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By Gary ThatcherStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 16, 1980


Shortly after his election as the new United States President, Ronald Reagan told reporters his administration will place less emphasis on human rights -- and more emphasis on countering the Soviet Union.

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His words rebounded around the world. To the white minority rulers of the Republic of South Africa they are like music. For four years, the government here has chafed under President Jimmy Carter's criticism of racial discrimination.

Now the South African government sees in the election of Ronald Reagan a possible entree back into the Western world.

In the wake of the US election, the Johannesburg Afrikaans-language newspaper Beeld -- mouthpiece of the ruling National Party -- prophesied that:

"South Africa can use the Reagan years to advantage by making our energy supply to a hungry West indispensable; we must hammer loud and long upon the strategic importance of South Africa in military terms and with regard to raw materials that are essential for military and industrial uses; we must offer our contribution as fighter of Russian expansionism; and we must encourage the new US government to chase the Cubans out of Africa. . ."

So begins a new chapter in South African -- and US -- diplomacy. South Africa will, through a variety of means try to ingratiale itself with the new administration in Washington.

The US, in turn, will be faced with a peculiar problem -- whether to draw closer to a mineral-rich, militarily powerful, vehemently anticommunist regime at the risk of bringing harsh criticism and even economic retaliation from much of the third world.

The US has always had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with South Africa. The US State Department has denounced South Africa's racial discrimination as "one of the cruelest forms of human-rights abuse in the world today." Yet the US maintains full diplomatic relations with Pretoria, and US corporate investment in the country totals more than $1.8 billion.

The Carter administration managed to deflect much of the criticism of this policy, largely due to the personal diplomacy of former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young and his successor, Donald McHenry, and to the strong human-rights stance of the Presidnt himself.

It is likely that future years would have forced a major reassessment of US policy toward South Africa, however, as the demands of black Africa for firmer action against apartheid rose -- and the conflict in South Africa itself grew more polarized and violent.

Now making that reassessment falls to an incoming Reagan administration -- and it will not be an easy task.

On the one hand, there is substantial evidence that the South African government's racial policies do not have the support of the majority of the population, Pretoria's claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Institutionalized racial discrimination still permeates virtually every facet of South African life. Western notions of civil liberties and due process have been buried under so-called "security" legislation, and warrantless arrests and detentions without trial have become commonplace.

On the other hand, the white government controls what is undeniably a treasure trove of minerals -- a trove on which the US and its Western allies have become heavily reliant. Further, South Africa's position at the southern tip of Africa gives it a certain strategic importance in the subcontinent, not only in military, but also in economic and political terms. And its position between two oceans and alongside one of the world's busiest oil shipping routes also gives South Africa an inherent maritime importance.

But just how important is South Africa to the United States and the West? Moreover, what policies should the US follow to ensure continued access to South Africa's mineral wealth, its harbors, its corridors of power? What are the countervailing Soviet Designs on southern africa, and how should they influence American policy?