Why the Commonwealth mission to South Africa failed

Mission to South Africa: the Commonwealth Report, by the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons. New York: Penguin. 176 pp. $5.95 paper. As the South African government sees it, the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons (also called the EPG) failed to bring blacks and whites to the negotiating table because it could not convince black ``Marxists'' to renounce violence as a condition for negotiations.

As the Commonwealth representatives see it, however, their mission failed because South Africa's government is not prepared to negotiate with black South Africa's true leaders -- specifically, the outlawed African National Congress (ANC).

Pretoria sees the ANC as a ``violent, communist-dominated'' organization. In the EPG view, the ANC is a black nationalist movement with some ties to the outlawed Communist Party of South Africa.

The ANC, says the Commonwealth group, has been forced -- after decades of nonviolent activity -- to fight back against a system of forced racial segregation that is itself maintained by violence.

This disparity in views, however, is not solely responsible for the failed mission of the EPG, according to that group.

In its report, ``Mission to South Africa: The Commonwealth Report,'' the EPG details its work during 1985 and 1986 to assess and help bring about an atmosphere for a negotiated solution in South Africa.

The EPG was created at the 1985 Nassau summit meeting of Commonwealth leaders to promote political dialogue with the aim of replacing apartheid with a popularly elected government.

At the summit, the leaders detailed sanctions that would be considered if progress were not made within six months.

The report portrays a South African government adept at espousing one thing while doing another; a government that has lost all touch with those it governs. Given this situation, the EPG felt it could find no middle ground.

The group concluded that only pressure from the international community -- pressure that hinges on isolating South Africa from the world -- will help bring an end to that country's racial strife.

As long as South African President Pieter W. Botha believes that there will be no international sanctions against his country, the EPG contends, he will continue to stiffen his resistance to bringing an end to white-minority rule.

The attitude that Pretoria presented to the EPG -- an apparent interest in, and support of, the group's effort to produce negotiations -- was clearly nothing more than a fa,cade.

It is evident from the report that the role the EPG sought and the role South Africa's government was prepared to have the EPG play were not one and the same.

The EPG saw itself as a medium for helping to ``initiate, in the context of a suspension of violence on all sides, a process of dialogue across lines of colour, politics, and religion, with a view to establishing a nonracial and representative government.''

In his first letter to the EPG, President Botha stated: ``The Commonwealth Group can do incalculable harm if it sees itself as a pressure group charged with the task of extracting concessions from the Government and generally engaged in prescribing solutions to problems which are the sole concern of South Africans.''

Although the EPG maintains that its only role was to establish grounds for peaceful dialogue, the behind-the-scenes pressure -- the call for already detailed sanctions in the event of failure -- was surely something Mr. Botha did not ignore.

In light of the Pretoria air raids against alleged ANC facilities in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana at the time of a scheduled visit of the EPG, the group felt its only course of action was to end its original mission to South Africa. On Aug. 2, the Commonwealth nations are scheduled to meet in London to discuss the question of sanctions.

For anyone seeking a better understanding of how apartheid is maintained, its effect on South Africa, and the forces that have been driving that country, this brief report should not go unread.

The report is not without its weaknesses, however. Two aspects may be troubling to some readers. Its praise for the black leadership is not matched by any analysis of the alleged ANC ties to ``Marxism.'' Of greater concern is the lack of any real analysis of the effect sanctions might have on South Africa, and of the varying views concerning sanctions that are held by that country's anti-apartheid leaders, both black and white.

Yet despite these missing elements, the EPG report insists that ``sanctions and peace for South Africa have now become one and the same.''

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