PRESIDENT Reagan is in one sense correct that economic sanctions against South Africa won't work. If the Senate were to accept the radical sanctions bill passed by the House of Representatives last week, and if the President signed that bill, those actions would, by themselves, have negligible effect on the immediate behavior of the South African government. It might even make that government dig in its heels and further delay the process of dismantling apartheid.
For sanctions to be effective quickly, they would have to be part of a broad international action. The United States is South Africa's first trading partner. The US buys more from South Africa and sells more to South Africa than any other country. But Britain, West Germany, Japan, and Switzerland buy almost as much and sell almost as much.
Suppose that the United Nations were to vote in favor of a program of sanctions. Suppose that these five agreed to observe the program of sanctions. And suppose then that other, lesser trading partners of South Africa joined in the program of sanctions. The effect would be powerful and probably decisive. South Africa is self-sufficient in foodstuffs. It could withstand an economic siege for some time, but not indefinitely. It has no contiguous friendly neighbor. All its neighbors are black.
But the US is not proposing a program to be initiated through the UN. The British and West German governments are openly opposed to sanctions. Japan has kept silent on the subject. Switzerland, too, is so far sitting this one out.
Unilateral sanctions by the US would have little immediate effect on the economy of South Africa.
But any type of sanction voted by Congress and approved by the President would send a signal that is perhaps needed right now in the long-term interests of the US.
For the President of the US to come out in favor of strong sanctions would be public recognition by the US of the inevitability of power sharing by blacks in South Africa. It would align the US with those political elements inside South Africa which are pushing for black power sharing while there is still time for it to come gradually and by rational stages. It could revive the chance for a relatively peaceful transition from white to mixed rule. More than the above, even a gesture would help to head off a Soviet move to capture the oncoming revolution in South Africa.
Until recently, the policy of ``constructive engagement'' has seemed to enjoy some prospect of helping the South African government along toward gradual power sharing. But the latest actions of that government show the opposite trend. The new and harsher security rules, the massive censorship, the isolation of the black townships from world view, mass arrests without habeas corpus, and the continued rate of killings all show a regressive trend.
This, therefore, is a time when the US must identify itself with the onrushing black revolution or risk letting the Communists steal that revolution at its outset as they stole the nationalist revolutions in China and Vietnam, with enormous long-term damage to US interests.
There are self-styled Communists in the leadership of the African National Congress. It would not be easy for President Reagan to open up a dialogue with people who call themselves Communists or who associate with people who call themselves Communists.
He might well remember that Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai were self-styled Communists and never called themselves anything but Communists. But they were also first and foremost Chinese nationalists, who first allied themselves with Russia and then pulled out of that alliance after 10 years of experience with Russia. That alliance was operationally effective only from 1950 to 1960.
One thing and only one thing is certain about the black nationalist movement in South Africa. It will look to Moscow increasingly for advice and support unless the US comes soon to its open support. Who in the outside world is to capture the revolution in South Africa? Washington must compete with Moscow or see that revolution go by default to Moscow.
A revolution identifies its future friends and enemies at just this present, formative stage of the black revolution in South Africa. Unless Mr. Reagan identifies himself as its friend, it will long think of him as its enemy.