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Standing firm on South Africa

South Africa is stepping up its lobbying effort in Washington -- and even illegally. The public cannot but be puzzled by the visit of five South African military officers, traveling on visas incorrectly identifying them as government officials and threfore in violation of a US ban on such travel. It seems clear that this breach of the law is part of Pretoria's effort to court members of Congress and executive officials in order to win more votes for a softer US stance on ties with South Africa.

To its credit, the State Department, after discovering who the South Africans really were, raised questions about their status and at this writing the visitors were due to return home -- not, however, before having met with some congressmen and with officials in the NSC and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Many questions arise. Why did the US Embassy in Pretoria not spot the interlopers?Why did it grant the visas, and under whose instructions? Does this reflect a conflict within the administration as future US policy toward South Africa is worked out?

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This is but one of several recent signs that US policy may become more accommodating toward South Africa. The trend is worrisome. South Africa will be one of the President's most crucial foreign policy problems, and it is to be hoped that he does not let his long-held views about the region prejudice a fresh, dispassionate analysis of the issue. The South African government and supporters of apartheid would like nothing better than to persuade him that South Africa is the last bastion of defense against Soviet communism in southern Africa and vital to US strategic interests.

Weighing the inhuman system of aparthied in the balance with anticommunism is a subtle means of avoiding the real issue -- racial justice and representative government in South Africa. To base US policy on the sole premise of fighting communism would be in effect to play into the hands of the Russians. For it is apartheid -- and the failure to dismantle it fast enough -- which could drive South Africa's blacks to seek Moscow's help. The world community must therefore keep up pressures on the Pretoria government to change the system and avert a polarization which would bring violence and bloodshed.

Not only the Western allies ar concerned about Mr. Reagan's thinking in the matter. Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and other countries of Africa see grave consequences for stability in southern Africa if the Reagan administration adopts a policy based primarily on East-West rivalry. In their view, moves to repeal the US law banning aid to the anti-Marxist rebel forces in Angola, for instance, would undermine chances for settlement of the Namibia issue, which has had the support of the Angolan government. Failure to resolve that issue, in turn, would make it harder for Angola to ask the Cubans to leave the country. Instead of getting rid of Soviet influence, in other words, the US might be courting it.

That is the danger to be guarded against, and the new administration should proceed cautiously. Mr. Reagan shows less than a full grasp of the subject when he suggests that the US should not abandon a country that "stood beside us in every war we've fought" and "a country that strategically is essential to the free world."

The paramount point is that South Africa will be a fully reliable and worthy partner only when it divests itself of the burden of apartheid and establishes a society which mandates racial equality and justice. This is not to suggest that this can be accomplished overnight, to fail to appreciate some small signs of progress, or to idly dismiss the fears of the South African whites as they face the future. South Africa needs the world's understanding and compassion, confronted as it is with such an anguishing problem.

But it is a serious question whether the United States would serve either South Africa's best interests -- or those of the West -- by drawing back from its open disapproval of an abhorrent system and from its policy of nudging South Africa along the roa d of reform.

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