SOUTH Africa finally went too far. Outraged by South Africa's audacious midnight raid into peaceful Botswana, the Reagan administration recently summoned Ambassador Herman Nickel home from Pretoria. Private pressure on President Pieter W. Botha's white-run government having failed, the State Department was compelled, after five years of using the carrots of constructive engagement, to blow its diplomatic stack. Not only had South Africa, within weeks of a brazen assault on United States-owned oil installations in Angola, attacked a weak and friendly neighbor, but it had once again demonstrated the ineffectuality of constructive engagement. For the State Department, that demonstration of failure could not have come at a more damaging time. Influential senators have for months been pressing the department to replace Mr. Nickel and have been seeking the resignation of Dr. Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for Africa and the architect of constructive engagement.
Pushed by congressional antagonism to Dr. Crocker's policies and the passage through the House and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of unprecedented legislation which, if enacted, would impose sanctions on South Africa, the State Department had already begun hardening its attitude toward Mr. Botha's government. Now South Africa has pushed Dr. Crocker even more forcefully, probably ending forever the longstanding US policy toward Pretoria of friendship, accommodation, and limited criticism.
South African soldiers attacked alleged African National Congress (ANC) guerrilla safe houses in sleepy Gaberone, Botswana's tiny capital, without warning. Although this was the first such raid into placid, unprotected Botswana, South African troops have similarly raided the capitals of Lesotho and Mozambique in attempts to prevent or preempt ANC raids into the heartland of their adjacent country.
South African forces shot 16, including a baby and a white Dutch national. Moreover, Botswana is one of Africa's few multiparty, capitalist democracies. After cautioning South Africa over and over again, the Reagan administration at last was provoked beyond constraint.
Pretoria's failure to respond in any significant ways to its own internal spasm of violence, now 10 months old, has further annoyed Washington. If constructive engagement is to show positive returns, it will have to encourage serious South African attention to the problem of power-sharing with the 22 million Africans who daily protest militantly and peacefully against apartheid, white South Africa's intense form of segregation.
Constructive engagement was also devised to secure the independence of Namibia (formerly South-West Africa) from South African control in accord with United Nations resolutions. Recently South Africa gave internal responsibility in Namibia to a group of unelected black and white politicians who had earlier come together as the Multiparty Conference (MPC). This transfer of supposed authority in the lapsed mandate from South Africa's administrator-general to the MPC is opposed and unrecognized in Washington. The fact that the shift occurred, however, and that the MPC will now attempt to govern, is another rebuff to constructive engagement.
Ambassador Nickel's recall therefore has more than one immediate cause. A welcome and long-overdue sign of structural realignment in the State Department, it presages a return to the posture and policies of the last half of the Carter administration. Following Congress's lead, the executive branch will now carry at least some sticks and speak very softly about the realities of reform in South Africa. In turn, that shift in bargaining tactics arguably will accelerate rather than retard the process of positive change in that troubled, tension-ridden country.
Robert I. Rotberg is a professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.