Ever since President Pieter Botha suffered a stroke on Jan. 18, a leadership struggle has been gathering momentum in South Africa. Last month, Botha, 73— who is known for his political prowess and imperious style—relinquished leadership of the ruling National Party (NP) while retaining the powerful post of president. But while he convalesced at home, his successor as NP leader, Frederik de Klerk, 53, won the hearts of party faithful with his consensus-building style and declared willingness to negotiate reforms with the country’s disenfranchised black majority. Increasingly, NP members and even progovernment media commentators called on Botha to resign in favor of de Klerk. But when the president appeared on national television on March 12, scolding his colleagues for disloyalty and promising to stay in office until after the next general election, he provoked party members. At a meeting the next day, the 130 NP members of parliament publicly backed
de Klerk to replace Botha as president. It was a stunning personal repudiation of Botha, who has led the ruling party since 1978. But his parliamentary caucus has no constitutional means to fire him. And on March 15, the tenacious president returned to work in Cape Town, showing no signs of compromise. Said one senior NP official, using the nickname that they apply to Botha: “The ‘Great Crocodile’ is going to fight this one out to the end, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he manages to bite a couple of people where they sit before this thing is all over.” At the same time, NP members clearly became alarmed that the rancorous public debate over the leadership might play into the hands of partisan opponents. In that atmosphere, there were no public indications of any direct confrontations when the president attended a closed meeting of his cabinet on Wednesday for the first time in two months. The NP’s caucus leaders did not discuss Botha at their meeting last Thursday and, because they are not due to meet again for at least three weeks, it appeared that the president had won a brief reprieve. Said one analyst: “Botha is the president, and it is de Klerk who has to force him out. If Botha just sits tight, he has the upper hand.”
De Klerk faces a difficult task. The president is elected by parliament, and the constitutional rules provide no mechanism to vote him out of power, short of impeachment on the grounds of moral turpitude or mental incompetence. Neither of those options appeared plausible. One unsavory alternative is to force an election by provoking a constitutional crisis with such strategies as refusing to pass the annual national budget.
Meanwhile, Botha holds most of the cards. Pretoria law professor Marinus Weichers said that Botha “is obliged in terms of the constitution to consult his cabinet, but he does not have to listen to them.” The president also has the power to call the next whites-only election. In his March 12 television interview, Botha said that there would be no election until the end of his mandate in March, 1990. That upset many NP politicians, who expressed concern that a late election could hurt their electoral chances. Not only is the economy expected to take a downturn later this year, but a November election in neighboring Namibia—which is scheduled to achieve independence from South Africa by April, 1990—is likely to result in a government dominated by blacks and hostile to Pretoria.
Observers speculated that de Klerk is most likely to seek a compromise—an election some time before November and a phased transfer of power. Said Stellenbosch University political scientist Willie Breytenbach: “I think de Klerk is going to go for a workable compromise in which Botha stays on as president, but hands a significant part of his political power to the party leader.” But, based on recent experience, de Klerk has no guarantee that the “Great Crocodile” will accept a quiet exit.
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