Common sense on South Africa

COMMON sense is a rare commodity in foreign policy. Fortunately, a prestigious advisory committee recently gave the United States secretary of state a creative blueprint for action concerning South Africa. The committee's report called first and foremost for good-faith negotiations between South Africa's white government and representative leaders of the black majority. Western efforts should focus on that broad goal in order to help introduce a nonracial democratic political system.

The committee, chaired by Frank T. Cary, former chairman of IBM, and William T. Coleman, former US secretary of transportation, concluded warmly and hopefully that white and black in South Africa could not live and prosper without each other and that military means could not alone resolve the question of South Africa's future rulers; negotiations, either now or after more bloodshed, were unavoidable.

The role of the US and the West is to impress the costs of intransigence upon South Africa's whites and blacks. The US should emphasize the benefits of compromise.

The committee urged the US to play a positive diplomatic role. The US could facilitate (the committee shies away from using the word sponsor) both informal discussions and formal negotiations. In other words, the committee much too cautiously advocated a Camp David-type meeting for South Africa. This, in fact, may prove to be a real opportunity for the US president who succeeds Ronald Reagan.

In keeping with present US policy prescriptions, the committee asked the South African government to release Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress leaders from prison, to end the ban on the ANC, and to terminate the present state of emergency. That package is a clear precondition for meaningful negotiations.

But after making clear its distaste for the Reagan administration's now failed policy of ``constructive engagement'' (which attempted to persuade the South African government to change by being its best friend), the committee strongly counsels the State Department to communicate its distaste for apartheid forcefully and repetitively. Moreover, the committee wants the State Department to tell South Africa to restore citizenship to black South Africans, repeal all discriminatory legislation (especially the Group Areas Act, the Population Registration Act, and the Natives Land Act), restore due process to the legal system for blacks, and reincorporate the homelands into mainstream South Africa, that is, to end separate development. This prescription represents a bold and forthright departure from the overall approach of successive US administrations.

The big question, and the one few recent initiatives have answered with any clarity, is how to exert official and unofficial leverage on South Africa. The committee recommends concerted international pressure. In addition to a rigorous enforcement of the provisions of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 (sanctions legislation), the committee urged the Reagan administration to obtain the cooperation of Britain, Canada, West Germany, France, Japan, and Israel for broad multilateral sanctions along the lines of the American act.

The committee was forthright, wanting President Reagan to prevent Israel from selling military technology to South Africa. It also suggested the possible need for a full multilateral embargo of all trade. It also called for a study of how best to block the sale of newly mined South African gold.

The committee, which also included Owen Bieber of the United Automobile Workers union; Roger B. Smith, chairman of General Motors; Vernon E. Jordan Jr., of the Urban League; Rev. Leon Sullivan, of the Sullivan Code; and Franklin A. Thomas, president of the Ford Foundation, was far less impressed with the usefulness of corporate divestment or other individual initiatives than it was with the crucial importance of US leadership within a multinational framework.

The committee's recommendations, if taken to heart by President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz, will substitute wise, forward-looking promise for the failed policy of constructive engagement. A tight embargo of some kind may well be needed, and that is the committee's charge to the administration, to Congress, and to the American people.

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

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