The Afrikaners of South Africa say it when they have reached a time for decisionmaking. Ons het by 'n kruispad gekom," they affirm -- in English, "We have come to a crossroad."

That unadorned phrase pithily sums up the current state of United States-South African relations. The crossroad was arrived at when Americans voted to send Ronald Reagan to the White House, because a new administration undoubtedly will try to put its own stamp on US foreign policy.

The impending change in the White House comes at a time when the South African government clearly has delineated the path it intends to follow -- toward political partition between black and white.

South African Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha has recently coined a new set of political catch phrases, such as "political independence, economic interdependence." But his supporters hasten to reassure South Africa's white electorate that his policies merely update -- not abandon -- the apartheid (racial separation) policy first articulated by former Prime Minister Hendrik F. Verwoerd.

Moreover, South African officialdom makes it clear that unless Western governments wish to aid in execution of this strategy, they had best remain neutral. Too much pressure, they hint -- especially if it takes the form of economic sanctions -- could lead to a cutoff of South Africa's strategic minerals.

Indeed, that prospect has been raised during the current negotiations over the future of Namibia (South-West Africa), a territory occupied by South Africa in defiance of the United Nations.

The costs of such a cutoff would be high, and counted not only in dollars, pounds, yen, and deutsche marks for higher-priced minerals. Some Western allies would be much harder hit by the loss of South African minerals than others, and Western unity could hardly be fostered by such a move.

Moreover, the US and the allies are not the only players to be considered. The Soviet Union, according to some theorists, is interested in controlling South Africa's mineral wealth, since it would then have a virtual monopoly on a number of strategic minerals.

And other nations also have strong views on US relations with South Africa. Nigeria, the No. 2 exporter of oil to the US, is bitterly opposed to apartheid. President Alhaji Shehu Shagari vows, "I cannot rule out using our oil or anything else" to pressure Western nations to cut their ties with Pretoria.

An array of domestic pressure groups is involved in American foreign policy formulation as well. These range from politically powerful American corporations, which have a $1.8 billion investment in South Africa, to black Americans -- who constitute an important voting bloc and have become increasingly vocal in their condemnation of apartheid.

From this welter of competing and sometimes contradictory viewpoints a Reagan administration must fashion a policy toward South Africa. That policy will, of course, place the interests of the US first. And two key American interests, according to numerous analysts, are:

* Ensuring continued access to South Africa's minerals.

* Limiting Soviet influence in souther Africa.

These considerations undoubtedly impose constraints on US policy toward South Africa. But, in the view of a number of analysts, they should not impose paralysis.

For that would place the US in the distressingly familiar position of being dependent on imported minerals from a potentially unstable region -- and, worse still, subject to a cutoff for political reasons.

For there is no doubt that the South African government has contingency plans to halt its mineral exports in retaliation against sanctions.

"We do have general contingency plans," acknowledges F. W. de Klerk, South African minister of mineral and energy affairs, "I think we would be very unwise if we didn't."

But, he stresses, "It's a very dangerous tool for us to use," one that would be employed only as a last resort -- and then only to counter politically inspired moves by other countries.

Indeed, some South African analysts say withholding would undercut South Africa's carefully cultivated image as a dependable supplier and might even speed up efforts to cut dependency on this country.

Nevertheless, should withholding occur -- or should the minerals become unavailable for some other reason, such as political instability -- what would be the likely outcome?

One possibility would be the discovery and exploitation of new reserves elsewhere in the world.

The United States National Materials Advisory Board has noted, for example, that South Africa's chromium deposits are so vast that at present there is no economic incentive to explore for the mineral elsewhere. With South African supplies off the world market, that situation presumably would change.

The same might hold true for other minerals. For example, some experts say they are substantial US platinum reserves in Montana that would likely come into production if South African production were shut down.

Dr. W. C. J. Van Rensburg, director of the Mining and Mineral Resources Research Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, estimates that opening federal lands to mineral exploitation could meet 25 percent of US cobalt needs and up to 20 percent of chromium and platinum demands.

As the US National Commission on Supplies and Shortages reported, "Reserves are not our ultimate stock of recoverable minerals any more than the level of water in a distribution reservoir fed from a large river is the ultimate amount of water that can be drawn from the reservoir."

New sources of minerals might also become available in future years. The recent wrapup of the international Law of the Sea treaty could open the way for mining of the world's ocean beds, and that could improve the supply of certain minerals, notably manganese.

