Commonwealth report urges broad S. Africa sanctions. Conclusion puts pressure on Thatcher to alter stance

South Africa, which is experiencing ongoing violence at home, must now brace for the impact of escalating economic sanctions from abroad. A call for international action has come from the Commonwealth's so-called Eminent Persons Group (EPG), which sees sanctions as the only peaceful way to bring about change in South Africa.

The group of seven leading Commonwealth figures, including two former prime ministers, had their six-month peace mission to South Africa blown out of the water by Pretoria's raid last month into neighboring Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

The raid, which cut short the EPG visit, was cited as one indication that South Africa's white government is more inclined to tough it out, than to negotiate.

Unless the major Western powers, specifically the United States, Britain, and West Germany, act against South Africa, the group says, there is little prospect of avoiding a blood bath in South Africa.

The pessimistic report released at a crowded press conference in London yesterday will almost certainly provide the impetus for the Commonwealth -- an organization which fosters cooperation among states now or formerly attached to the British Crown -- and then Western Europe to take much more stringent action against the white-ruled Republic of South Africa.

Both groups were already on course toward doing that, but held back in deference to the group which had hoped to change South Africa through quiet diplomacy.

The US Congress already has stronger sanctions under active discussion. Democrats believe they have enough Republican support to push through a new sanctions bill banning new US investments and loans and halt imports of uranium ore, coal, and steel.

The key question is how far either President Reagan or British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would go along with a move for tougher sanctions. Both have dragged their feet on the question of South African sanctions. Mrs. Thatcher, a key supporter of the group's initiative, doesn't believe that sanctions work.

But the new report puts the Prime Minister in a quandary. Of the 49 Commonwealth heads of state, Thatcher alone resists taking firmer action. And her stance has put the organization, now representing a quarter of the world's population, under great strain.

British papers have been full of reports that Queen Elizabeth, who heads the Commonwealth, is troubled about the South African situation and the risk it poses to the organization. President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia has threatened to quit the Commonwealth if Britain fails to adopt firmer measures.

One Western diplomat says Thatcher is in a ``very, very difficult position'' and that she will attempt some kind of damage limitation. Diplomatic speculation is that while the Prime Minister opposes sanctions, she can hardly ignore the group's report and may feel obliged to make some modest concessions. Two main impressions from the press conference were:

That after initially showing encouraging signs, the South African government did not seriously contemplate negotiations, and, at times, actively obstructed it. The group regarded May's raid into neighboring African states as a political ploy to undermine the mission, particularly since no clear military targets were hit.

All seven members of the group were impressed with Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC). The group met with Mr. Mandela three times.

According to former Nigerian Prime Minister Olusegun Obasanjo, who together with former Australian Premier Malcolm Fraser presented the report, Mandela's response to the group's initiative was to say that he had ``no hestitation in accepting this as a starting point.'' General Obasanjo says Mandela made it clear that he was saying this on the behalf of the ANC, but wanted to consult with his ANC colleagues in prison about the matter. Since Mandela was not allowed to meet the prisoners, the group concluded the government was not interested in furthering the cause of negotiations.

Mr. Fraser disclosed that Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, head of the Zulus and often regarded as an implacable foe of Mandela, had indicated to the group he would be willing to work with Mandela.

In Fraser's view, the South African government's realization that it could find itself confronted with a united African leadership was a possible ``turning point'' in the government's decision not to negotiate.

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