South Africa: looking for changes

The past month news about South Africa calls to those within and outside this troubled land who want to see racist policies changed peacefully to forestall the increasingly predicted change through violence.

At the moment peaceful change is represented by halting and half-way measures. But, in relation to what has gone before, some of these are "almost breathtaking," to use an on-the-spot observer's phrase for the white government's move toward multiracial politics through its newly established President's Council.

At the same time, there seems a growing disposition for private and public institutions abroad to cast what political and economic weight they have on the side of encouraging progress against racial discrimination in South Africa. In the United States, for example, some states place restrictions on investing state funds in companies doing business in South Africa. Recently the Connecticut legislature went so far as to require the withdrawal of any state money invested in firms that do business in South Africa without agreeing to follow a code of equal employment practices there. The state treasurer reportedly favored the law because "it strengthens our policy of doing business only with companies that show corporate responsibility" and "corporations that totally disregard the social issues of our time tend to depreciate their investment value over the long run."

The argument continues over whether the withdrawal of all American business from South Africa would help or hurt racial progress. It has been favored as outweighing any economic disadvantages for the black majority by constituting a clear rejection of support for -- and cheap-labor benefits from -- a discriminatory system. When US civil rights leader Andrew Young was United Nations ambassador, he said he respected religious or other groups who withdrew investment on moral grounds -- but he supported economic involvement as potentially a positive force. He criticized American corporations at that time for not doing as well as European ones in equal employment practices.

Improvements have taken place. according to the Rev. Leon Sullivan, a Baptist minister and General Motors director, workplace discrimination has been completely eliminated by three-quarters of the 140 American firms signing the so-called Sullivan principles on equal employment -- the code specified by Connecticut. Some companies have "adopted" schools and provided funds to improve them.

But, after a trip to South Africa last month, Mr. Sullivan took to task some 200 remaining US firms in South Africa that have not subscribed to the equal employment principles. He warned that American companies "are moving at the pace of a possum when they should be moving at the pace of a hare."

It may be true that US firms employ only 1 percent of the black work force, and that South Africa is achieving a degree of self-sufficiency permitting resistance to outside influences. But it is unconscionable for any US- employed individuals to be discriminated against as they would not be in the firm's US locations. And some in South Africa argue that American efforts could help to nudge improvement forward in other companies.

The expansion of jobs open to blacks, for example, already astonishes South African old-timers. And the political steps pursued by Prime Minister Botha should not be minimized, however much they are seen as too small in relation to the challenge.

For instance, it seems futile to have a multiracial President's Council to help find a path to constitutional change without including representatives of the black majority. But even to admit Asians and mixed-race Coloreds is a departure. And Mr. Botha deserves credit for persisting in trying to recruit them in the face of opposition from both left and right.

Another example of inching toward realism is Mr. botha's recognition that the long dream of turning black tribal areas into economically viable "homelands" cannot work. This should not be ignored amid doubts raised by his going on to speak as if the areas could be developed as viable political entities.

And not be overlooked is the recent antidiscrimination law opening to all races such gathering places as restaurants and hotels in Namibia, which South Africa continues to rule in defiance of the United Nations.

The skepticism invited by any regime that remains set against avenues toward genuine majority rule must not be allowed to negate the ameliorating initiatives that could help create a climate for further progress.

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