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SOUTH AFRICA HOW VITAL TO THE WEST?

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Shortly after his election as the new United States President, Ronald Reagan told reporters his administration will place less emphasis on human rights -- and more emphasis on countering the Soviet Union.

His words rebounded around the world. To the white minority rulers of the Republic of South Africa they are like music. For four years, the government here has chafed under President Jimmy Carter's criticism of racial discrimination.

Now the South African government sees in the election of Ronald Reagan a possible entree back into the Western world.

In the wake of the US election, the Johannesburg Afrikaans-language newspaper Beeld -- mouthpiece of the ruling National Party -- prophesied that:

"South Africa can use the Reagan years to advantage by making our energy supply to a hungry West indispensable; we must hammer loud and long upon the strategic importance of South Africa in military terms and with regard to raw materials that are essential for military and industrial uses; we must offer our contribution as fighter of Russian expansionism; and we must encourage the new US government to chase the Cubans out of Africa. . ."

So begins a new chapter in South African -- and US -- diplomacy. South Africa will, through a variety of means try to ingratiale itself with the new administration in Washington.

The US, in turn, will be faced with a peculiar problem -- whether to draw closer to a mineral-rich, militarily powerful, vehemently anticommunist regime at the risk of bringing harsh criticism and even economic retaliation from much of the third world.

The US has always had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with South Africa. The US State Department has denounced South Africa's racial discrimination as "one of the cruelest forms of human-rights abuse in the world today." Yet the US maintains full diplomatic relations with Pretoria, and US corporate investment in the country totals more than $1.8 billion.

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