Also, reserch may yield substitutes for some strategic minerals. Recycling of minerals also could be stepped up, and nonessential uses of important minerals could be eliminated. (In the US and Europe, for example, an estimated 5 to 15 percent of imported platinum goes into jewelry. In Japan, the figure is a startling 70 percent.)

A recent Library of Congress report concluded, "The major immediate impact of disruptions in the supply of South African minerals would be indirect, taking the form of higher inflation rates and economic disruptions. . . ." The report added that this disruptions in the supply of spinoff from ore direct impacts of cutoff in other Western nations.

That prompted one staffer of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee to observe that "an interruption [of South African mineral supplies] would not spell disaster" to the West.

Not everyone agrees with that analysis, of course. Nevertheless, there is room for debate -- and, it therefore seems, room for a degree of flexibility in shaping US foreign policy.

But what about the major concern -- that of Soviet encroachment into South Africa? Mr. De Klerk argues that the "real enemy" of the South African government is not black nationalism, but the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc.

"The real threat to the US and to the free world," he argues, "is that . . . we may get a situation where . . . a puppet government of communist Russia may come into power, where chaos and revolution may ensue. Under such circumstances , there is no question of stable mineral supply."

Some other analysts share his concern -- among them a former US president. Richard Nixon, writing in his book "The REal War," argues, "The Soviets want southern Africa."

"Their persistent efforts to stir further the already troubled waters" in the region, he declares, "have to be viewed against the backdrop of the resources in that part of the world, and of the importance of those resources to the West."

On the face of it, there is some evidence to support this claim. The Soviet Union, for example, is the prime backer of the African National Congress (ANC), the oldest and most influential of the black liberation organizations in South Africa.

Further, the South African government claims that the Soviet Ambassador to Zambia, Vasily Solodovnikov, a former head of Moscow's Africa Institute, is masterminding a Soviet attempt to take over their country. The magazine International Intelligence Report claims that Ambassador Solodovnikov has i9 officers of the KGB -- the Soviet secret police -- on his staff in Lusaka, Zambia, along with Soviet and East German advisers, in Angola and Mozambique.

The ANC, however, denies that it is merely a front organization for the Soviet Union.

"To say that the ANC is a bag carrier for Moscow is an expression of contempt for the black man," Oliver Tambo, president of the ANC, told an interviewer recently. He added that the white South African government "uses the communist bogey to explain away opposition to racism, opposition to exploitation. . . . They use it to explain the demand of the underdog to live as a human being."

Ambassador Solodovnikov himself recently told a reporter that although the Soviets are committed to "liberate the whole of Africa from colonialism, racism, and apartheid," it is up to the people of South Africa to "liberate themselves."

"We don't plan anything military in South Africa," he said, "we have no right to interfere in the internal affairs of a country outside our own."

Of course, such denials are to be expected -- and, to many experts, are unconvincing. But whatever the Soviet designs in the subcontinent may be, some analysts argue that Mother Russia is unlikely to keep a majority-ruled South Africa in its embrace.

Washington's Center for Defense Information (CDI) notes that a study of Soviet world influence in 155 countries since 1945 "does not support perceptions of consistent Soviet advances." Although Africa, with a surfeit of poor countries, should theoretically be ripe for Marxist takeover, the CDI argues that the Soviet record on the continent is dismal.

The Soviets were hustled out of Ghana in 1966, Sudan in 1971, Egypt in 1975, and Somalia in 1978. More recently, two African states under Soviet influence -- Angola and Mozambique -- have made tentative overtures for closer ties to the West.

"Africans have not got rid of one set of white masters in order to replace them by another," notes historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

The reason, he postulates, is that "communism is as irrelevant as parliamentary democracy to the historic patterns of African thought and behavior."

Bishop Desmond Tutu, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, has another explanation. "An African communist, in the dialectical sense, is a contradiction in terms," he says.

"Blacks, Africans . . . take in belief in a deity of sorts . . . with their mothers' milk. It is something that is internal to us. And when you are faced with an ideology that is atheistic and materialistic and pretends the spiritual realm is nonexistent, then it has a very big fight in order to win African souls."

For that reason, some experts argue, US policy in South Africa need not be captive to the fear of an eventual Soviet takeover of the country.

That, taken together with the view that a cutoff of South Africa's minerals would not spell "disaster" for the West, may well mean that the US has more flexibility in shaping its southern Africa policy than it has yet exercised.

