S. Africa blunts potential use of oil weapon against race policy

Any influence the world once had over South Africa by restricting its oil supply is nearly gone.

This month South Africa takes two major strides forward on the domestic energy front. And analysts here feel the use of oil boycotts to pressure the republic into changing its segregationist racial policies has become little more than a nuisance factor.

The developments:

* The third piece of this country's huge government-sponsored synthetic fuels industry is in place and has just produced its first liter of gasoline.

The completion of the third Sasol synfuel plant tops off a drive begun by Pretoria in the mid-1970s to counteract growing outside pressure in the energy field, made effective by the severe world oil shortages of the time. The three Sasol plants, which convert coal to liquid fuels, make South Africa the world leader in synfuels.

* Construction of South Africa's first nuclear power generator has been finished. And the unit - the first of two to be built - is predicted to begin producing electricity by early next year.

The Koeberg power station near Cape Town does not directly substitute for oil since electricity is generated with coal here. But in eventually supplying nearly 10 percent of the republic's power needs, the Koeberg nuclear plant makes an important contribution to the overall energy supply.

South Africa has been able to achieve a high degree of energy security in part because it uses domestic coal for all its electricity generation. That has meant crude oil is necessary for only 25 percent of total domestic energy needs - a low figure compared to the world's industrialized nations.

South Africa's growing energy self-suffi ciency has been complemented by softness in the international oil market. Despite an official boycott by the major oil-exporting nations of the Middle East, South Africa has had no trouble finding oil suppliers, albeit sometimes at a premium price.

This nation's improved energy picture has led some experts to suggest it should seek diplomatic advantages of its own in the energy field by exporting energy and energy expertise to the rest of Africa. Sasol's managing director urges export of capital and skills as well as coal and refined fuels to its neighbors. Pretoria's aim would be to gain some political leverage over black African states, which are straining to pay imported oil costs.

However, there are serious questions whether these states could financially afford such an arrangement, even should they find the political price acceptable.

Pretoria is already moving to become a major exporter of steam coal to countries outside Africa. Port facilities are being expanded and the government has raised its quotas on export limits.

South Africa does not release complete energy data for security reasons. But reliable estimates are that with the completion of Sasol III, South Africa will need to import less than half its crude oil requirement, which is relatively small to begin with.

Despite the gains it has made, South Africa shows no signs of complacency on energy matters. The government keeps raising the already high price of gasoline in order to encourage conservation and to help fund its costly energy programs. Motorists pay over $2.30 for a gallon of gasoline.

There are no plans to build a Sasol IV. But the government has hinted it wants further development of synthetic fuels - perhaps using newer techniques and probably with greater private-sector participation.

Whether nuclear power will expand is an open question. South Africa has obtained enough enriched uranium to start the Koeberg plant. But long-term supplies would probably have to come from the United States.

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