Pretoria's options are narrowing

THE bombs still explode. The violence continues. The detention of 3,000 or more activists, censorship, curfews, and severe curbs on dissent have hardly quelled black protest in South Africa. Nor will they. Despite a comprehensive, rigidly enforced state of emergency, South Africa's white rulers cannot hope to transform black anger into acquiescence. If one rates the success of the state of emergency by its ability to curtail protest in the townships, then it has failed. Black trade unionists have called a general strike for early next week. It will further demonstrate African disaffection and bitterness.

South Africa's white government declared a state of emergency because it felt that it had no choice. African protest had been intensifying since March. Africans had been unappeased by the end of the pass laws and the revocation of legislation that prevented their movement between the rural areas and towns, and from city to city, in search of work or housing. What Africans wanted -- negotiations leading to the vote and real majority rule -- whites felt unready to give.

The state of emergency, and continued African protest, hasten rather than retard the very giving of major concessions by whites. Pretoria has narrowed the options available to it. No longer can it hope to persuade Africans (or the West) of its reformist intentions.

The South African government has now dramatically truncated its ability to forestall the inevitable. That inevitability is not revolution or a black takeover by violence. But the inevitable includes continuing if not escalating black violence; heightened anxiety among white citizens, especially the already aroused white English- and Afrikaans-speaking business communities; and a negotiated settlement.

The white government of South Africa declared the emergency so that it could regain control of the black townships. It further believes that if it represses radicals and radicalism in the townships, then moderates will emerge or reemerge. It is the so-called black moderates with whom the government prefers to talk.

Alas for the official strategy, the state of emergency has destroyed any moderation, if the word still has currency. The new security policy -- the naked mailed fist -- has pushed South Africa into the realm where black politics is necessarily extreme. When the government uses harsh methods, blacks have learned to respond in kind. Bishop Desmond Tutu and Zulu Chief Minister Gatsha Buthelezi are the moderates, and even the second officially refuses to negotiate with the South African government until Nelson Mandela is freed from his 23-year prison sentence.

The state President of South Africa is Mr. Mandela's prisoner, and the emergency has narrowed his alternatives. If white South Africa is to reduce violence and restore conditions of stability -- which businessmen demand -- then the government must talk to the outlawed African National Congress and Mr. Mandela. By the white government's own actions, no other African or African group has the standing of Mr. Mandela and the ANC.

The businessmen of South Africa join Secretary of State George Shultz and the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group in urging the South African government to release Mandela and unban the ANC. They want serious negotiations to begin.

The US House of Representatives seeks to ensure the same result, along with black rule in South Africa, through the employment of mandatory sanctions. Its sweeping legislation, to be considered by the Senate after the August recess, may help move white South Africa in the direction of talks, whatever the uncertain economic results. Clearly it is an official expression of American outrage, and it is that emotion which Secretary Shultz and, preferably, President Reagan, need to communicate hurriedly to South Africa in more forceful terms than are now apparent. It is not too late to save South Africa from white extremism.

Robert I. Rotberg is a professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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