THE Bush administration is trying to find a consensus on the divisive problem of apartheid. The goal is getting South Africa's black majority and its white government to the same negotiating table, a senior administration official says.
For this to be possible, there has to be an atmosphere where black leaders are not put in jail for nonviolent activity and where black leadership is willing to engage in a constitutional strategy, the official says. To this end, the United States may be able to serve as a catalyst, he says.
Administration specialists now say the situation may be ripe for progress as leaders on both sides show signs of moderation.
``I don't expect rapid movement toward multiracial democracy in South Africa,'' said Herman Cohen, US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, in a USIA interview last week. ``But I do see some glimmers of hope which lead me to believe that at least a dialogue will be possible.'' He points to statements by leaders of the ruling National Party and the exiled African National Congress (ANC).
But the administration is just beginning its consultation process and does not yet have an agreed-upon framework to pursue its goals. ``Between now and Labor Day we hope we can develop an approach to use after the elections with South Africa's new government,'' the senior official says. The consultation process began in earnest last week when President Bush met with three anti-apartheid clerics - a Nobel Peace prize-winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak; and the Rev. Dr. Beyers Naude.
The South African activists say they came away from the meeting surprised by the ``openness'' they found and ``hopeful'' that the administration would take a more active stance in fighting apartheid than the Reagan team had. But they, and US anti-apartheid activists such as Randall Robinson of TransAfrica, say they can only judge by concrete US moves.
The South African visitors are still calling for more US sanctions on South Africa, though they indicated a willingness to support selective sanctions rather than comprehensive ones if that would get faster action. The Bush administration remains opposed to additional sanctions, but is taking a more positive stance than under Reagan on the effectiveness of existing US sanctions.
The Bush team puts a high priority on building consensus with Congress. Secretary of State James Baker III has agreed to intensive consultations similar to those used to forge the new Central American policy. Congressional activists say they are enthusiastic about the possibilities. Top officials say they hope the US debate can move away from ``a sterile confrontation over sanctions,'' as one put it.
Simultaneously, the administration plans to reach out to as wide a spectrum of South Africans as possible. The administration has invited the leader of the National Party, F.W. de Klerk, and Albertina Sisulu, a leader of the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front, to come to Washington.
The administration will also have regular contacts with the exiled ANC, the senior official says. Its leader, Oliver Tambo, is expected to visit Washington later this year and will probably be received at the State Department.
Secretary Baker is currently slated to meet with South African Foreign Minister Roelof (Pik) Botha next week in Rome.
Administration officials stress that if the US is to play a ``catalytic'' role in moving South Africa forward, it has to maintain contacts with a range of leaders.
``We have difficulty accepting that there is any one spokesman for whites or blacks,'' a ranking US diplomat says. ``That's why we sent out a comprehensive message'' about coming meetings during Archbishop Tutu's visit. US officials say Mrs. Sisulu, in particular, is a respected black leader who would be an excellent additional interlocutor for the President.