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Rural whites feel betrayed by Botha

Sometimes Abraham Rootman gazes out across his 400 acres of corn and cattleland and has a shuddering vision: that 50 years from now, a traveler will happen by and say, ``You know, white men used to live in these parts.'' For Mr. Rootman, South Africa's May 6 election is a matter of white survival. And for the first time in his 63 years, he fears entrusting that survival to the incumbent National Party.

He is not alone. Thousands in this drought-weary area, once as firmly tied to the NP as to their land, feel President Pieter W. Botha's piecemeal retreat from the apartheid system of racial segregation spells the beginning of the end of life as they know it.

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Many are waiting for election day to strike back - by voting for the Conservative Party (CP), a right-wing NP breakaway, or for the more conservative Herstigte Nasionale Party.

``In Johannesburg, things may be different,'' says a shopowner here. ``But here, politics is serious business. There are different opinions,'' he says. ``But all in all, this is CP country.''

President Botha is fighting back hard. It is here where he chose to kick off his campaign two nights ago - backing a young NP novice's battle to take a seat away from Fred Hartzenburg, one of the NP veterans to cross the floor of Parliament shortly after the last white election to form the CP. (The Herstigte Nasionale Party polled a third of the vote here in that election.)

Meeting some 1,000 party faithful here, Mr. Botha warned that the CP could promise only chaos. He said hope lay in a course of reform without ``surrender.'' But the emphasis was on the second item: He omitted all mention of earlier hints at softening residential segregation laws - a central CP concern.

Then Botha added a pledge that the CP, with 17 seats in the 178-member Parliament, could not possibly come up with the emergency credit and drought aid that had been doled out by the NP.

``I am the son of a corn farmer,'' he told them. ``I cannot forget the effects of drought. Why would I turn my back on you? ``But you,'' he added, smiling, as the crowd broke into applause, ``mustn't turn your backs on me!''

Piet Steinman - one-time NP chairman in town, and now senior CP organizer - snickers in reply. ``Why does P.W. Botha come make promises like this only after six years of drought?'' he asks.

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He, like most of the nearly 20,000 voters in Lichtenburg and nearby towns, are Dutch-rooted Afrikaners. The rains, he noted as the biggest stormburst since the late 1970s pelted the windows, have returned. But they've come too late and too patchily for an overall good harvest this year - though some farmers will do well.

Rootman is among the fortunate. But that, he says, is not the point. The great-grandson of a farmer who came here about 150 years ago, he grew up with the belief that racial separation was the only way of ensuring the white man's future on the land he had developed. Blacks, the ideology argued, would also get political rights - but as members of separate tribal nations, linked to separate rural homelands.

The NP still feels that way. But since Botha's accession as party chief in 1978, it has retreated from some facets of segregation, such as a ban on mixed marriages.

In 1982, Botha brought mixed-race ``coloreds'' and Indians into separate parliamentary chambers and, more recently, proposed some form of consultative ``power sharing'' for blacks.

``We feel that the principles on which the NP was built remain relevant,'' says Rootman. ``As soon as you start in on power-sharing - in that you, the whites, are in a tiny minority - you must ask yourself what is the end point?'' He feels sooner or later it means black dominance.

Rootman says he has spent days reasoning through South Africa's future - and sharing his reasoning with a lot of his friends in the NP. True, he says, Zimbabwean whites have lost political power without losing land or economic status. ``But they have a back door: South Africa. If something goes wrong, they can come here. Can you show me my back door?''

Many of his NP friends, he says, have stayed with the NP because it promotes Afrikaner interests, without probing issues raised by Botha's change of course.

``But when you look at the issues, it is clear that the only difference between the [liberal opposition] PFP and the NP is that one says they'll go 120 kilometers down the road and the other 80. The end of the road is the same. And the important thing is that we cannot afford to make a mistake. Once you have, you can't turn back the clock.''

Neither Rootman nor leading CP officials expect to unseat the NP on May 6. Predictions vary - especially in light of the fact that the leaders of the CP and Herstigte Nasionale Party have so far spent more time fighting themselves than the NP. But in Lichtenburg - the largest single source of CP funding in the country - Rootman says even if there is a split in the right-wing vote, NP chances of victory are slim.

This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.

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