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SOUTH AFRICAN President Pieter W. Botha's commutation of the death sentences of six black nationalist leaders, known as the Sharpeville Six, in the wake of worldwide protests is an indication that his government is not wholly indifferent to world opinion.

The government made a similar gesture in easing the restrictions on ailing black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela, a focus of black African and worldwide concern since his imprisonment in 1962.

In addition, South Africa recently agreed to a plan that could lead to the independence of neighboring Namibia, and it has improved ties with other black nations.

Unfortunately, these moves, while welcome, do not signify any basic change in South Africa's white supremacist policies but rather an effort to pacify public opinion abroad while holding the line at home.

The Pretoria government drew headlines with a hint that Mandela may not be returned to prison, but at the same time, it convicted four non-violent black leaders of treason. They face a possible death sentence.

Their trial was notable for the lack of any evidence of treason. They committed no violence, and while they were accused of stirring anti-government protests, their opposition was of a peaceful nature. The U.S. State Department called the four "highly regarded spokespersons for peaceful black oppo sition to the injustices brought by apartheid."

Such black leaders could have played an important role if enlisted by Botha in a national dialogue to seek compromises and solutions to the nation's festering racial problems.

Mandela, leader of the outlawed African National Congress and nationalist symbol, could be a key to leading South Africa through a difficult transition.

Instead, while Mandela may not be returned to prison, he is likely to remain in custody after he recovers from tuberculosis, exchanging one kind of prison for another and barred from speaking out in the cause of justice.

Repressive as the Botha government is, it has come under attack from the leading opposition Conservative Party, composed of hard-line Afrikaners who seek even harsher measures to maintain racial separation.

While Botha has a large parliamentary majority, the Conservatives demonstrated their sizable support in the recent municipal elections, in which they made large gains, especially in rural areas. Botha thus has the problem of trying to appease this growing opposition on his right.

Thus, Botha continues his confused policy of conciliation abroad and repression at home. And the leaders of the overwhelming black majority remain silenced, political prisoners of the white supremacist government.

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