That does not mean, however, that the US can be unconcerned about what happens in South Africa. For any major disruption of mineral supplies from South Africa would certainly cause serious problems, although it might not immobilize the US and its allies.

Both "strategic and nonstrategic sectors of the US economy" would be disrupted, according to a recent US House of Representatives committee report. The report says, "The president . . . would have almost no other choice but to assume economic mobilization powers. . . ."

The Library of Congress report is somewhat less pessimistic, concluding that "after an initial jolt" the US could adjust to a short- or medium-term cutoff. But over the long tern, the report says, there is probably no alternative to American reliance on chromium imports from South Africa.

Consequently, the US can hardly turn its back on South Africa and be oblivious to what happens in that country.

Neither can a number of other southern African nations, who are heavily dependent on the republic. In fact, South Africa's economic dominance of the subcontinent shapes up as yet another important strategic consideration for Western policymakers.

For example, some 213,000 black laborers from seven neighboring countries were employed in South Africa's mines in 1979 -- not to mention 291,396 black miners from the republic itself. In addition, South Africa is a major food exporter to neighboring countries. During a one-year period ending in 1978, South Africa exported some 171,000 tons of maize -- and African staple -- to four neighboring countries, and tons more to states farther north. At present, the figure is probably much higher, although exact figures are unavailable.

Moreover, other African countries are dependent on South Africa's well-developed and efficiently run transport system. Recently, rail traffic between South Africa and Zambia, Zaire, and Malawi reportedly averaged 97,000 tons a month. According to South African Railways, some 7,000 of its freight cars are regularly making pickups and deliveries in black African countries -- while 4,000 freight cars from those countries are in South Africa. During the first 10 months of 1980, South African exports to other African authorities totaled some $1.2 billion.

South Africa also provides a myriad of other services to its neighbors, ranging from the production of radioisotopes for tsetse fyl control to the processing of satellite data for soil conservation and land-use planning.

Black-ruled nations in the region have taken preliminary steps to reduce their dependence on their white-ruled neighbor. But such efforts will be costly and take years to bring to fruition -- if, needed, they prove feasible at all.

Consequently, long-term instability within South Africa could have far-reaching effects across the entire subcontinent, ultimately involving millions of people outside South Africa's borders.

Therefore, says John Baratt, director of the South African Institute of International Affairs, one of goal of US foreign policy ought to be "maintaining stability" in southern Africa.

But, he is quick to point out, that does not equate with supporting the present government.

"It's not a question of which government is in control here," he says, "it's a question of whehter there's stability. Whether things get done."

In fact, he adds, continuation of the present white-minority government will probably not ensure stability. That will come, he says, only when there is "full political participation of all South Africa's people."

"Without that," says Mr. Baratt, "stability will never be maintained down here."

Indeed, Bishop Tutu says, "Nothing . . . is going to deter us from becoming free."

"I mean, we will be free, and we just want [Western countries] to help us in the how and when of it."

Patricia Derian, US assistant secretary of state for human rights, says the US is "unable to support resolutions that encourage violence." But that stance, in the view of a number of critics, puts a certain onus on the US to use other methods to bring about change.

Failing that, says Bishop Tutu, the US is admitting that violence is the only alternative.

But how does the US bring about peaceful change?

Inevitably, that question leads to the issue of American economic involvement in South Africa. Depending on one's viewpoint, it is either buttressing white minority rule and exploiting a tightly controlled labor force or, alternatively, contributing to the process of change.

The issue divides not only US policymakers, but also leading black South Africans.

Some black leaders -- Zulu Chieftain Gatsha Buthelezi is one -- favor continued Western investment. Some argue that an economically advancing black urban elite inevitably will grow more embittered at continued political repression and become a highly politicized pressure group. Others argue that change will take place in quieter ways, as the government here finally realizes that free enterprise is incompatible with heavy-handed state control of the majority of the labor force.

To back their view, they cite little-noticed developments, as when a prominent Afrikaner businessman recently told a gathering that whites should prepare themselves to one day work under black managers. The reason, he explained: EVen if every economically active white in the country was made a manager, there still would not be enough managers to meet the demands of South Africa's expanding economy.

South African Foreign Minister Roelof F. Botha argues that growing prosperity will lead to greater racial understanding and says the West should "come and help us with the tremendous task of training more black people in higher skills . . . with the development of the undeveloped regions, [and] investing in manufacturing industries so as to create more job employment opportunities for black people."

