Despite the hopefulness, it's too early to ease sanctions

A New Beginning for South Africa

PRESIDENT BUSH'S response to the welcome changes in South Africa raises concerns among many in the United States who for over 15 years have sought to use US political and economic influence to bring about democracy in that country. Mr. Bush, who says he is willing to review existing policy, may consider lifting portions of the current law.

Clearly US policy cannot remain stagnant in light of the release of Nelson Mandela and other exciting changes outlined by President de Klerk. But it is also clear that sanctions have been instrumental in creating the climate that has forced the regime to shift its position. That conclusion was presented by the Bush administration itself in Senate testimony last October.

Sanctions must not, and by law cannot, be lifted until face-to-face negotiations for a democratic and nonracial society have begun. This policy proved successful in fighting apartheid in its other southern Africa home, Rhodesia.

International sanctions, disinvestment, and mass defiance by the antigovernment majority have produced an economic crisis in South Africa. Mr. De Klerk knows he must make concessions in order to shore up South Africa's tattered economy. While bowing to this pressure, he and the ruling Nationalist Party must still prove themselves sincere by actually ending apartheid. By jettisoning apartheid's less essential elements, De Klerk can buy time, in hopes of gaining international confidence and winning relief from Western sanctions.

According to Chris van Wyk, chief executive of one of South Africa's largest banking groups, Bankorp, disinvestment and sanctions have cost South Africa $15 billion in foreign exchange since 1984. Unlike Rhodesia, which faced sanctions in the 1970s, South Africa has no apartheid neighbor in the region to turn to.

Many in the administration try to portray De Klerk as a moderate struggling to reform the apartheid system. But De Klerk has a long history with the ruling National Party, which developed and maintained apartheid since 1948.

Through releasing Mr. Mandela and other prominent political prisoners, unbanning the African National Congress, and relaxing the enforcement of emergency and security laws, De Klerk has made significant steps toward change. But US policy must not ignore the fact that, even though released, those political prisoners have not been freed to walk from their confinement to the polling place or the negotiating table.

De Klerk and the National Party have made it clear that they are committed to continuing the rights of individual whites, and have every intention of negotiating for a system of government with group privileges defined by race. In its five-year plan the National Party envisages a complicated ``powersharing'' arrangement among the races, with whites holding far more power than in a ``one person, one vote'' system.

Black leaders in South Africa have consistently said that ``apartheid is irreformable in the same sense that slavery is irreformable.'' They declare it must be dismantled and that a democratic, nonracial society must be built.

South African anti-apartheid leaders have also made it clear that all political prisoners must be released, all troops removed from the townships, all laws that limit people's access to democratic expression repealed, restrictions on the press fully lifted, and all political trials must cease before face-to-face negotiations can be held.

Bush cannot repeal the sanctions law. Only when all political prisoners are released, the state of emergency lifted, all political organizations unbanned, the Group Areas Act, the Population Registration Act, and other discriminatory laws repealed, and good-faith negotiations for a democratic system begun, can the law be lifted. Under certain conditions, however, Bush can suspend or modify sanctions.

We call upon the Bush administration to listen to the voices of the people of South Africa and to fully support their demands for democracy and nonracialism. Don't tamper with sanctions and do not suggest lifting them until the full intent of the law has been met.

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