The weakness of the Reagan policy of constructive engagement lies not in the concept, which is bold, but in the execution, which has been fainthearted. Whenever an opportunity has occurred to put some bite into our policy toward South Africa, this administration has backed away. Our vote against the United Nations resolution to impose compulsory sanctions is only the most recent example of a policy that refuses to follow the logic of its own rhetoric. An abstention by the United States would have sent a n unmistakable message to Pretoria to begin to face reality or prepare to stand alone. On the plus side, the Reagan foreign policy team straightforwardly condemns the evil of apartheid. It also seems to understand that gestures toward reform are designed only to conceal the white minority's determination never to share power with the black majority. Secretary of State George Shultz has unequivocally told the South African government to free Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned leader of the African National Congress, and to begin negotiations. President P. W. Botha and his collaborators MDNMhave responded with a propaganda campaign, which falsely accuses Mandela and the ANC of anti-white bias, terrorism, and an ambition to establish a Marxist-type total control over the country.
South African propaganda is designed to appeal to our latent racism. Apparently some administration aides have allowed themselves to be persuaded that an end to white domination will inexorably result in persecution of whites, anarchy, and the loss of South Africa to the West. Botha leads this disinformation campaign by labeling the black struggle for equality part of the ``world communist conspiracy.''
It is generally admitted, even by its adversaries, that the ANC commands the political loyalties of the majority of South Africans.
Among the predominantly black political movements, the ANC alone has a coherent program, a countrywide following, and a network of international support. In 1983 a Soweto poll showed Nelson Mandela as the first choice for national leader by 82 percent of those interviewed. This despite laws which forbid support for the ANC and make it a punishable offense to quote Mandela's statements or writings.
In direct contradiction to the ugly charge of black racism, the ANC is officially colorblind. Its goal is a united South Africa with an integrated, nonracial society. A recent issue of the ANC monthly, Sechaba, condemned racist revolutionaries, ``even if their pigment is blacker than coal.'' The ANC regularly affirms that the enemy is not the white people but ``a system of white supremacy and national domination.''
From its founding in 1912 the ANC has emphasized nonviolent action and dialogue as the preferred method to end apartheid. Tragically, white minority governments have consistently met peaceful protest with official violence. At Sharpeville in 1960 government troops fired at unarmed demonstrators, killing 69 and wounding 200. The government followed up this massacre of innocent people by rounding up over 20,000 suspected activists and outlawing the ANC.
Sharpeville convinced the ANC leaders that armed struggle must accompany and reinforce peaceful protest. The ANC's military arm, Spear of the Nation, began to carry out punishing attacks against targets such as police stations and power lines. A new priority is to break the government network of black informers who, once identified, are fortunate to escape with their lives.
For ANC president Oliver Tambo, armed cadres are the only possible response to an intransigent, violent enemy that seeks to maintain all nonwhite peoples in a state of perpetual subjugation through a policy of terror. The difference between terrorists and freedom fighters lies not only in the cause they serve but in their attitude toward negotiations. The ANC is willing to enter into discussions with the South African government the moment its leaders are released from prison. Pretoria, for its part, re fuses to parley on the hypocritical grounds that the ANC is committed to violence.
In September, 18 of South Africa's most important business leaders visited ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, for talks. One prominent business statesman, Tony Bloom, said, ``I was struck by the absence of traditional Marxist-Leninist jargon and dogma. . . . It was difficult to view the group as hard-line Marxist or bloodthirsty terrorists who were interested in reducing South Africa to anarchy and seizing power, with a hatred of whites. . . . I believe that they are people with whom serious negotiatio ns can be undertaken and with whom a certain amount of common ground could be found.''
When ANC leader Andrew Masondo was asked why the movement accepted Soviet support, he replied that a man trapped in a well with the water rising does not ask for the credentials of the person who throws him a rope. The bulk of the meager funding the ANC receives, however, comes not from the Soviet Union but from Western European countries such as Sweden.
It is the perverted version of democracy and capitalism in South Africa that gives Marxist revolutionaries their most compelling arguments. What, they ask, is democratic about a political structure which degrades the majority of the people? What does free enterprise have to do with an economic order that enriches the white minority and treats blacks, Indians, and Coloreds as contingent beings with no dignity and worth of their own?
The black majority will overcome whether the international community intervenes or not. Yet without effective pressures from outside, that victory will be achieved not by the rational process of negotiation and compromise, but by the sacrifice of thousands of human beings, black and white, to a beleaguered clique that has proved time and again it lacks the intellectual and moral resources to preside over rational change. Unless the Reagan policy of constructive engagement can motivate the white minority
government to engage constructively with its own people, it will have failed.
It may be dangerous for Washington to apply pressures to persuade the South African government to negotiate with the African National Congress, the political group which has the best claim to represent most of the people of South Africa. It is far more dangerous not to.
Robert E. White, US ambassador to El Salvador during the Carter administration, is president of the International Center for Development Policy. He recently returned from southern Africa.