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S. Africa Indians split over plans for new parliament

''Are you ready for the showdown?'' asked the man, raising his voice above the wail of Indian music that filled the arcade of small shops where the two friends met by chance.

''We are very solid,'' answered Indian politician Pat Poovalingam, his voice showing less confidence than his words.

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South Africa's Indian community, first mobilized politically by a young attorney named Mohandas Gandhi, is gearing up for a new political battle. But this time the struggle is not directly against this country's colonial rulers as in Gandhi's time, but within the community itself.

The small but enterprising and politically astute Indian community has been offered a thin slice of power in a new-styled South African government that will no longer be exclusively white. Mr. Poovlaingam, a prominent attorney and chairman of the Indian Solidarity Party, is urging Indians to grab the slice with both hands. The other major Indian party favoring participation is the National People's Party.

But others, like George Sewpershad, president of the Gandhi-founded Natal Indian Congress, is urging Indians to reject the white government's offering not least of which because it excludes blacks.

All Indians are eyeing the issue nervously, knowing that antagonizing South Africa's black majority could be a fateful step leading one day to the kind of persecution Indian minorities have suffered at the hands of black governments elsewhere in Africa.

The way blacks perceive Indians could be greatly affected by the number of Indians that vote on Aug. 28, when they will be allowed to elect representatives to a new parliament.

''Indians feel that in the long run black people are going to control this country,'' says Poovalingam. ''They feel they must not jeopardize their own long-term stake in this country by angering the blacks.''

Yet Poovalingam is convinced that for the next ''two or three decades'' whites will govern South Africa and that meanwhile Indians should ''make use of whatever opportunities are given them.''

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At present, Indians are being offered a chance to elect representatives to a new tricameral parliament that will include separate houses for them, Coloreds (persons of mixed race descent) and whites. Whites will retain ultimate decisionmaking power on all important issues under the new set up. But the Indian and Colored junior partners will have new powers to run their own affairs , as long as they do not impinge on white interests.

The racially divided format of the new parliament is anathema to those who feel South Africa must dismantle apartheid. The new parliament ''brings about racial division in an even more serious form than before,'' says Sewpershad.

He adds: ''the only way to bring an end to violence and have a peaceful society is to start now on a non-racial basis.''

Poovalingam counters that in its own perhaps muddled way, the ruling white National Party is moving away from classic apartheid with the new parliament. He says, ''the white man is saying to Indians and Coloreds ''I will not dominate you any longer.''

Poovalingam acknowledges that the white rulers are not extending the same rights to blacks. But he believes Indians and Coloreds - if they select the right people to go to parliament - can press more effectively inside government rather than outside it for black inclusion.

''There must be black participation in parliament, otherwise this experiment will definitely not succeed,'' Poovalingam says.

The white government has stated emphatically that there will not be a fourth chamber in parliament for blacks.

''But the government once said they would never give Indians political rights. Now they're doing it,'' says Poovalingam.

There are about 870,000 Indians in South Africa, comprising just over 3 percent of the population. Most Indians today are South African-born, the descendants of indentured laborers who came from India to South Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s to work on sugar estates.

The vast majority of Indians live in the sugar-cane growing Natal province. Here in Natal's main city of Durban, Indians have established a thriving merchant community on the edge of the city's central business district.

The Indian community was once regarded mainly as a political nuisance in South Africa, with the government passing an ''Indian Relief Act'' in 1927 that offered cash payments to Indians who agreed to return to India. The response was poor and the incentive scheme was eventually abandoned.

Even today Indians are not allowed to reside in South Africa's central province, the Orange Free State.

Indians are not as restricted by South Africa's separatist policies as blacks are.

But the so-called Group Areas Act, which segregates residential communities, has forced Indians into poorer neighborhoods and sometimes far from the city centers where they work.

Politically Indians began forging closer links with blacks in the 1950s.

Indians joined blacks, Coloreds, and some whites in an anti-government political alliance which drew up the Freedom Charter in 1955. It was a political manifesto calling for a ''democratic'' South Africa.

The main group endorsing the Freedom Charter was the black nationalist African National Congress, now banned in South Africa.

The Natal Indian Congress, founded by Gandhi in 1894, was one of the organizations that helped draw up the Freedom Charter. And Natal Indian Congress leader Sewpershad says in trying to woo Indians into parliament ''the government is trying to break the unity'' of Indians and blacks.

Indian voters massively rejected the last political body offered them by the white government. Elections for the South African Indian Council in 1981 turned out less than 11 percent of the eligible voters.

But the council was an advisory body and the coming elections are for parliament - a fact supporters hope will encourage a higher poll.

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