But Bishop Tutu remains unpersuaded that Western investment is a positive influence. "I would wish to point you to past performance," he says. "I have not yet seen that accelerated investment and a booming economy in South Africa has led to significant benefits for blacks."

"this is not the first time we've had a boom economy," he observes, "and yet we've got what? One of the highest levels of unemployment . . . education being in a shambles . . . labor unrest because of unsatisfactory work conditions and pay structures. And yet we've got a boom economy."

Moreover, he says, the government's "influx control" measures -- which give the state nearly total control over the lives of black workers -- will be used to ensure that "the majority" of South Africans will be denied the benefits of South Africa's economic boom.

The majority of black people, he says, will be forced into tribal reserves. "They will be dumped, as they have been dumped, in resettlement camps," Bishop Tutu says. "Uprooted and left to starve."

Indeed, these tribal reserves -- euphemistically known as "homelands" or "national states" -- compare unfavorably with "white" South African cities in virtually every measure, from infant mortality to income to life expectancy. A semiofficial research agency here recently reported that these reserves were able to absorb only 14.8 percent of new job-seekers between 1972 and 1975.

Yet the South African government continues to force black people to move to them.

Foreign Minister Botha argues that even though the need to move the blacks to the "national states" presents the government with "very painful choices," the objective is to accord them "better opportunities of life."

That draws a cynical response from most black South Africans, and Mr. Botha himself admits that the individuals who are removed to the reserves "don't always see it this way."

Nevertheless, Mr. Botha says, the US should find an accommodation with countries that do not "conform 100 percent to American concepts of freedom, justice, democracy, and human rights."

"A powerful nation [like US] with power at its disposal can afford to be magnanimous, can take a global and broad view of world events. [It] can then, with the correct perspective and vision, fit into its pattern of long-term achievement [those] leaders and government who at a given time might not comply with American standards.It could fit in such a government in the expectation that it would one day perhaps fit into that pattern, and thus the US can make itself strong and contribute directly to the security of the free world."

Bishop Tutu also urges America to take a long-term view. And in the long term, he says, black people are going to rule South Africa.

The best way for the US to ensure long-term access to the country's minerals, he argues, "is really quite simple."

"Choose to be on the right side of the liberation struggle," he says.

Continued economic collaborations with South Africa, says Bishop Tutu, amounts to "hobnobbing with those who apply what I consider to be one of the most vicious systems since Nazism. And you can't pretend that you are not affected by that kind of an association.

And he adds: "If the West wants to see a reasonably peaceful resolution of our crisis in this country -- if they wish to persuade those who are involved in South Africa to go to the conference table and negotiate -- then they are bound to apply political . . . and, above all, economic pressure on South Africa."

These, then, are some of the hard choices facing the Reagan administration as it mulls over the question of protecting the US strategic interests in southern Africa.

In the meantime, however, there is widespread agreement over one positive step the US can take to promote stability in the subcontinent.

That is to help the fledging government in Zimbabwe. After a long, bitter guerrilla war, international reconstruction aid for Zimbabwe has fallen far short of expectations. The US aid commitment has been similarly disappointing.

ACcording to a number of analysts here, both black and white, that reinforces the perception that the US cares little about the long-term interests of people of southern Africa. And that, in turn, encourages the cynical view that the US commitment to peaceful change in southern Africa is mere rhetoric.

Zimbabwe is, of course, South Africa's northern neighbor, and until this year it, too, was ruled by a white minority government. There is no guarantee that a prosperous, stable Zimbabwe will encourage white South Africans to move toward majority rule, but a number of experts say that the reverse is almost certainl true: an unstable, poverty- stricken Zimbabwe wil most assuredly buttress white intransigencde in South Africa.

"The Western countries predicted complete stability and peace and tranquility if [former Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian] Smith's government could be removed," says Foreign Minister Botha.

"The question now is what responsibility will the Western countries now accept as far as this particular country is concerned? It doesn't seem to me that the Western countries are contributing a share commensurate with their insistence on that particular solution. . . . Very much the same would apply to us."

Indeed, Mr. Barratt says, inadequate support for Zimbabwe "reinforces the perception that the West is interested in the region when there's a conflict, but that when things settle down the West tends to walk away."

And that, says Mr. Barratt, hardly inspires confidence as South Africa faces its own inevitable transformation to a new political order.

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