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New plan in South Africa

Constructive governmental stirrings in South Africa come at the same time as new heat on the regime in the pressure cooker of international opinion. A proposal for white power-sharing with Indian and Colored (mixed-race) South Africans may look like the merest tokenism. But it is remarkable in the apartheid context of legalized racial discrimination. Acceptance of it would acknowledge a principle of rights to representation not limited to whites. The results could begin to turn down the international pressure.

As it is, South Africa faced setbacks abroad last week even as it started to grapple with the proposed reforms at home.

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In Tanzania a meeting of the United Nations' Council on Namibia called for sanctions against South Africa along with a new conference to end South Africa's rule of Namibia in defiance of the UN.

In the United States the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a foreign aid amendment to thwart the Reagan administration's effort to lift a restriction on military aid to South Africa. It was such administration gestures that led the UN meeting in Tanzania to criticize the US for ''collaborating with the racist regime in South Africa.''

Would the South African regime become less racist under the new proposals? The fear that it would has brought immediate attack from far-right politicians who had already defected from the ruling National Party over the issue of possible reform.

But opponents of racism were not rejoicing either. They understandably noted the hollowness of a power-sharing proposal that would still exclude South Africa's black majority--20 million in contrast with 4.5 million whites, 3.5 million Coloreds, and 800,000 Indians. They do not buy the government's position that black South Africans, unlike Indians and Coloreds, already have representation in their theoretically self-governed homelands. There is a suspicion the intent is to win the allegiance of the Indians and Coloreds to curb present tendencies for some of them to join with the blacks against white domination. Certainly the end of apartheid cannot be celebrated until the majority has the full opportunity for representation specifically denied in the proposals.

These have been offered by the President's Council, a multiracial advisory body without black membership. They suggest a changed form of government with such a strong presidency that warnings of potential dictatorship have been heard from both left and right. Indians and Coloreds would be eligible for the cabinet. They could vote. Eventually they would have legislative representation.

Too little too late, some say. So vague in calling for reform without spelling it out that it could be counterproductive, some say.

But when all the objections are made, something is on the table for South Africa that has not been there before. The details may not be so important as a movement of attitudes away from the rigid assumptions of apartheid.

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