The administration is trying to find something upbeat and encouraging in South African President P. W. Botha's speech delivered in Durban yesterday. You need a magnifying glass to do so, and even then the result isn't convincing. Nobody expected Mr. Botha to smack his head and exclaim, "Egad! We suddenly realize the whole system is wrong and we are going to change it!" Everyone knew that even if he were going to try to take the necessary substantial steps toward equity and racial peace he would have to do so in such a way as to protect himself within his own political constituency. But no one could have expected this either: an angry, abusive, menacing tirade, full of self-pity and self-deception and bravado. It was a reckless speech and an insulting one.
The insult was first to the black majority of his country. Mr. Botha speaks with a stunning lack of even minimal sensitivity to what the uproar is about. He applauds himself for his own "patience" in the face of provocation by people who have been denied their dignity and freedom of movement and right of political expression. He does not notice their patience or the incredible irony of his complimenting himself on his own. He concedes practically nothing. Yesterday Mr. Botha's concessions -- if they could even be called that -- were elusive and elliptical, vague statements of intention and principle that turned up in the bombast and which you could interpret as you pleased.
Mr. Botha also insulted Ronald Reagan and his administration. He showed what he thinks of the administration's prolonged and recently intensified efforts to get Pretoria off its destructive course. He made his American interlocutors look foolish, as if they had been had. This is a particular knack of the South African government. They are possibly the most skillful group in the world at undermining their own interests and undercutting those who could help them. They have a positive genius at accepting sensible counsel 10 years too late and complaining bitterly about those who suggested it in the first place and resisting what ought to be done at the moment. Meanwhile the train is heading for the cliff.
The worst of what Mr. Botha has done is to deny sufficient help to those in South Africa who are themselves looking for a controlled process, as distinct from a violent, anarchic one, to undo the apartheid system. Bishop Tutu speaks for them, although he is far from the only one. These people have been rebuffed and humiliated by Mr. Botha, who seems to go out of his way to demonstrate that their brand of protest gets you next to nowhere. Mr. Botha solicits all our gratitude -- and theirs -- for hinting that he might relax some of the most odious and oppressive features of the laws he and his constituents have imposed. He warns that the government will adopt "stronger measures" if pressed. He tells the world to butt out. Optimist that he is, not even Ronald Reagan should be able to take comfort from that.