Washington — The days of the Reagan administration's policy of friendly persuasion toward South Africa appear to be numbered. Facing growing public opposition to Pretoria's policy of racial segregation, called apartheid, the full House and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week take up legislation that could lead to imposition of stiff new economic and political sanctions against South Africa.
The legislation reflects rising congressional impatience with the slow pace of reform in South Africa.
It also reflects a calculation that continued support of the Reagan administration's policy of ``constructive engagement'' is becoming more risky politically. ``The anti-apartheid bills are a clear indication of `no confidence' in the administration's South Africa policy,'' a congressional source says.
The main vehicle for House opponents of apartheid is the omnibus Anti-Apartheid Act of 1985.
The legislation, which will be debated on the House floor, calls for the end of most bank loans and of the sale of computer technology to the South African government. It also includes restrictions on new investment and bank loans to nongovernmental entities such as corporations, and a ban on imports of South African gold coins called Krugerrands.
The bill allows the President to waive the prohibitions on new US investment in the importation of Krugerrands if the South African government agrees to make specified reforms, such as freeing political prisoners and eliminating race-based residence requirements.
Similar legislation is being considered by the Senate Banking Committee.
The principal Senate alternative, cosponsored by Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana, would impose sanctions after two years if progress is not made toward eliminating apartheid. The bill would also require American companies doing business in South Africa to adhere to the Sullivan Principles, a code of fair-employment practices. In a recent statement, Senator Lugar said he was ``ready to consider'' other measures against South Africa as well.
Supporters of legislation to impose sanctions on South Africa say five years of ``constructive engagement'' have been ineffective in producing reform. ``It's time to replace accommodationist policies with pressure on South Africa to negotiate a fair settlement,'' Mr. Scott says. ``It's clear South Africa won't negotiate on apartheid until it makes sense in their cost-benefit analysis,'' he adds.
But critics of economic sanctions say limiting US investment would hurt the very enterprises that are on the cutting edge of social reform in South Africa. ``If you force US companies to sell out, all you would have is Afrikaner firms there,'' says Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington public-policy institution. ``They would buy US assets at low prices and replace the progressive American management that's encouraging desegregation. This won't benefit black South Africans.''
Critics also score supporters of the anti-apartheid legislation for assuming economic pressure can bring about overnight change in South Africa.
``The notion that we can throttle them economically to the point that the government in South Africa will rush to the bargaining table to negotiate a radical transfer of power to a black majority is pure moonshine,'' says the US ambassador to South Africa, Herman Nickel.
But such arguments seem unlikely to prevail, given the desire of an apparent majority of congressmen to distance themselves from the Reagan administration's South Africa policy.
``The administration's public-relations image ranges from poor to counterproductive on this issue,'' says one Washington observer with close ties to Capitol Hill. ``Even Republicans are trying to take South Africa policy away from the administration.'' Two Republican-sponsored House measures call for the creation of a bipartisan commission to oversee US policy in South Africa.
Congressional sources say the House bill is likely to pass by a comfortable margin. Still, the final anti-apartheid legislation to emerge from a House-Senate conference committee later this summer will probably contain the two-year delay on sanctions written into the Senate bill, they say.
Experts say the heightened US public interest behind these congressional moves is partly the result of recent reports of violent confrontations between South African authorities and blacks. ``They've made the issue hard to ignore,'' says David Scott of TransAfrica, an anti-apartheid group that since November has sponsored daily demonstrations in front of the South African Embassy in Washington.
Public concern -- reflected in nationwide efforts to limit or end US investment in companies doing business in South Africa -- also stems from the efforts of church and labor groups that have taken up the anti-apartheid cause.
``We've made it impossible for Congress to ignore the issue,'' says a spokesman for a church-based anti-apartheid organization.
Last year's Nobel Peace Prize recipient Bishop Desmond Tutu, a black South African clergyman, has also focused attention on the issue, outspokenly critcizing apartheid.