Relations between the governments of South Africa and the United States have reached their lowest point in nearly a decade. In response to what South Africans see as the leading role now assumed by the US in the international sanctions campaign, anti-American sentiment has risen sharply in the politically dominant white community here. And increasingly it seems that this sentiment will play a key role if the government calls a special election early next year.
The feelings of the beleaguered white minority were reflected starkly in a front page report in last Sunday's Afrikaans newspaper, Rapport. ``Into the laager and to hell with the Yanks,'' its banner headline proclaimed.
The report followed last Friday's extremely anti-American speech by President Pieter W. Botha, in which he accused the US of taking ``up the sword against us on behalf of the Soviet Union.'' His speech was characterized in the weekend report of one influential Afrikaans daily newspaper as ``another sign of worsening relations.''
Outside the ranks of white ultra-rightists, whose hatred of communism is matched only by their loathing of the US, Mr. Botha's speech was probably the most acrid public attack by a white South African leader on the US in 10 years.
Accusing the US of declaring economic war on South Africa for ``absurd and sanctimonious reasons,'' the President charged the US government of coming up with ``an insulting plan'' to send one of its officials to South Africa to investigate poverty and starvation in South Africa's black-occupied rural areas. Such an investigation must be made as one mandate of the US 1986 South Africa sanctions bill.
Labeling US policy ``revolting'' and unworthy of America, Botha said: ``The US government should be under no illusions whatsoever that we will tolerate such blatant hostility and objectionable interference in our domestic affairs.'' Botha then quoted figures in an effort to prove that there are better health facilities in South Africa than in the 50 or more black-ruled African nations to the north. The figures did not, however, distinguish between facilities available to whites compared to those accessible to blacks in South Africa.
The US government representative, a US Agency for International Development worker, had already been refused a visa earlier in the week. Thus, Botha's speech was seen both as an expression of anger at US policy and as a bid to set the tone for an anticipated general election for whites early next year. Rallying whites around the government to resist American ``interference'' will be a major plank of Botha's ruling National Party in the expected election, the Rapport article predicted.
The article drew an analogy with the 1977 general election, in which former Prime Minister Balthazar J. Vorster won the biggest victory in South Africa's voting history by rallying whites against US policies. ``South Africa is on the road to an election with strong echoes from 1977 when Jimmy Carter was the big bogey,'' according to Rapport.
Shortly before Mr. Vorster called the 1977 election he delivered a speech not notably different from the one made by Botha, in which he drew a parallel between Soviet and US policy toward South Africa. Where the Soviet Union offered ``death by brute force,'' US policy amounted to ``strangulation with finesse,'' Vorster said in 1977.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss Botha's speech and that of Vorster before him as mere election maneuvers, say local and foreign analysts here. There is - and was - very real white anger and anxiety at what are seen as hostile and hypocritical US policies. The withdrawal of major corporations from South Africa - the US's General Motors, IBM, and Eastman Kodak, and the British Barclays Bank - has fueled that anxiety. So, too, has the withdrawal of landing rights for South African Airways aircraft in the US and the drawing up of a list of 166 South African companies prohibited from exporting to the US on the grounds that they are South African government para-statals.
South African sensitivity was manifest recently in a reprimand delivered by its Foreign Minister, Roelef Botha (no relation to the President), to US Charg'e d'Affairs Richard Barkley. The reprimand was over an assessment of the South African economy made a few months ago by the US consulate general in Johannesburg.
The US appraisal described South Africa as ``just another African state,'' characterized by chronic debt, scarcity of imports, ethnic diversity, and a ``repressive regime unable to manage its own domestic constituency in any positive way.'' The foreign minister told Mr. Barkley that the South African government took the ``strongest exception to the insulting and hostile language of the report.''
Growing anger among whites at US policy is evident in the cheers that greet hostile references to the US at white political meetings and in the appearance in Pretoria of posters saying: ``Go home Yanks.'' The pro-government newspaper, the Citizen, reflected white feelings when it said: ``The anti-Yank feeling here is growing and `go home Yanks' will become a more persistent cry unless the Yanks leave us alone to get on with reform in our own way.''
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.