RECENTLY 14 white student leaders from Afrikaner universities in South Africa visited Washington to get a sense of American attitudes toward their country. In the course of their visit, the sponsoring organization proposed that they attend sessions of a three-day conference for American students being held under Democratic Party auspices. The initial response from the conference leadership was that they would be welcome. This was later reversed, on grounds that a black student delegation from South Africa would be welcome, but not one representing the white Afrikaner population.
To one familiar with the politics of the South African issue in the United States, the refusal, which apparently came after conference leaders had conferred with the head of an American black organization, is regrettable, even if, to many, it is understandable.
The domestic dispute in this country over the relationship of the United States with South Africa has become a matter of symbols. Those bitterly opposed to apartheid see endorsement of disinvestment or divestiture as a necessary indication of a correct stand on race and civil rights in general. To endorse ``constructive engagement'' or to talk with those who symbolize the South African government or the Afrikaner establishment is to imply support for apartheid. Undoubtedly it was felt by some in the Democratic Party's student conference leadership that admission of the Afrikaner students would run this symbolic risk.
It is easy to understand the bitter reactions in the US toward racial oppression in South Africa. Deep emotions stemming from revulsion toward apartheid and the current harsh repression are widely shared in the US, reinforced by the memories of our own past and by the pictures of violence in South Africa.
It is also easy to understand why the expression of these emotions has assumed a symbolic character. The debate over the application of economic sanctions against South Africa is as much a debate over how we can avoid identification with the South African government as it is over how we can influence events in that country. Even though there may be doubt about how much effective influence this country can exert, sanctions, like other actions, become symbols of our opposition to the system. So, too, do refusals to meet with Afrikaner groups, whether officials or students.
While the application of this symbolism is understandable, it is also tragic, especially as it relates to meeting and talking with those of a differing view. When applied in this country to the South African issue, it transfers to the US the same communication barriers that make any common understanding of feelings and issues so difficult in Cape Town or Pretoria.
For many years, South Africans, particularly those in the Afrikaner establishment, have been both surprised and puzzled by reactions in America to events in their country. Part of the reason: Many who have come to the US or received American visitors in South Africa have met only with those sympathetic to the white South African point of view. They assume a wider degree of understanding and sympathy for their views than actually exists in the US. These assumptions exist, in part, because it is natural for beleaguered people to look for those who agree with them. In part, the incomplete views are also the result of the difficulty South African visitors have had in meeting those of opposing views in the US. White South Africans are thus robbed of opportunities to hear candid expressions of the depth of opposition and emotion toward apartheid and to sense the growing lack of confidence in the pronouncements of the South African government that exists in America.
On issues where the divisions are deep and historic and generate strong emotions -- whether it be in South Africa, the Middle East, or Northern Ireland -- differences exist not only over solutions but over the nature of the problems. White South Africans tend to see the issue as defense of an outpost of Western civilization; blacks see it as racial discrimination. Discussions that might help bridge these chasms of misunderstanding are precluded, because the very acts of meeting are seen as recognizing the validity of the other side's cause.
The US can contribute to a lessening of tensions in areas of bitter conflict by providing in this country opportunities for those of widely differing views to hear opposing voices. Such opportunities may only marginally promote better understanding among the parties to a conflict, but they can reduce misunderstandings regarding the nature and extent of opinions in the US. It would represent an unfortunate withdrawal of the US from its traditional role as an arena for opposing ideas if symbolism captured the debate on a question as urgent as the future of South Africa and made impossible communication in this country among those of very different views.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.