INTERNATIONAL pressure on the South African government to change its racial policies can be effective -- if it is the right kind of pressure. But the type of economic sanctions the United States Congress is in the process of approving are likely to be counterproductive: If effective, they would harm South Africa's economic future without strengthening the negotiating position of black South Africans. The debate over disinvestment and other economic sanctions, conducted so vigorously over the past six months in the US, has had both positive and negative aspects for South Africans.
In the past, external pressure has played a part in promoting reform in South Africa. Just as sports boycotts have contributed to the process of integrating South African sport, so the sanctions debate has given impetus to coordinated South African business efforts to abolish apartheid.
South Africa's six employer federations represent English, Afrikaans, and black businessmen. When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy -- a proponent of no new US investment in South Africa -- was in South Africa in January, the federations handed him a memorandum committing themselves to the fundamentals of a nonracial society.
The disinvestment campaign in the US has certainly had a pronounced educational effect on all the key players in the US-South African equation.
The proposals accepted June 4 by the US Senate would have the US government strengthen the negotiating position of South African blacks by increasing scholarships for blacks and providing support for organizations actively opposing apartheid, and they would extend US government loans and lending guarantees to black-owned businesses.
Those striving for evolutionary reform in South Africa are not so naive as to suppose that a vigorous process of bargaining between whites, other minority groups, and their increasingly activist black fellow citizens will be an entirely comfortable experience. But they believe that economic growth will not only make the process sustainable in removing the fear of many whites that negotiation is a game of ``winners and losers'' but will also offer a prize worth promoting moderation: a viable and expandi ng economy.
The impact of the disinvestment debate on the South African government is less easy to judge. Americans, accustomed to the difficulty of encouraging the Soviet Union, Poland, Cuba, and others to make reforms by means of sanctions, should by now understand that the most common political response to that threat is an assertion of sovereignty and noncompliance. Nicaragua is but the latest example.
This counterproductive side of pressure was demonstrated in President P. W. Botha's sternly inflexible performance when interviewed by Ted Koppel on ABC's ``Nightline'' in March.
The ruling National Party, faced by a sizable and vocal white right wing, cannot afford to be seen to be changing at America's behest. One ironic effect of the disinvestment threat from the US may well have been to encourage Pretoria to use more strong-arm tactics within Southern Africa.
The manifest absurdity of linking timetables for South African reform to the US election cycle compounds the concern that, as with the sports boycott, the target will be a constantly shifting one in which the confusion of motives and goals of the disinvestment lobby will encourage a constant upping of the ante. In this respect even the mildest of symbolic measures supposedly intended to ``send a message to Pretoria'' may turn out to open a back door to real and damaging disinvestment measures.
Blacks in South Africa, fragmented in many ways as they are, have pretty generally combined to oppose the Reagan administration's South African policy of constructive engagement, which they believe takes no account of their interests. Manipulating the moral imperative of Americans in the interests of resisting apartheid has become a goal common to black South Africans.
One of the most interesting cleavages, however, that may be observed in black South African reactions to disinvestment is the distinction often drawn between threat and reality. Many black trade unions, as willing as others to encourage the threat of disinvestment as a stick with which to belabor Pretoria, are ambivalent about the debate moving on to actual implementation of disinvestment of sanctions. That would conflict with the unions' interest in preserving or maintaining their power base, which ca n only be achieved if the South African economy is not damaged and continues to grow.
Economic growth has been a major factor in breaking down apartheid. In short, a rigid social, economic, and political order is incompatible with a modern industrial state. But political will is required to create an even more just and equitable society. In that respect, international pressure, if calculated on the basis of the limits of its leverage -- although recognizing the potential for provoking a counterproductive defensive posture within South Africa -- can act as an important spur.
Insofar as the United States has the capacity to influence developments in South Africa, it needs to do so with the long-term future of South Africa in mind. America's own historical experience should help US citizens understand that truism -- and lead toward a policy aimed at strengthening black negotiating power, and not toward damaging a productive economic future which all South Africans are working to bring about.
Michael Spicer, the former deputy director of the South African Institute of International Affairs, is now a corporate public-affairs adviser.