The National Party caucus has closed ranks in the belief that it has nothing to gain from an open leadership conflict between President PW Botha and party leader FW de Klerk. MPs say the caucus and the party's federal council have made their decision – that Botha should go and De Klerk should become state president – and the issue should be resolved behind closed doors to- the best advantage of government and party. This mood, however, is partly a rationalization by the party leadership after Botha surprised everybody by simply ignoring the caucus decision.
Major newspapers predicted the leadership issue would be discussed at Wednesday's cabinet meeting – Botha's first since his stroke- but the matter was apparently not even raised. And there was no statement after yesterday's caucus meeting, which Botha did not attend. Botha because of Botha' s lack of response and the feeling that the party has been damaged by recent events, the NP leadership has now decided to play down the matter. It seems the government has decided to try and shelve the issue until after the Easter recess- hoping a satisfactory resolution can be negotiated without the glare of media attention.
The MPs hope Botha has finally got the message that they want him to hand over- and that he will withdraw in a dignified manner. They also believe that without constant media pressure, Botha may comply, because the party's two senior committees have made such a request. The major problem is Botha himself, who up to now has been determined to remain in office. Fortunately for the government, it has some time in hand. No important debates are planned before Easter. After that, the individual votes in the "general affairs" budget will be debated and one of the. first will be the state president's vote. Opposition parties would like the leadership issue to remain unresolved until then, as they would be able to exploit the conflict. It would be surprising, although not unthinkable, for the government to oblige. But these are difficult times for the NP, and if Botha starts making decisions that obviously challenge or sidestep De Klerk, wounds could be reopened and the conflict intensified. It is generally accepted that the constitutional impasse is in some measure a result of flaws in South Africa's 1983 "tricameral" consitution.
Observers have called it a "strange amalgam of the Westminster and presidential systems, creating an executive presidency which was really a premiership in all but name, being elected in effect by the majority party." Botha prompted the ongoing constitutional deadlock by relinquishing the party leadership, thus breaking the tradition of the ruling party chief also being president. Thus a situation has arisen in which the party does not want the post separated but can do little to shift Botha short of Impeachment – and that would require proof of impropriety.
*EDDIE KOCH reports that Foreign Minister Pik Botha's surprise meeting with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in London this week is seen as an astute attempt by her to brace De Klerk in his challenge. Tory MP Tim Rathbone, who plays a pivotal role in a "liberal" Tory pressure group on South Africa, told the Weekly Mail he would be "very surprised" if Thatcher had not used the occasion to bolster De Klerk's ''reformist" supporters. Thatcher insisted the time had come for the release of Nelson Mandela, and called for the beginning of negotiations with representatives of all groups in South Africa. The meeting, the first top-level contact between the two governments since 1986, was followed by a dinner with Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe. It is believed the warm reception given was designed to offer the bait of increased sympathy in return for further domestic reform. Another factor behind the importance attached to Pik Botha's visit was Thatcher's desire to be briefed on developments in the subcontinent, especially in Mozambique, in advance of her tour of the frontline-states later this month.
This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.