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South Africa's whites vote for limited 'reform'; blacks say it hardens race divide

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The white minority of South Africa has embarked on a path of so-called ''reform'' amid strong criticism from blacks that it is a dangerous false start. But considered important here is the fact that at least the concept of reform has been endorsed by this deeply conservative and anxious white population. This has altered the white political landscape, introducing some fluidity to a previously fossilized situation.

Whites have overwhelmingly - by about 2 to 1 - endorsed a new constitution that is a mixed bag of softening racial divisions at the periphery while apparently hardening them at the core.

The constitution breaks the color bar at the central government level by bringing Coloreds (persons of mixed race descent) and Indians into the all-white Parliament. But whereas blacks have been excluded from Parliament by law, they are now shut out constitutionally.

Critics, especially blacks, charge that the net effect of the new constitution is to strengthen, rather than weaken, apartheid.

Nonetheless, the 66 percent of the whites that supported the new constitution clearly perceived it as an act of ''reform.''

Analysts see the main implications of the vote as:

* Favorable world reaction arising from an impression that South Africa's whites are willing to move toward a more just society. Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha predicted voter approval of the constitution would have a ''big influence internationally.'' Pretoria has keenly sought a favorable overseas response, partly to ensure continued flow of Western investment.

* Perhaps a more durable power base for the white Afrikaner government.

* A further ''radicalizing'' of the black majority, which is already undergoing a political revival in opposition to what it sees as its final exclusion by whites.

The position of the banned African National Congress, which claims violence is the only remaining means of obtaining political rights, could be enhanced.

* The strengthened leadership position of Prime Minister Botha, who has carved out a broader middle ground in white politics. He is expected to be emboldened to continue on his ''reform'' path, although within the confines of apartheid.

Botha was pleased with the vote. ''It is such an overwhelming result,'' he told a press conference, that the government felt ''strengthened'' to ''go further with proper reform.''

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