Activists make US policy toward South Africa a campaign issue. Candidate positions on apartheid made `litmus tests' in full-page ads

Sen. Robert Dole, out for a campaign jaunt in Iowa earlier this month, found himself the subject of a full page in a Des Moines newspaper. His name, in inch-high letters, was at the top of the page, and below that was a smiling picture of the minority leader from Kansas. But it wasn't the kind of attention the Republican presidential candidate craved. The full-page advertisement identified him as ``one of the faces behind apartheid,'' South Africa's pervasive system of racial discrimination.

The advertisement was one of the more controversial efforts by antiapartheid activists to make certain that United States policy toward South Africa emerges as one of the key issues in the 1988 presidential campaign.

The goal is to make each candidate's stance on apartheid ``an important litmus test'' for black voters, says Randall Robinson, head of Transafrica, the organization behind the Dole advertisement.

``If a candidate does not see the importance of this issue as an indicator of a candidate's sensitivity on race relations,'' Mr. Robinson says, ``then that candidate does not understand black America.''

Transafrica plans to identify one public figure a month, for the next year, as the target for its ``Faces Behind Apartheid'' campaign. The first two - Senator Dole and Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina - are Republicans.

Ultimately, however, the issue may be of greater importance to Democrats, says Robinson. ``Democrats cannot hope to win a national election without black support. And that support can no longer be won with a smile, a handshake, and a photo opportunity.''

The aim, Robinson says, is to enlist as many presidential candidates as possible to support ``American leadership for comprehensive, global, mandatory sanctions'' against South Africa.

The Transafrica ad campaign is not without its detractors, however. ``I think they're getting much too personal,'' says one Washington source actively involved in South African issues.

A spokesman for Dole says, ``his opposition to apartheid is clear,'' and that the senator has a ``good civil rights record.'' Nevertheless, the issue is clearly an irritant.

It is also an indicator that, despite the imposition of limited US sanctions against Pretoria last year, the South African issue has only receded - but not disappeared - from the American political landscape.

The US ambassador to Pretoria, Edward Perkins, has publicly condemned new South African government restrictions on dissent. The regulations, which make it a crime to call for the release of persons detained without warrant, have sparked heated protests in South Africa.

Last week Ambassador Perkins attended a church service called to pray for the release of detainees, much to the displeasure of the South African government.

A US official, who asked not to be identified, says ``We haven't changed what we've been saying to the South African government. What's happened is that the South African government has increased its repression.''

South African government spokesmen in Washington were unavailable for comment on the Transafrica campaign or the new government restrictions.

There are two reasons for that. One is an upcoming general election for white voters in May. Another is the impending arrival of a new South African ambassador in Washington, Pieter Koornhof.

The appointment of Mr. Koornhof is, in some respects, a counterpoint to that of Perkins, named late last year as the first black American envoy to South Africa. At the time, Perkins's appointment was widely viewed as symbolic, meant to ``send a message'' to Pretoria and deflect criticism from the Reagan administration. Since then, he has, by many accounts, emerged as an effective diplomat who has been able to communicate with a wide variety of South Africans.

Koornhof, in like manner, does not fit the mold of many Afrikaners, the dominant white ethnic group of which he is a member, and will probably set out to change some American preconceptions. In the early 1980s, he was proclaimed as one of the more promising members of the verligte wing of the ruling National Party.

The reputation he gained as a reformer has been badly tarnished over the years, however, by his performance as the government minister responsible for black affairs and as the head of the President's Council, a multiracial government advisory group whose powers proved more apparent than real.

His proclivity to make broad-brush statements about coming reforms while actually delivering less than what many hoped for earned him the nickname ``Piet Promises.''

Some close observers of South African affairs in the US speculate that Ambassador Koornhof has been given the job of ``selling'' the limited reforms enacted by South African President P. W. Botha's government while, at the same time, staving off further economic sanctions.

The Reagan administration, after suffering a defeat on the sanctions issue (the measures were enacted over President Reagan's veto), is not planning any major initiatives on South Africa.

``I don't think we're in a holding pattern,'' says one US official. ``But there is something to be said for us not taking any particular major initiatives before the [South African] election.''

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