Washington — Over the White House's objections, the United States has adopted a harder line towards South Africa. Thank the US Congress for that, which has forced the issue of sanctions against Pretoria from the beginning. And, say some observers, credit this election year, when few members are willing to appear soft on an issue that has been cast in the stark black and white hues of a domestic civil rights issue.
Yet lawmakers have expressed increasing impatience at what they perceive to be an elephantine pace of reform by South African authorities. At the same time, they have been alarmed by the upswing in black-on-black violence in the country, which they interpret as a measure of the situation's desperation and an indictaion of the urgency of reform.
As a result, US President Ronald Reagan's strategy on South Africa was not well received on Capitol Hill.
President Reagan took to the airwaves in July to unveil his ``new'' policy towards the country's white-minority regime. The policy consisted mainly of points to discuss with ruling Afrikaners offered in hopes of nudging them away from their system of strick racial segregation, or apartheid. The US House of Representatives promptly voted to sever virtually all economic ties with Pretoria.
Then the Republican-controlled Senate overwhelmingly voted to impose a milder package of sanctions which nonetheless included a ban on all new investment and loans by US banks to South Africa. The House accepted the Senate measure. Reagan promptly vetoed it. That put the President in rare opposition to his own Republican comrades in Congress. It also set him up for an embarrassing foreign policy rebuff by Congress.
The sanctions package was approved by more than the two-thirds majority the US Constitution requires each chamber of Congress to muster in order to override a Presidential veto. As expected, the House, dominated by opposition Democratic party members, comfortably overturned the President's veto.
Then it was the Senate's turn. At press time, the Senate had yet to vote on the motion to override Reagan's veto, but it was also expected that the motion would easily pass with the necessary two-thirds margin.
On the Tuesday before the vote, Secretary of State George Schultz trekked to Capitol Hill to plead the administration's case with some Senators. It would be better for Congress and the White House to work together to forge a strategy towards South Africa, he told Republican and Democratic Senators. A divided voice, with the White House advocating one policy and Congress insisting on another, would not serve US interests. And, according to an observer, he reiterated the Reagan administration's contention that South Africa served as a vital bulwark against Soviet adventurism in the region -- a bulwark not to be undermined lightly.
But his arguments fell flat, according to participants in the meeting. And though the White House took steps in an attempt to win over votes -- including naming Edward J. Perkins, a veteran black diplomat, to be the new ambassador to Pretoria -- little headway was made.
``I don't think the President is going to make it,'' said Senator Paul Laxalt, Republican of Nevada, who is reputed to be Reagan's closest friend in Congress.
Meanwhile, debate was said to rage within the adminstration over Mr. Schultz' plans to visit southern African states. Some State Department officials were said to fear that he would not be well received by the so-called border states because of White House policy on South Africa, and that the timing of the trip could prove an embarrasment.