It was the same question, asked in the same uneasy tone, from the computer salesman, the fast-food manager, and the lady who runs the candy-and-cigarette shop: ``What will happen to us with your country's sanctions?'' For white South Africans, the main immediate impact of United States sanctions against their country has been more psychological than practical. The precise economic effect of the announced trade restrictions has not yet become clear. In the weeks ahead, the restrictions will come into force piecemeal. Yet in the words of the woman behind the candy counter, ``It all gives us this feeling of isolation from the world.''
The South African government of President Pieter W. Botha seems hopeful of making the best of the situation -- converting white constituents' jitters into fuel for a renewed sense of national unity against external criticism. On Monday, the pro-government newspaper, Citizen, highlighted the potentially positive effect of sanctions under the headline: ``Free at last.''
Now that the long-threatened US sanctions were here, the editorial said, ``We don't have to look over our shoulders to see whether what we do pleases or displeases the United States or other Western governments.... All along we should have accepted that sanctions were inevitable, so it didn't matter what the Americans thought -- we should act solely in our own interests, in the interests of orderly government, in the interests of all our people.''
Among ordinary whites, there appears to be considerable support for that view, alongside personal distress that links with the West seem so frayed.
The woman at the sweets shop is most alarmed at a US ban that has received few world headlines: the withdrawal of landing rights for South Africa's flagship airline, South African Airways. ``We have family in America. My younger son phoned me from across town in distress. He is scheduled to visit my other son in Canada. He is stopping in America. Now he has to completely rework his itinerary.'' Durban's Sunday Tribune remarked that this sort of rerouting will exert a ``psychological impact.... White South Africans have grown used to thinking of SAA as `the best'....''
``I'm completely confused over the sanctions,'' says a computer salesman who specializes in a US product line. Chatting with a colleague, he remarks: ``I've got the feeling that at this rate, all of us will be building our own [computers]!'' Becoming serious, he says that he sees no sign that his US suppliers will stop sending machines. The sanctions bill approved last week embargoes only computers destined for the South African police, military, or government agencies.
``But we're in the dark. Last month, we had a US shipment paid for and en route, only to have it sequestered and turned back by the Dutch government,'' which invoked trade restrictions of its own. ``We've rerouted the shipment through Germany....''
At a downtown hamburger shop, the manager says he has no fear the sanctions will hurt his trade. ``But they are a tragedy. It is a tragedy that a country like ours -- part of the West -- is made to feel like a pariah. There have been changes, reforms. But no one seems to take notice. Where there are other injustices in other countries -- like the aborigines in Australia -- there aren't sanctions. It isn't fair.''
The manager of a competing food shop seems less supportive of the government's reform policy, but no less upset about sanctions. ``It is inevitable they will harm our economy -- not my business, but others. Yet at the same time, the sanctions won't make the government meet the US demands. It won't bring our government to its knees. I'm not a particularly political person. But all I can say is that I wish there had been no sanctions. They'll achieve nothing good.''
This report was filed under South Africa's emergency regulations, which prohibit reporters from being ``within sight'' of any unrest, any ``restricted gathering,'' or any ``police actions''; from reporting on arrests made under the emergency regulations; and from relaying information deemed subversive.