THERE is no sign that the US is any closer today than it was a decade ago to formulating a coherent and effective policy toward South Africa. The objective should by now be clear: to facilitate a negotiated settlement establishing a multiracial political system - one that gives blacks a predominant voice in their nation's governance while allowing for some form of basic protection for the white minority. Toward this end, the Reagan administration's program of constructive engagement was a demonstrated failure; a congressionally-imposed policy of economic sanctions is proving no more effective. And as policymakers both at the State Department and on the Hill grapple unsuccessfully with the ways in which the US might help move the country toward peaceful settlement, South Africa seems to descend only further into the abyss of bloodshed and racial despair.
There is an alternative. The US should adopt a position of diplomatic parity toward both the white government and its black opposition. Only by recognizing the black resistance as at least an equal of the regime in Pretoria while maintaining contacts in both camps can the US position itself as a peacemaker. In practical terms, this parity would come with the extension of US diplomatic recognition to the African National Congress (ANC) and the establishment of a formal legation to the organization's headquarters in Lusaka. US Secretary of State George Shultz's meeting last winter with ANC leader Oliver Tambo should mark only the beginning of a more institutionalized relationship.
Assuming that the US is still interested in playing a positive and substantial role in the resolution of South Africa's troubles, the move to diplomatic parity would represent a vast advantage over the two policies that have dominated our relations with South Africa during the Reagan years. The now-discarded regimen of constructive engagement, characterized by a faith in the powers of quiet persuasion, was doomed from the start by a combination of growing domestic and international pressures against any non-adversarial relations with the Afrikaner leadership. Though more palatable to the US electorate and to observers abroad, the imposition of punitive economic measures - all stick and no carrot - has shown little promise of moving Pretoria away from its intransigence on the question of black political rights.
Both policies have undermined the possibilities for a US bridge between the warring parties at a most basic level. Constructive engagement violated the fundamental principle that a mediator to any dispute must be impartial in both appearance and fact. Just as a labor arbitrator must deal with more than just bosses to win the agreement of the unions, playing footsie with Pretoria while snubbing the ANC could in no way win the latter's acquiescence to any reform. Not surprisingly, the policy did nothing to help the flagging credibility of the US with the legitimate black opposition inside South Africa and in exile.
But an even more fundamental requirement to bringing opposing parties together is a presence; in that respect, sanctions fail to contribute to the start of any settlement process in South Africa. Although sanctions demonstrate in concrete terms US disapproval of the Pretoria regime, a US policy of economic and political noninvolvement strips the US of its contacts with whites and blacks alike. The recent suggestion that the US should simply break relations with Pretoria raises similar objections. Before long, the US won't know what's going on in South Africa; nor, after such moral hand-washing, will the US necessarily care.
The best and most effective alternative would combine the hands-on element of constructive engagement with the condemnatory message the sanctions policy conveys so well to Pretoria. Concurrent US recognition of Pretoria and the ANC would do both. Such diplomatic parity would require a cancellation of sanctions, but by granting Pretoria's main foe a status unprecedented for any resistance movement in modern history, the US would in no way dilute its opposition to apartheid. On the contrary, establishing open and regularized diplomatic communication with ANC exiles in Lusaka would dramatically improve the reception of US policy among black South Africans. A halt to sanctions would, meanwhile, show white South Africa that the US will not help destroy the nation's economy in the name of a loftier ideal.
Why single out the ANC for recognition? The organization has clearly emerged as the most important and popular player against the perpetuation of apartheid. There can be no doubt at this stage that the ANC will fill a critical, if not dominant, role in post-apartheid South African society. Opinion polls among blacks in South Africa indicate that Nelson Mandela would win an impressive national showing were blacks to gain the vote. Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi, who probably also will figure prominently once the Nationalists fall, could be included in the new policy by the naming of a US representative to his Inkatha movement.
Many on the American political right would predictably object to US recognition of a group that refuses to renounce violence as a legitimate means of forcing change. But it is a fact of the modern world that America must deal with governments and other movements that may engage in activities many people find distasteful. The Pretoria government is no less guilty of engaging in brutal behavior to protect what it sees as its interests. By recognizing both South Africa's white government and the black resistance, the US could provide a crucial channel through which negotiations might begin. The result would be less, not more, bloodshed as South Africa works its way inevitably toward majority rule, and the US takes a revitalized role in the peacemaking process.
Peter J. Spiro is a former correspondent for the Johannesburg Financial Mail and is a member of the South Africa Proxy Committee at the University of Virginia.