South Africa - a year later

IN October, the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 will be one year old. The act calls for the president to consider escalated sanctions against South Africa in the event that by October 1987 there is no appreciable progress toward reform. This legislative deadline will undoubtedly spur further debate on whether the sanctions imposed in the 1986 act have been successful; that debate will be, in essence, over the definition of ``success.'' The pressures in Congress to enact the sanctions legislation were strong enough in 1986 for a Republican Senate to override a Reagan veto. Congressional attitudes were hardened by television coverage of township violence, by Pretoria's actions against black labor leaders, and by the frequent appearances in the United States of prominent black and liberal personalities from South Africa. Domestic politics in the US also played a part. Attitudes toward the issue of sanctions against South Africa became, for many, a litmus test of a politician's view on civil rights in the US. The parallel movement of US companies to pull out or sell out of South Africa was dictated in part by economics, but also by the increasing pressures generated on campuses, in board rooms, and in communities. Actions by Congress and the companies have, for the moment, removed the apartheid issue from the forefront of national politics. To some, this spells success.

Much of the argument for sanctions and disinvestment, however, assumed that the US could, within a short space of time, begin to effect the dismantling of apartheid through forcing the Pretoria government to make major reforms.

Nearly a year later, these expectations are shown to have been highly unrealistic. The South African government has shifted to the right. Some modest reforms have been reversed. Businesses taken over from US companies seem less conscientious in following the social policies of their previous owners. Moderate leaders in South Africa and US government officials are pointing out that sanctions, indeed, have had the result many predicted - of stiffening the resolve of the South African leadership not to be pressured by outside powers. To those disappointed in the immediate results, sanctions have been a failure.

To many, however, both in South Africa and in the US, the intent of sanctions was not to bring reform under an Afrikaner government but to dismantle the system entirely and rebuild under a nonracial constitution. For them, sanctions and disinvestment were designed to apply pressure through isolation, not through internal influence. As they see US companies withdrawing, the secretary of state speaking with the leader of the African National Congress, and white South African personalities traveling to Dakar to meet with members, those who favor isolation feel sanctions are succeeding.

The existence of these two opposite views polarizes the issue and makes moderate approaches more and more difficult. Conscientious US business leaders still believe they can, over time, influence the thinking at the workplace toward more equitable attitudes; more than a hundred US companies still operate in South Africa and intend to stay. But, pressured at home to withdraw and in South Africa to conform, their position is increasingly difficult.

Those who argue that sanctions have ``backfired'' and have slowed the pace of reform have logic on their side. But, as has been true in other cases involving oppressive governments, the point has been reached where voices of moderation preaching reform within the present system are no longer heard. The Rev. Leon Sullivan, whose code of racial justice in business was followed by most of the US companies, has ceased his efforts. Columnist William Raspberry laid Mr. Sullivan's decision to ``peer pressure.''

A US Democratic Congress is not likely to reverse the Anti-Apartheid Act, particularly as an election campaign gains momentum in the US. Dramatic reforms under a Botha government in South Africa that would be credible and would alter prevailing US attitudes are unlikely.

The choice for Americans today seems to be either a total detachment from South Africa, with reform awaiting some future, broadly based government, or pressing the present Afrikaner leadership to make reforms. Americans appear to have chosen the former. That may be the correct stance, but it means that, while the world waits for changes in some distant future, the US may be less relevant to developments in South Africa than ever before.

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