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What must accompany sanctions against South Africa

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A helpful role for the US -- through programs sponsored by the US Information Agency -- would be to publicize to white South African audiences the all-too-neglected instances of relatively successful development in Africa. Three of what are numerous examples:

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1. The positive performance of African agriculture in Zimbabwe and Malawi.

2. The quite harmonious pattern of race relations in countries with relatively large white communities, such as Zimbabwe, Kenya, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast.

3. Imaginative efforts to reduce ethnic and regional tensions in Nigeria.

Assist in the transfer of power.

It seems only a matter of time before a constitutional convention will be called at which the contending parties will engage in hard bargaining about the shape of the new, post-apartheid political order.

What could the US do to help bring about this development sooner rather than later? President Reagan should invite President Pieter W. Botha and ANC leader Nelson Mandela to Camp David so that they could informally and privately discuss ways out of the current tragic impasse -- in a setting outside South Africa. Mr. Reagan should also invite the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group to plan the agenda and moderate some of the sessions. In this way, the US and the Commonwealth could coordinate diplomatic initiatives, with greater likelihood of success than if either acted on its own.

Increase the benefits to all South Africans of making the transition to majority rule.

In the current pretransition phase, the US should discuss with the contending parties what assistance -- if any -- might be most useful after some form of electoral democracy is adopted and outside sanctions end.

For example, American corporations, foundations, and universities might well expand their training and scholarship programs. The US Agency for International Development might focus on the development of impoverished rural areas.

Especially important would be discussions with that group which feels it has the most to lose from transition: the Afrikaners. The huge bureaucracy enforcing apartheid regulations will have to be dismantled, and many white officials will lose their jobs. Americans should offer to help retrain these individuals for productive employment in the private sector.

President Reagan's pronouncements on South Africa do not provide evidence that he understands the nature and magnitude of the issues, or that he is willing to exert US influence in a progressive direction. Still, Mr. Reagan has shown that he is capable of compromise when pushed. On South African issues, Congress and the American people are far ahead of the President. At the end of the day, Mr. Reagan may find himself repeating what that anonymous man in the French Revolution said: ``The people are in the streets. I must see where they are going, for I am their leader.''

David Abernethy is a professor of political science at Stanford University. Peter Grothe is director of the International Student Office and on the faculty of the Monterey (Calif.) Institute of International Studies.