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Reasons for hope in South Africa?

WHITE liberals in South Africa hope that recent defections from the ruling National Party presage the crumbling of apartheid. Skeptics, more bemused than encouraged, doubt that the national election scheduled for May 6 will result in significant losses for the regime that has ruled the country securely since 1948. The electoral balance in South Africa is much more precariously and potentially interesting than at any time since the legalization of apartheid in the 1950s. A significant realignment is possible.

Although South Africa is governed by a state president and a tricameral Parliament, the election in May is for seats in the exclusively white House of Assembly. That chamber selects the executive state president and wields virtually all legislative power. Neither Coloreds nor Asians who elect representatives to their separate and subordinate houses of Parliament will go to the polls this year. Africans are denied the vote entirely.

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Even before President P. W. Botha chose his wife's birthday as the date on which to send whites into the voting booth, a troubled and long conscience-stricken parliamentarian from the left wing of the usually monolithic National Party renounced Mr. Botha's leadership. He accused his President and his party of reneging on real reform. Wynand Malan, an Afrikaner who represents the comparatively enlightened city of Randburg, near Johannesburg, decided to leave the Afrikaner-dominated National Party and run for Parliament as an independent against an official candidate.

Two weeks later Dennis Worrall, South Africa's ambassador to Britain, also criticized the slow pace of official reform and resigned. He was a political appointee, had been a leader in the National Party-controlled President's Council, and earlier represented that party in Parliament. Indeed, Mr. Worrall was the most prominent English-speaking member of that predominantly Afrikaner institution. He plans to contest a seat now held by a prominent Afrikaans-speaking member of the National Party's Cabinet.

Both defections, and the prospects of additional ones from the ``enlightened'' end of the National Party, excite the leaders of the Progressive Federal Party, the House of Assembly's official opposition. The PFP advocates full power sharing with Africans and the rapid dismantling of all aspects of apartheid.

The National Party now controls 127 of the Assembly's 166 elected seats. The PFP - the party of Colin Eglin and Helen Suzman - has 26; its allies of the New Republic Party (NRP), 5; the right-wing Conservative Party (CP), 18; the furthest right Herstigte (reconstructed) National Party (HNP), 1. About 65 percent of the country's white population of 4.7 million are Afrikaners; about 30 percent, English-speakers. The rest speak Portuguese or Greek.

The PFP's current state of energetic euphoria is based on a series of assumptions and calculations that may well prove more optimistic than real. Nevertheless, the party believes that it can keep its present numbers, plus the NRP seats. It has targeted two to 10 other constituencies where a victory is plausible. The PFP will not oppose Mr. Malan. He is considered an ally. Mr. Worrall might also win narrowly. Thus the PFP and its friends could conceivably take 10 to 12 new seats from the National Party. If it does so, and if (as now seems likely) there is no swing toward the extreme right (represented by the CP and the HNP), then, the PFP says, the stage will be set for the first potential realignment of South Africa's ruling establishment. The PFP believes the 30 to 40 Afrikaans-speaking members of the National Party are as ready for fundamental change as Mr. Malan and Mr. Worrall are.

If after the May 6 election the PFP holds 40 seats and the CP and the HNP together hold 20, then the defection of only 26 National Party members would deprive President Botha's followers of their overall majority. By this optimistic, even wild-eyed scenario, apartheid could crumble.

Most analysts think it far fetched, for Afrikaners traditionally vote for the strong, orthodox party during national elections, and Mr. Botha will certainly seek a clear mandate in May. He will campaign against United States-imposed sanctions, and against the guerrillas of the banned African National Congress (ANC).

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Even if Africans regard white elections as irrelevant, as mere rearrangements of proverbial deck chairs on the SS Titanic, the unprecedented exodus of Mr. Malan and Mr. Worrall, the continuing protests by militant blacks against the government and apartheid, and renewed economic difficulties all make May's election a possible watershed. White voters could send signals significant enough to precipitate a major political shift. That in turn would lead to the unbanning of the ANC, the release of Nelson Mandela, its leader, from prison, and meaningful negotiations over genuine power sharing. A new era could dawn.

The operative word is could. On past form, whites will not change. President Botha will obtain his mandate, and violence will follow renewed violence.

Robert I. Rotberg is professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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