SOUTH Africa's latest turning of the screw of repression one notch tighter against its nonwhite citizens -- its declaration of a state of emergency and detention of anti-apartheid leaders -- has broad ramifications for that nation, and for its relations with other countries. It is the proper practice and standard of any nominal democracy to accede to the desires of a majority of its citizens. In South Africa the majority, which is black, wants an end to the system of racial separation known as apartheid. It also wants to be given a strong voting voice in the conduct of government. For the South African government to move in both directions would be to provide justice to its black citizens. Instead it is attacking apartheid's opponents.
For a time, ruthless repression by a minority can appear to succeed in controlling the desires of the majority, as evidenced by nations now commanded by dictatorships of the left or right. But the legitimate aspirations of people for freedom ultimately surface, along with a desire for a role in controlling their destiny.
By trying to tamp down the fiery outbursts of dissent instead of dealing now with its fundamental cause, apartheid itself, South Africa makes more difficult the ultimate task of weaving its black majority into the fabric of democracy. The methods chosen undermine the foundation of the government itself, by denying the moral and ethical standards that underpin democracy.
South Africa now runs the risk that moderate black leaders will be overtaken by radicals, who will be more difficult for the white-run government to deal with. Moderates are already losing their control of young blacks. It would be in the government's best interests to make contact with black moderate leaders now and try to work through them; instead, many are being rounded up and jailed.
Many nations watch South Africa's current actions with great concern; these countries and their citizens want to make sure that their own policies do not in any way contribute to the repression.
For the past four years the United States has gone many extra miles with Pretoria, trying to produce change primarily through private conversation and moral suasion. Despite a very modest amount of movement, this policy has clearly not succeeded.
It is time for the Reagan administration to reexamine its fundamental policy toward South Africa.
It is time, too, for South Africa to do some reexamining on its own. The current violence by angry blacks must be ended. Attacks against those unfortunate blacks who are viewed as collaborators with the government mask the fact that the real target is apartheid itself, as the Reagan administration said on Monday.
The way for the South African government to end the violence is to outline a system for ending apartheid and, in conjunction with moderate black leaders, to agree on a timetable for putting that change into action.