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Southern Africa: Can US policies influence change?

By Paul Van SlambrouckStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 21, 1984


The ''crisis'' of southern Africa does not threaten to embroil the world as does, for instance, the one in the Middle East. But whatever southern Africa lacks in strategic importance, it makes up for in moral relevance, close observers say. Nowhere do the odds seem longer or the need greater for blacks and whites to find a formula for peaceful coexistence.

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Many experts say the United States is in a unique position to help ameliorate and defuse the situation in southern Africa. And many of those living in the region are looking to the United States with a new sense of urgency.

That sense springs from white-ruled South Africa's use of its military and economic weight to neutralize basically hostile neighboring black governments.

In the short term this South African policy appears to be working. But many analysts worry that, as long as Pretoria's internal policies generate resistance from its own black majority, a few emerging signs of regional calm may simply mask potentially greater turmoil.

Blacks in southern Africa generally see the racial policies of Pretoria's white minority government as the fundamental cause of turmoil in South Africa and the region.

South Africa is the only country in the world where racial segregation is fully institutionalized and endorsed by law in all spheres. Under apartheid, all economic and political control is in the hands of some 4.5 million whites.

There are moves to bring two other relatively small population groups - the 2 .6 million Coloreds (persons of mixed race descent) and 800,000 Indians - into Parliament as junior partners with whites, but 22 million blacks remain excluded from any role in central decisionmaking.

The United States has a central role to play in southern Africa because it is in a position to talk both to Pretoria's white rulers and to blacks who oppose the regime, many analysts say.

The US has a measure of credibility with blacks because of its own steps toward racial equality and justice, its experience in grappling with civil rights issues, and its lack of taint as a past African colonial power.

But strong economic, resource, and strategic interests in southern Africa have made it essential that the US maintain a dialogue with Pretoria. Also, in terms of East-West rivalry, the US values white-ruled South Africa as a buttress against Soviet ''meddling'' in southern Africa.

These somewhat conflicting interests may give the US an opportunity to be a mediator in southern Africa, but they also pose a challenge for US policymakers.

For more than 20 years, Democratic and Republican administrations have tried to find the right combination of ''carrots'' and ''sticks'' to move South Africa toward peaceful, evolutionary change. So far, many of their fundamental objectives have not been realized.

What does the US want to achieve in southern Africa?

Helen Kitchen, director of the African Studies program at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the ''tactics and rhetoric'' have changed under different US administrations. But the basic policy goals remain fairly constant.

First and foremost among those goals, Kitchen says, is a settlement that would bring independence to Namibia (South-West Africa), Africa's last colony. South Africa continues to administer the territory in defiance of the United Nations and of a ruling by the International Court of Justice.

Despite years of negotiations with the so-called contact group (the US, France, Britain, West Germany, and Canada), Pretoria has for one reason or another refused to implement the United Nations plan for Namibian independence.

Kitchen cites two more goals of US policy: (1) internal reform in South Africa that could lead to a government that would rule with the consent of the governed, and (2) regional peace and stability that would allow for greater economic prosperity for all of southern Africa.

But even if US goals have been consistent, the ''tactics and rhetoric'' have varied, with important consequences, close observers say.

The Reagan administration has practiced a policy it calls ''constructive engagement'' toward South Africa and the region. The most noticeable and controversial feature of the policy is its milder rhetorical tone and infrequent criticism of Pretoria's racial policies.