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South African 'reforms' split ranks of ruling whites

With its towering church steeple and pioneer heritage this small town bespeaks the spirit of white Afrikaner nationalism that has dominated South Africa for 35 years.

Or at least it did until a little over a year ago, when maneuvers by the Nationalist government - the political arm of the Afrikaner community - began sowing doubts.

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''We Afrikaners change very slowly. But I changed when the fear became too great that we (whites) were going to lose our identity as a nation,'' says a local university lecturer.

The change the man is speaking of was his abandonment of the National Party and his joining the far-right Conservative Party. His reason: the government's ''reform'' plan for bringing South Africa's Colored (persons of mixed race descent) and Indian population groups into Parliament with whites.

The ''reforms'' offer nothing to the black majority and are viewed by many as a pragmatic rather than ideological adjustment of government policy to strengthen its position against rising black nationalism.

But to this resident of Louis Trichardt, a basic principle is at stake. Fudging the color line by putting whites and nonwhites in the same Parliament (albeit in separate chambers) is a breaking of faith between the government and the values of the Afrikaners. As far as he is concerned, it is the beginning of the end of the ''white nation.''

Not all whites here are so gloomy. But the unity that has held this community together since its founding in 1898 in honor of Afrikaner ''Voortrekker'' (pioneer) Louis Trichardt is unraveling. In its place are confusion, insecurity, and divisions that reach into individual families.

''We just don't speak,'' says Corrie Uys of her relationship with her sister-in-law. The Uys family, like most of the other 8,000 residents of this town, used to be a solid bloc for the National Party. But the defection of Corrie's sister-in-law to the Conservative Party has split the family.

Some of the political implications of these divisions for the government of Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha will be seen May 10. Voters here and in two other constituencies of the Transvaal Province - considered the conservative heartland of South Africa's Afrikaans-speaking community - go to the polls in parliamentary by-elections.

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Two constituencies - Soutpansberg and Waterberg - will be indicative of how seriously Botha's ''reforms'' have alienated right-wing supporters of the National Party.

In Soutpansberg, where Louis Trichardt is the election focal point, S.P. (Fanie) Botha, the government's most senior Cabinet minister after the prime minister, is bidding for reelection. And as an architect of some progressive labor policies, he is more vulnerable than others standing for election. In Waterberg, the man who broke away from the National Party and formed the Conservative Party last year, Dr. Andries Treurnicht, is seeking reelection.

The government has just introduced a bill in Parliament to enfranchise Coloreds and Indians. But its fate remains clouded by the pending by-elections and Botha's promise to at some later date test the opinions of whites, Coloreds, and Indians on ''reform.''

The legislation has come under attack from parties both on the left and right of the government. In addition to establishing a multiracial, but segregated parliament, the bill calls for a virtually all-powerful executive president. The means of electing the president and the structure of the parliament ensures continued white, Nationalist dominance over the country.

Even National Party officials here concede voters are ''nervous.'' Conversations with local residents indicate many are of two minds over how to interpret the so-called reforms. On the one hand, they appear to violate a basic Nationalist tenet that strict racial separation is the only way to preserve Afrikaner survival in a country where blacks outnumber whites. (Blacks are about 70 percent of the population, vs. 16 percent for whites, 10 percent for Coloreds , and 3 percent for Asians.)

On the other hand, there is the government reassurance that the changes are only ''practical politics'' and will not threaten the position of the white community but will enhance it by giving it a broader political base.

Conservative Party supporters have made up their minds that the government has strayed.

Louis Trichardt's town librarian describes the battle: ''You can see very clearly that it's the forces of light against the forces of darkness,'' she says. Bringing Coloreds and Indians, some of whom are Muslim, into the government will dilute the Christian character of the government, she warns.

Paul Fouche, local Conservative Party campaign manager, says the faster birth rate of the Colored community means ''within 25 years the Colored race will take over'' and rule over whites.

The Afrikaners in this community draw different lessons from the war of independence that brought black rule to Zimbabwe. The Conservative Party says concessions paved the way for the eventual collapse of white rule. Its campaign posters urge voters to ''prevent a second Rhodesia.''

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