SOUTH AFRICA appears to have won a nine-month respite from a tightening net of international economic and financial sanctions aimed at hastening the end of apartheid. ``Sanctions against South Africa are rapidly becoming a non-issue,'' trumpeted the Financial Mail, the country's leading financial news magazine, in an editorial last week.
The government's announcement that it will release eight of the most prominent jailed black leaders appears to have put on hold international efforts for tighter sanctions. This was acknowledged last Wednesday by Commonwealth Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal in an interview with the Financial Times of London.
The Commonwealth nations summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, starting Wednesday had emerged as the main international lobby for tighter financial sanctions. But Mr. Ramphal said there would not now be a push for further sanctions at the summit.
Ramphal indicated that future moves would depend on what happened in South Africa between now and mid-1990 - the date by which South Africa must reschedule its short-term debt.
South African economists are confident that the steam will stay out of the anti-apartheid movement's campaign for tighter sanctions as long as President Frederik de Klerk is able to maintain the current momentum for interracial negotiations.
``The whole climate is very much against banks succumbing to pressure to up the ante on debt repayments,'' said author and economist Ronnie Bethlehem of the Johannesburg Consolidated Industries mining group. ``But there is a danger that if the momentum on reform is not maintained, a new round of sanctions pressure could build up.''
The sanctions, adopted by major trading partners, have contributed to a slowing of the economy in recent years and kept high the price of maintaining apartheid - estimated at $35 billion annually.
The growing impact of sanctions on an economy starved of capital and plagued by rising inflation and unemployment has sparked disagreement among white businessmen and politicians and divided the black community.
A recent emphasis on financial sanctions aims to end export trade credits and set political conditions for the rescheduling of $7 billion of short-term debt.
Anti-apartheid demonstrators in New York, London, Bonn, Paris, and Zurich launched a campaign Oct. 6 to pressure the debtor banks into demanding that Pretoria repay 15 percent annually - or $1.65 billion - of the original amount owed.
Foreign bankers argue that a repayment of 15 percent would be unrealistic as it would require the country to generate a surplus of $5 billion a year on its balance of payments. Bankers project the country's current account surplus at between $2 billion and $3 billion a year for the next few years.
South Africa's foreign creditors have been receiving 5 percent of their capital plus interest payments annually since mid-1987.
This has bled the South African economy, knocking at least 2 percentage points off the economic growth rate - projected at 2 percent this year - and has made the developing country a net exporter of capital
When banks in the United States - led by Chase Manhattan - called in their short-term loans to South African banks in August 1985 they forced the Pretoria authorities to declare a debt standstill which led, in turn, to the crash of the South African rand, shearing off 30 percent of its value against the dollar.
The impact of the largely political judgment by the US banks - South Africa was then in the midst of a nationwide black rebellion - has been greater than any subsequent economic sanctions imposed by Western governments.
But the corollary is that there is little more that banks can do to put the political screws on Pretoria.
``The bottom line is that South Africans will give us what they want,'' said one foreign banker.
A similar message was contained in the testimony of US Treasury official Richard Newcomb before a congressional sub-committee in August.
He said that if the US Congress amended the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA) to include debt rescheduling, US banks could be forced to the back of the debt queue.
South Africa has honored its servicing and repayment of the debt, and bankers are now thought unlikely to rock the boat to appease the international anti-apartheid movement.
South African Reserve Bank Governor Chris Stals is adamant that political bargaining is not on the agenda. ``Our debt negotiating committee does not have a mandate to negotiate political trade-offs,'' he said. ``Should the banks wish to raise these issues we would have to send a more appropriate team.''
But most foreign bankers agree with his stand, in private at least.
In an unexpected development South Africa's foreign debt predicament was further eased at the beginning of October when US banks reached long-term rescheduling agreements for at least $1.7 billion of the $2.4 billion still owed them.
The existing program of broader sanctions - notably the package of targeted sanctions contained in the CAAA of 1986 - has locked the country's white rulers into formulating a political agenda aimed at forestalling further punitive measures.
The temporary reprieve has been won by a confluence of political events which have raised hopes that a peaceful end to apartheid is still possible.
Foremost of these is the Pretoria government's cooperation in the United Nations-supervised plan to bring Namibia, the mineral-rich territory formerly known as South West Africa, to independence.
Inside the country, the decision of President De Klerk to allow massive anti-apartheid demonstrations in the major cities has raised hopes of a greater tolerance of black dissent.
Mr. De Klerk has also indicated a greater commitment than his predecessors to hold talks with credible black leaders. The first of these took place last week with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and two other anti-apartheid church leaders.
The imposition of selective sanctions by the US and other trading partners - Japan and West Germany are currently the biggest - have been instrumental in the Pretoria government's decision to release jailed leaders of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC).
Nelson Mandela, who could be released by the end of the year, has made it clear that all restrictions on political activity - including a 40-month-old nationwide emergency and a 30-year-old ban on the ANC - would have to be lifted before he would be prepared to take part in a political solution to the country's racial impasse.
The judgment of President Bush, in a report to Congress Oct. 2, that further sanctions against South Africa at this stage ``could be counterproductive'' coincides with a recognition that existing trade and financial sanctions have brought the country's white minority to a point of no return.
``The slowing of the South African economy as the result of sanctions has clearly demonstrated that the well-being of the white minority will increasingly rely on reaching a political accommodation with the black majority,'' Bush said.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen has set June 1990 as the ``reasonable date'' by which Pretoria could be expected to have normalized all political activity, removed remaining discrimination and begun a process of interracial negotiations aimed at a new political order.