Loosening South Africa's Logjam

FOUR top anti-apartheid leaders - Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak, Frank Chikane, and Beyers Naude - visited the United States recently to refocus attention on internal events in South Africa and to explore concrete ways for the international community to help move the situation forward. They arrived at a time of great fluidity in southern Africa. Namibia is on the road to independence, the Cubans are withdrawing from Angola, the African National Congress (ANC) is moving its military bases out of the region, and the Soviet Union is pushing for political solutions. Two chapters of southern African history - colonialism and the cold war - are drawing to a close.

Within South Africa, the logjam appears to be loosening. Pretoria wants to end the country's international isolation, obtain access to world markets, and uphold its debt service record so it can raise long-term loans abroad. Divestment, sanctions, capital outflow, and a depressed gold price have taken their toll - as shown by Mobil Oil's recent decision to pull out of South Africa. In white politics, liberals are regrouping and a new generation of National Party leaders is poised to take over in September when elections are to be held and President P.W. Botha is expected to step down. Blacks are also changing tactics, moving from mass demonstrations and confrontational politics to grass-roots organization and negotiations for limited, achievable goals.

The Bush administration has a chance to put aside the policy of ``constructive engagement,'' which opposed sanctions, and use sanctions as a creative instrument of political leverage. Otherwise, the impasse will linger between Congress and the executive branch, and American policy will remain split. Consistent with his desire for bipartisanship, George Bush should strike a deal with Congress consisting of three parts.

Mr. Bush should spell out his own position on South Africa, underscoring the goal of negotiations with genuine black leaders, not race-based reforms.

He should try to get Pretoria to permit legitimate political dissent by releasing political prisoners, ending the state of emergency, and legalizing the opposition - including the ANC. In exchange, the US Congress should agree to a one-year sanctions moratorium, allowing the administration some breathing space to coordinate with the allies and, perhaps, the USSR.

To induce the South African government to respond, Congress should grant Bush a qualified presidential waiver that would allow him, with the approval of appropriate congressional committees, to lift sanctions selectively in response to positive steps by Pretoria. For example, the ban on Krugerrands might be suspended if Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were released. Further relaxation of sanctions could follow if the government adopted the recommendations of the South African Law Commission on Human Rights, which called for a Bill of Rights, a universal franchise, and entrenchment of judicially defended human rights instead of group rights, as white interests are euphemistically called.

The process would involve close consultations with prominent anti-apartheid figures, trade unionists, and community leaders regarding the nature, scope, and timing of US actions. This would give blacks a voice in calling the shots. Conversely, the prospect of having sanctions lifted would weaken the argument of white skeptics who maintain that nothing is to be gained by responding to external pressures.

An independent advisory group, appointed by the President, might receive inputs, monitor events, and make recommendations on sanctions. If Pretoria remains intransigent or tries to circumvent the arrangement by half-measures, for instance, by releasing Mr. Mandela but restricting his freedom of speech and movement, the advisory panel could recommend penalties.

A new political order is taking shape in southern Africa. If Bush wants to formulate an effective policy, he should start by ending the stalemate with Congress. That would enable Americans to stand together in their opposition to apartheid.

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