Pretoria to US: quit meddling. S. Africa sees US disarray as chance to be tough

Foreign Minister Roelof Botha's response to a tough set of recommendations on South Africa policy issued this week by a Reagan administration panel is the latest sign of Pretoria's chilled attitude toward the United States. Mr. Botha indicated during a television interview earlier this week that if US Secretary of State George Shultz wanted to come here to discuss the policy report, he would be lucky to get past the airport arrival lounge. ``Mr. Shultz will not be welcome to talk about a report of that nature,'' Botha said.

The foreign minister's remarks reflected an overall downturn in ties with the Reagan administration since it failed to veto Congress's sanctions against South Africa last October. Shortly afterward, he refused visas to a group of US congressmen on a fact-finding mission to the region.

Partly, too, being tough on America seems smart politics for a South African government which expects a challenge from the far right in the forthcoming May elections. While addressing foreign reporters last week, Botha said a rejection of outside ``interference'' would be a key element in the ruling National Party's election campaign.

In addition, the South Africans figure that US domestic politics makes this a good time to answer US toughness with equal toughness. ``Our feeling is that, given what is going on in Washington these days, the focus is likely to move away from South Africa at least for a while,'' remarks a South African official privately. He suggested that the Iran-contra affair was likely to keep Congress busy pursuing that issue, and keep the White House wary of launching any new major initiative in southern Africa. Thus, Pretoria's tough US stance does not really jeopardize anything.

Under other circumstances, the US commission's report might have been cause for far greater concern. The panel was appointed in 1985 at a time when the State Department was confidently determined to defeat any push in Congress for sanctions. Even after Congress overrode President Reagan's veto, US officials indicated that the administration hoped the committee report might redirect US political attention away from sanctions and toward encouraging negotiated compromise between Pretoria and black leaders.

Instead, this week's report recommended that the US urge the Western alliance, Japan, and Israel to join in a ``multilateral program of sanctions.'' Sanctions should be dropped, the panel said, only when Pretoria meets demands from the African National Congress and other critics to legalize the ANC, free political detainees, and lift a seven-month-old state of emergency.

The report also advocated moves to strengthen ties with the ANC, the outlawed black nationalist group pushing to dismantle a South African political system that Pretoria wants to ``reform.''

The commission concluded that the administration's policy of ``constructive engagement'' in South Africa had failed. This policy, which the administration has continued to defend, centers on the assumption that the US can best facilitate change through consultation and quiet prodding of the South African government.

Since the sanctions law and the unfolding Iran-contra affair, however, a mood of dismissiveness toward Washington has taken hold here. When Secretary Shultz - in an apparent move to defuse criticism of ``constructive engagement'' - met with ANC President Oliver Tambo last month, South African officials reacted less with anger than a knowing sign. The meeting, they suggested, was positive proof that the US had ceased to be interested in compromise or conciliation in South Africa.

This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.

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