Time to Lift South Africa Sanctions

THE visit of Frederik de Klerk to the United States last month places the issue of sanctions against South Africa back on the nation's policy agenda. President de Klerk has said that he doesn't expect an immediate lifting of sanctions. Yet, it is time to examine just what this continuing policy is doing to his country. With sanctions in place, South Africa faces continued constraints to its reform process. And the US is missing important opportunities to influence and assist South Africa's transition. Four reasons suggest modifying sanctions now. The most immediate is their role in recent factional fighting that continues to interrupt progress toward negotiations. Chaos in the townships threatens to harden white attitudes toward a shared future.

One important, largely unrecognized, cause of this unrest is not political but economic. Part of the vehemence of this internecine struggle stems from stiff competition for employment. Sanctions have cost tens of thousands of blacks their jobs, pushing unemployment above 30 percent. South Africans refer to this as ``the policy of making the blacks suffer until the whites give in.''

Second, sanctions as a policy tool should be flexible. Sanctions are a means of forceful communication first, and iron-fisted coercion second. Flexible sanctions can convey positive signals as well as disapproval.

It is time to signal South Africa that the fundamental steps taken by both sides in the last year are welcome. De Klerk's direction is clear, even though the end result is not yet defined. Further, the process he has launched is essentially irreversible. Nelson Mandela, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and other black leaders have also taken some hard decisions that lead toward negotiations.

Both sides are entrusting their futures to a constitutional process, founded soon on a popular vote and governed by law and established institutions. For the moment, revolution has given way to politics and diplomacy. These trends are rare in Africa. Enlightened foreign policy would commend the architects.

Third, by crimping the economy, sanctions close off needed options that could let the discussions proceed with less heat. Unemployment, reduced revenues, the possibility of a recession, all constrain government's ability to meet immediate survival and welfare needs. An unnecessary urgency is created that threatens to force reforms to a premature, and thus unsustainable, conclusion.

Fourth, adjusting sanctions selectively offers a chance to assist South Africa to its ultimate destination. Different sectors of the economy have vastly different impacts on the different races. Selective repeal stressing commodities most closely linked to black employment and incomes could contribute directly to their welfare.

Laws prohibiting black ownership of capital assets and property have been repealed. Yet, their relative poverty prevents many blacks from taking advantage of this new opportunity. Relaxing prohibitions against capital inflows and investment in ways that capitalize black entrepreneurs would provide a major stimulus to the emergence of a strong black middle class.

Other opportunities exist for creative assistance through amended sanctions. The point is that South Africa's blacks need help to enter the economic and thus social mainstreams. Sanctions in their present form no longer contribute to political change. They do, however, delay the social and economic transition.

It's true that some conditions in our sanctions law yet been met. Political prisoners, they say, are still in jail. Many prisoners have been released, though, and most remaining were convicted of clearly criminal acts.

Although the Group Areas Act remains in place, it has been amended and weakened. And it is unenforced in most areas, now that the pass laws are gone. Some 2 million blacks have flooded into cities in search of jobs since the pass laws were scrapped - proof that the repressive act exists mainly on paper.

Finally, a partial state of emergency remains in Natal. Events of the last several weeks should have made the reasons for it clear. If 5,000 people had died in our cities as they have in Natal, you can bet that our government would exercise special powers to maintain order. Why should we hold South Africa to a different standard?

From a humanitarian view, removing sanctions is overdue. At last, political dynamics have evolved to the point that this law can be reconsidered.

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