Aheightened American awareness of South African issues has resulted from the picket lines around and arrests of prominent politicians, labor leaders, and others near the diplomatic and consular missions of South Africa in this country. This new attention on black-white conflict in South Africa has raised the consciousness of Congress, and President Reagan. Whether it will have a lasting effect on South Africa, however, remains questionable.
President Reagan repeated his faith in quiet diplomacy as a way of dealing with South Africa on Dec. 7.He interpreted the four-year-old American policy of ''constructive engagement'' as mandating friendship and conciliation in our dealings with South Africa. Strong words, he implied, would be counterproductive.
Yet on Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, the President lashed out at South Africa, criticizing apartheid, detention without trial, and forced removal of blacks from their communities, and he called for a more just society.
Had the President suddenly become more aware of what Vice-President Walter Mondale and the Rev. Jesse Jackson had been saying throughout 1984, and earlier? Had he taken the words of South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, this year's Nobel Peace Prize-winner, to heart? Advised by the State Department, had he also realized that four years of constructive engagement had accomplished little and that white South Africa was largely unreformed in terms of political participation? Had he realized that South Africa still controlled Namibia and that South Africa was stronger in its region than ever before? Or was the President responding to the public criticism of South Africa voiced by 37 prominent Republicans, including the new head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the head of its Africa subcommittee, and 35 representatives led by a leading conservative? Only the voice of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina was missing from this broad-based public response to the enhanced public focus on the reality of South Africa.
President Reagan may have been affected by all these considerations. Most of all, the President may well have been influenced by the overwhelming need for a policy realignment toward South Africa. What constructive engagment has long lacked is a sense that the United States would continue assisting South Africa only if political reform were being achieved and Namibia being abandoned. For four years American policy toward South Africa has been characterized by carrots , never sticks. Not even twigs. Now the President was brandishing a small stick. He was asking for action, not more stalling.
The new president of South Africa claims that US criticism is irrelevant and easily ignored. But that has never been true, and is less a reality today than at almost any time before. Even so, those who claim that the US has the ability directly and powerfully to alter South Africa also overstate their case.
There are real limits to the ability of the United States directly or indirectly to effect rapid policy change in South Africa. We are not, however, without the kind of influence which, if it were to be employed systematically and carefully, would buttress those factors within the South African body politic which today encourage, even demand, greater real attention to African grievances and aspirations.
Historically, outside influence has been most relevant when the forces of internal dissent have been active and violent. Combined, they have produced a synergistic effect that has previously propelled South Africa forward.
President Reagan and his advisers may be as aware as the various American protest groups of the precarious position of today's South Africa. Poised between reform and repression, its leaders may privately welcome a newly raised American voice. By failing to heed it, they risk intensified US threats of corporate divestment, more city and state legislative action against South Africa, localized boycotts, and - for the first time - credible congressional sanctions. Already the major American companies doing business in South Africa have voted to work strenuously for the ending of apartheid.
If Reagan and his principal aides continue to stiffen the thrust of constructive engagement, the government of South Africa will become more isolated internationally than ever before, and white South Africa will be compelled to focus on its tough and limited options.