Washington — A history of sanctions against South Africa shows they have rarely produced the results hoped for. Analysts who have studied the history of economic sanctions and their impact on foreign policy caution that sanctions alone have never been sufficient to force the kind of sweeping policy changes sought by congressional opponents of South Africa's apartheid system.
On the contrary, sanctions could prompt Pretoria to harden its stance on apartheid and, in the end, retard rather than abet the goal of racial equality, these experts warn.
The main problem with sanctions is that, to be effective, the target is usually a smaller, weaker country, the objective is to achieve very specific reforms, and the sanctions are limited both in scope and in duration. For example: after the United States and Canada threatened to cut off bank loans to South Korea in 1975, Seoul reluctantly canceled an agreement with France for the purchase of a nuclear reprocessing plant.
But getting a strong country to make fundamental social or political changes is nearly impossible -- especially under conditions such as those that exist in South Africa today, observers say.
The sanctions proposed by Congress may be too weak to make a difference, say some analysts. ``The limited nature of the sanctions called for by Congress, and the extended period of implementation, guarantees they'll have minimum impact,'' says Jeffrey J. Schott of the Institute for International Economics, co-author of a recent book on the history of sanctions.
Furthermore, without participation by Britain and West Germany, that together account for more than 50 percent of all foreign investment in South Africa, sanctions alone will probably not succeed, observers say.
Even the symbolic impact of US sanctions will probably be weakened by the lack of unity, clearly revealed in the vocal opposition of the Reagan administration to the more punitive policy espoused by Congress, they add.
Since 1962, the US and other countries have applied a variety of sanctions against South Africa, including a partial arms embargo and a boycott of athletic and cultural events. For the most part, the results have been counterproductive.
In response to the arms embargo, South Africa quickly diversified arms sources. Arms -- even some made by the imposing countries -- continued to reach South Africa through many avenues. In addition, Taiwan and Israel, in particular, rushed to fill the breach with sales of sophisticated weapons to Pretoria. Eventually South Africa developed its own indigenous arms industry, and today exports more than $1 billion in arms each year.
Similarly, an Arab oil embargo led to the development of synthetic fuels and a strong domestic nuclear power industry in South Africa. The sports embargo was initially effective, but, in the end, its legitimacy was undermined when the imposing countries refused to lift the sanctions even on teams that complied by allowing black athletes to participate.
``If barring bank loans to the South African public sector were designed to increase employment and promote opportunities for blacks in the government -- and if the ban were lifted once those goals were reached -- that would be one thing,'' says one administration official. ``But if the ban is just a way of telling the South Africans we don't like their national behavior, then it's essentially useless.''
While sanctions can have an important symbolic value, internal developments -- not pressures exerted by foreign governments -- determine, in the end, the policies of individual governments. If reforms come in South Africa, they're likely to be incited by the escalating pattern of domestic violence, experts say.
In response to South Africa's worst domestic violence in 25 years, foreign bankers recently began calling in short-term loans to South Africa -- a move South African officials fear could exacerbate already high inflation and unemployment rates. In addition, some Western companies began closing their South African operations. The pressures produced by such ``private'' sanctions could force Pretoria to make concessions designed to stem the violence and restore the domestic stability foreign bankers and in vestors want.
``In this sense, the market has sent a much stronger signal to the South African government about the effect of its policy than the official sanctions that have been proposed could ever do.'' Mr. Schott says.
The question whether such pressure will lead to reform or to further retrenchment in South Africa remains open. ``It could have a perverse effect, leading Pretoria to hunker down to resist pressure even further.'' he says.