africa's population - who cannot vote for members of the central Parliament (they are more than 80 percent of the nation's inhabitants). On the central question of political power, for example, one-man, one-vote is ruled out categorically by the National Party.

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National Party scholar W. A. Kleynhans of the University of South Africa says that for the moment Mr. Botha's ''adapt or die'' philosophy is dead. Explaining the right-wing backlash within the National Party, he says of Mr. Botha: ''He has gone too fast for the party. He never tried to work through the normal formations of the party in developing his policies.''

The result, according to Mr. Kleynhans, is that Mr. Botha ''has maneuvered himself into a position where he has lost the confidence and trust that the Nats (National Party members) must have in their leader.''

Mr. Botha's performance at the Transvaal congress was in sharp contrast to that of the past two years, says Mr. Kleynhans. On previous occasions, Mr. Botha had in a sense ''taken on'' the conservatives in his party over so-called ''petty apartheid'' (enforced racial segregation) issues, like multiracial sharing of urban parks and sports facilities.

Little mention was made of these issues at this year's congress. Mr. Botha gave a fairly conciliatory address, which served to underscore the traditional separate development principles of the National Party.

Indeed, resolutions at the congress pressed for this in requesting ''purposeful and consistent progress in the policy of separate development.'' Another resolution called for a stop to the ''tendency to view the republic as a unitary state, particularly with regard to economic and labor matters'' - a seeming reference to the labor and unionization field, where reform has been most noticeable.

Some members of the business community are concerned that the South African government is now on a path of retreat, abandoning early commitments to reform.

One executive gives Mr. Botha credit for reaching out early in his term for support beyond traditional National Party membership, but wonders now if this attempt at coalition building has been abandoned.

The business sector generally wants reforms that create social stability, which is critical to investments and a healthy business climate. The wanted reforms run from a simple lessening of government red tape to more political power for ''nonwhites.''

In short, supporters of free enterprise often find a segregated, social structure at odds with their goal of a more open economy.

Mr. Botha has had opportunities to strike out on a more reformist path. The government-established President's Council, studying constitutional reform in South Africa, recently recommended returning two neighborhoods in Johannesburg and Cape Town to Indians and Coloreds (persons of mixed race). The proposals were basically rejected.

A high-level government commission recently urged a more open educational policy in South Africa (the nation's schools are segregated), but got a mostly negative response from the government.

Mr. Kleynhans says Mr. Botha's recent actions and his more conservative stance at the Transvaal congress indicate he has ''been brought in line'' with the attitudes of the bulk of the National Party. ''Whether he stays there remains to be seen,'' says Mr. Kleynhans.

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