Why it is important to keep South Africa afloat

THE importance of keeping our friend South Africa alive must be made clear. If the destabilization of South Africa continues, it could lead, over the long term, to the disappearance of central authority -- the breakdown of government. A Northern Irish or Lebanese outcome for South Africa is in no one's interest. A racial conflagration or civil war would result in massive blood shed and suffering, particularly among the blacks. Such a war could close the Cape of Good Hope sea routes to the United States and the West and cut off access to southern African minerals. Finally, successful aggressive and destabilizing policies of the Soviet Union in southern Africa would permit the Soviets to replace South Africa as the dominant power in the region. Movement of South Africa toward economic deterioration is a further invitation for the Soviets to move in. With few exceptions, history has demonstrated that when a country is destabilized, the Soviets are quick to move in when it fits into their program to do so.

From my own experience in southern Africa, it is clear to me that the destabilization of South Africa is taking place -- the Soviets must be clapping their hands.

An awareness of three important elements affecting the destabilization helps in understanding why that process is taking place. South Africa's practice of racism, known as apartheid, is totally unacceptable to all morally responsible people. Second, the Soviet Union and its surrogates, work tenaciously, year in and year out, to influence events toward Soviet domination over southern Africa as well as Africa as a whole. Third, the US and the West have a wide range of interests in southern Africa.

The nature of the South African political system involving apartheid will have to change. At present there are 9 blacks for every 2 whites in South Africa. By the year 2000 the estimated ratio will be 11 to 1. Obviously, an accommodation must take place. The only nonviolent way to develop a solution to the problem is for the South African government to move from confrontation to meaningful negotiation -- orderly reform. The Republic of South Africa is a sovereign state. Still, apartheid must end. To this end, Western governments are using their best diplomacy, and in some instances stronger measures, including sanctions.

At the same time, the Soviet Union and its surrogates, including Cuba, assist in arming, financing, and training manpower for infiltration into black and white organizations in South Africa. Evidence of this Soviet interest in all of southern Africa is reflected clearly in the aggressive activities of the African National Congress. Its close ties with communists since 1917 are well known. It is active in the 10 nations of southern Africa: Namibia, Angola, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zambia, and South Africa. As many readers know, Soviet assistance can be substantial -- in Angola, Soviet surrogates number more than 25,000 Cuban troops and 1,200 Soviet advisers.

The US seeks, through its programs of assistance and cooperation, alternatives to Soviet involvement in and attempts to dominate the national security structure of independent southern African nations. Those programs rest on the basic concept that we recognize and seek the dignity of the human being. We seek to direct the impetus toward change into peaceful channels.

Should South Africa fail to negotiate successfully the apartheid issue, the possibility for civil war becomes likely. Civil war would provide a larger opportunity for the African National Congress and like leadership to infiltrate and exercise greater control. If that leadership succeeds, what will become of South Africa's nuclear knowledge and expertise?

Of strategic importance and a lifeline for Western commerce are the cape sea routes on the littoral states of Angola, South Africa, and Mozambique, and the territory of Namibia. This, too, would be an issue exacerbated by the division of authority. Of equal importance are four essential metals found in large, commercially available quantities, mainly in South Africa and the Soviet Union: cobalt, chromite, platinum, and manganese. All are vital to the space programs in the West.

Remaining in the wake of violent civil confrontation would be destruction, loss, and hate. The door would be open for greater control of South Africa by the successful leaders. Would those then in control take the country down the same path that Samora Machel took Mozambique, or that path taken in so many African countries by dictators, militarists, or Marxist-indoctrinated leaders?

In deciding the course of American policy, we need to have some consensus, not only about what is going on in South Africa, but also about basic US objectives, the American interests at stake, and the broad principles of policy effectiveness.

Clearly, the fundamental goal is the emergence in South Africa of a society with which the US can pursue its varied interests in a full and friendly relationship, without constraint, embarrassment, or political damage. The nature of the South African political system prevents us from having such a relationship now. That goal will remain elusive in the absence of purposeful change now toward a nonracial system.

Consequently, a basic US objective should be to foster and support such change, recognizing the need to minimize the damage to our interests in the process, but also recognizing that American interests will suffer inevitably if such change fails to occur.

Our foremost interest should be to participate in minimizing the future suffering of both blacks and whites, and nurturing the institutions we value -- democracy, pluralism, stable and decent government, nonracialism, and a strong economy. All ultimately hinges on how change occurs and who participates in it. One shudders to think of the oppression both the blacks and whites could face. As distasteful as it may be, effective countermeasures to offset years of Soviet covert and overt activity must be taken before and not after the fact.

By its nature and history South Africa is part of the Western experience, and an integral part of the Western economic system.

Robert H. Phinny served as US ambassador to the Kingdom of Swaziland from 1982 to 1984.

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