THIS month the South African Rand Daily Mail front-paged an editorial stating, ``Enough! This country is tearing itself apart.'' While I have no intention of encouraging my arrest in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C., I do join with many others in admonishing the South African government to diametrically alter its racial policies. The cruelty of apartheid and the callousness of its enforcement are part of a human tragedy in South Africa which has been playing itself out for some time. But there is a new urgency to the need for a dramatic altering of South Africa's racial policies. Now is the time for the United States to reexamine the effect of current policy on the South African cycle of reform and repression.
Almost a decade ago I first visited South Africa and concluded that pent-up pressures in the black community were explosive. Two months later the worst rioting in years erupted in Soweto and spread over the country. In recent months, frustration among blacks over continued oppression has resulted in a resurgence of violent confrontations. The police shooting of 19 blacks planning to attend funeral services commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Sharpesville incident, in which 69 blacks were killed, further heightened the tension between blacks and the white administration of P. W. Botha.
The current focus by the US on South Africa has been largely attributed to extensive reporting on the violence, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Bishop Desmond Tutu, an opponent of apartheid, while he was in this country, and the demonstrations in Washington organized by the Free South Africa Movement.
Whatever the spark, an intense reaction has been ignited across our political spectrum, including an extraordinary statement from 35 conservative congressmen warning of their support for sanctions if reforms are not instituted. These days legislators of every political stripe are keen to express solidarity with the principles Americans cherish: individual liberties, equal treatment under the law, sanctity of the family. There is considerable unease over the possibility that the quiet diplomacy of the US policy of ``constructive engagement'' is being interpreted as ``unwillingness to press for reform.''
US policy has been consistent through several administrations. US investment has been neither encouraged nor discouraged, and an arms embargo has been maintained since 1963. Succeeding administrations have opposed disinvestment in favor of programs by US companies to improve the status of blacks as called for in the code of conduct promulgated by a distinguished US black leader and friend, the Rev. Leon Sullivan.
What has changed is the atmosphere in which US policy is conducted, an atmosphere now characterized by visits from South African officials and curtailed public criticism of the apartheid regime. The significance should not be underestimated. South Africa's disenfranchised population views it as a weakening of US moral support.
Before becoming assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Chester A. Crocker explained the policy of ``constructive engagement'' in a 1980 article in Foreign Affairs. He said this about the role of pressure: ``Pressure in both the public and diplomatic channels can strengthen the hand of the . . . agents of change . . . Pressure can communicate . . . US recognition of the unac- ceptability of current policies . . . and it can also dissociate us from odious official behavior.'' Perhaps the trouble is not with the policy per se, but with inadequate implementation of the policy.
An outside power has limited influence for change in South Africa. However, withholding public criticism on the grounds that a quiet approach could yield greater results -- as some have suggested -- is self-delusion.
Reform in South Africa is too often accompanied by repression. For example, a few months ago President Botha established a process to consult with blacks on their political future. The very next month the government moved toward treason trials of black political opponents. As a result of the recent violence near Uitenhage, the Botha government banned the country's major black political movement, the United Democratic Front, and 28 allied organizations from holding meetings in many areas for the next three months.
The reform-and-repression syndrome will continue to pose a dilemma for US policymakers unless they make clear, forcefully and publicly, what the US stands for. If not, the US government will be blamed for the repression as much as it is credited for nudging the current reforms, if not more so.
As to punitive measures such as disinvestment, there are apparent reservations even among South Africa's staunchest critics. Bishop Tutu, long believed to advocate sanctions, now favors allowing up to two years before imposing them. Sanctions legislation being discussed in Congress would not affect US companies now in South Africa or new investment by them.
Economic withdrawal and the resulting unemployment would worsen the plight of South Africa's most disadvantaged citizens. However, US companies in South Africa have a special responsibility. At the least, this means aggressive -- not just minimal -- compliance with the Sullivan code, which calls on US companies to actively improve the status of blacks.
For its part, the US government must make official engagement truly constructive with all elements of South African society -- especially the black majority, which represents over 70 percent of the population. Congress has been providing grants to South African groups promoting a just society and aiding victims of apartheid. But we can do more to support black aspirations with assistance to black students, entrepreneurs, and others and with programs to increase communication among the races. These efforts should challenge the apartheid system. If we hope to assist in the political, economic, and cultural evolution of South Africa, we must systematically confront the government on its policy of apartheid.
South Africa's future is not without hope. This year President Botha seemed to hint at suspending forced resettlement of blacks, allowing blacks to obtain South African citizenship, and providing opportunity for blacks to own their own homes. The United States must work to ensure that he makes good on those promises.
Former Senator Charles H. Percy (R) was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.