South Africa's political and business leaders are using Rhodesia's success in weathering economic sanctions as evidence that the sanctions onslaught against Pretoria is bound to fail. But independent economists warn there are major differences between the two situations. It is true that Ian Smith's minority-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) actually prospered during the first 10 years of economic sanctions from 1965 to 1975 -- so much so, in fact, that Britain, with whom Mr. Smith was negotiating for recognition of his 1965 illegal declaration of independence was able to extract more-favorable terms from London in 1971 than in 1966 and 1968.
Rhodesia's economy grew rapidly under sanctions. The real gross domestic product expanded at a Japanese-style 9 percent annually between 1967 and 1974. Employment figures rose, new industries were established, new crops produced, and new mines opened up. But economists stress that this reflected very different conditions from those prevailing in South Africa today.
A key difference is that Rhodesia, in 1965, was widely viewed as a country with a constitutional quarrel with Britain. South Africa is seen in a very different light because of its racial policies, its economic and military strength, and its importance in international relations.
Until 1974, the turning point in the Rhodesian crisis, the white minority had two wide-open back doors that could be used to evade economic sanctions. Its southern neighbors, South Africa and Portuguese-ruled Mozambique, not only refused to impose sanctions but also actively cooperated with Smith's government in circumventing them. South Africa has no such back-door option. It may, however, manage to use Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland by virtue of the fact that these three small countries are part of South African's customs union and may offer limited loopholes for evading bans.
A further important difference relates to the internal security situation. The Rhodesians did not have any urban unrest to cope with. And it was only after the collapse of the Portuguese empire in 1974 that the domestic security situation began to deteriorate as guerrillas infiltrated the country from neighboring Mozambique.
South Africa's internal affairs situation is very different. It has experienced a prolonged period of urban unrest and appears to have lost control of black militancy in many townships. It is likely to face a growing threat of guerrilla infiltration. But the significance of outside guerrilla influences could pale in light of the already-present urban militant threat.
Also different is the fact that South Africa has a unionized and organized black labor force able to strike at the heart of its economy. This was not so in Rhodesia.
Market and production size is likely to be important. As a small producer of a wide range of primary commodities, Rhodesia had a less-severe marketing problem -- under sanctions -- than South Africa will face with its coal, its steel, and its fruit. Because Pretoria is a major producer and significant exporter, sanctions evasion through third parties is likely to be harder. Detection risks will be greater.
Of crucial importance too is the fact that Rhodesia's early years under sanctions were characterized by a buoyant world economy and strong demand for primary products. The situation of the 1980s is very different and Pretoria's sanctions' breakers will have to compete in difficult buyers markets.
Above all, Rhodesia never attracted the strong dislike and antipathy that Pretoria's apartheid policy of enforced race segregation and hard-line conduct generate. Accordingly, many countries that imposed sanctions against Rhodesia paid only lip-service to the campaign. In Pretoria's case, implementation and enforcement seem likely to be more formidible.
All of this suggests that Rhodesia is unlikely to prove a reliable model for forecasting how sanctions might affect South Africa. But not all comparisons suggest that Pretoria will suffer more. An obviously crucial countervailing point is that more than half of South Africa's exports are gold -- a product against which sanctions are unlikely to succeed.
Second, South Africa does have some captive markets -- Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana -- where significant sanctions' breaking are likely to occur.
Third and most important, Pretoria has been planning for sanctions for some years. It has established ``front'' companies abroad to circumvent bans. And South Africa, like Rhodesia, has a committed and motivated white population that sees no alternative but to side with the government to prove sanctions don't work.