Sanctions against Pretoria: some myths

EACH day new myths are being spun around the issue of sanctions against South Africa. They generate hope of crisis resolution where little is warranted. Myth 1. ``Sanctions by Western nations will deliver a heavy blow to a South African economy dependent on foreign trade, investment, and technology.''

False. Even in the unlikely event that sanctions are meaningful rather than symbolic, and are applied uniformly, Pretoria will find ways around them. Painful short-term dislocations are, of course, likely to occur. But with the help of high-priced middlemen, winking trade partners, and buckets of paint to replace ``Made in South Africa'' with ``Made in Swaziland,'' the economy should not be crippled.

This does not mean that sanctions are useless. On the contrary, because the cost of evading trade barriers will not be cheap, an economic boycott will amount to an onerous new burden that whites will have to bear for the sake of maintaining apartheid. The pressure should further erode state President Pieter W. Botha's constituency and strengthen the hand of those seeking a way out: serious negotiations with legitimate black leaders.

Myth 2. ``South African blacks will be the victims of international sanctions.''

Set aside the fact that almost all polls taken in recent years find a majority of blacks favoring some form of world economic pressure. It is surely true that in the short term the flight of Western capital will leave thousands of whites and blacks jobless. But domestic business will have an incentive to replace foreign products impossible or too expensive to obtain as a result of sanctions. As in boycotted Rhodesia in the 1970s, South Africa will likely engineer an import substitution boom that should absorb many more black workers.

Myth 3. ``Pretoria will make neighboring countries pay the price of sanctions by forcibly repatriating up to 2 million foreign migrant laborers.''

Not so fast. True, an enraged Botha government might take such a step. But one simple reason it has wanted foreigners hired over South African blacks, despite pressure to employ the nation's own nearly 4 million unemployed, is that migrants have minimal interest in union organizing and anti-apartheid politics. An all-South African work force at economically vital mines would present a new and grave challenge to white authority. So while some migrants might be kicked out in a burst of publicity, most might be quietly asked to stay if a healthy siege economy sustains jobs in traditional foreign-labor industries.

Myth 4. ``Sanctions will withdraw the West's only leverage against minority rule.''

Let's forget that all US leverage has shaken hardly a sill in apartheid's foundation over the last five years. Secretary of State George Shultz asked recently what we would have to bargain with the morning after American companies pulled up stakes in South Africa. The answer is, of course, those same American companies. Pretoria will want those and more to come back. Washington alone can set conditions for their return and for other assistance. That is powerful leverage, and sanctions will finally have shown that we know how to use it.

Advocates are right when they argue that Western sanctions will help bring apartheid down, but it is not because we have the capacity to administer any economically fatal shocks. We do not. South Africa's economy may survive the coming pressures in far better health than most suspect. But sanctions will force Pretoria to pay high trade premiums for the privilege of maintaining white rule in the style to which it is accustomed. Even more important, the government will be compelled to call on the nation's own black workers to fuel an import substitution boom. That should give South Africa's increasingly politicized black unions more leverage with which to oppose apartheid.

In short, when added to all the other costs Pretoria is paying as rebellion grows -- lives lost, property bombed, emigration rising -- sanctions should be considered a strong argument in favor of negotiations sooner rather than later to end minorty rule. For these reasons, and not for any expectation that sanctions will bring Pretoria to its knees, the West should swiftly erect an economic blockade around South Africa. Alas for those who hope that finally this will work in the near future. President Botha has proved an unswerving disciple not of realism, but of mythology.

Stephen M. Davis is completing ``Apartheid's Rebels,'' a book on the African National Congress, for Yale University Press.

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