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Reagan's man in Africa

The Reagan administration is acting with welcome speed to clarify its policy on southern Africa. In view of the difficulty of the region's remaining political and economic problems, it is important that this policy be creative as well as responsible. Hope on both scores has been roused by the designation of a highly regarded scholar of Africa, Chester Crocker, as assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and by plans for him to head a diplomatic mission to southern Africa in the near future.

Mineral sources and security considerations are two prime reasons that give the United States -- and the world -- a stake in peaceful resolutions of such matters as independence for Namibia (South-West Africa) and racial justice in South Africa. The encouraging example of Zimbabwe, despite some disappointments , suggests that constructive change can be fostered by the policies of friendly countries.

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The administration gives signs of thinking creatively by contemplating a Zimbabwe approach to Namibia; that is, negotiating before an election some of the laws to specify the rights of various parties after the election. What is to be lauded here is the willingness to think afresh, not necessarily the plan proposed.

It was earlier fresh thinking by several Western countries, including the US -- and by South Africa itself -- that led to the present United Nations-supported plan for Namibian independence. It calls for elections first, with a constituent assembly then drawing up the new nation's laws. This may still turn out to be acceptable. Indeed, South Africa, which rules Namibia contrary to UN mandate and the legal views of Western nations, had seemed to agree it long ago. Any change now should not be made or perceived as a victory for South Africa's delaying tactics but only as an alternative accepted as an improvement by all sides.

American policy on the issue should be consistent with the kind of coherent African and southern African policy that is hoped for with the expertise of Mr. Crocker, former director of African studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University. Similarly, the US policy on Angola should befit the overall policy. Until that policy is formulated, it would be rash to take such action as repealing the Clark amendment, for example, which some in Congress are trying to do. This is the amendment forbidding US arms supply to guerrilla factions in Angola, including the Jonas Savimbi group with which many Americans as well as South Africans are sympathetic.

Mr. Crocker's reluctance to talk with the press at this time is said to be due partly to his "designate" rather than confirmed status in the State Department and partly to a desire to meet the southern African leaders on his trip without being prejudged or bound to his reported statements. But from what he has written as a scholar he seems unlikely to stoke concerns that the Reagan administration will depart radically from US policy of the recent past.

Such concerns have been roused by some of Mr. Reagan's own words in support of South Africa. UN Secretary General Waldheim reportedly has gone so far as to convey to America's chief UN representative, Jeane Kirkpatrick, the concern of African nations about a US shift in policy toward South Africa. Their apprehension had been heightened by her meeting with the chief of South African military intelligene when he was in the US despite a ban on the admission of South African military officials.

Mr. Crocker's writings support both "evolutionary change" in South Africa and the "sensitivity to the concerns of local actors" which he says this support implies. He sees public encouragement of positive steps there as an important tool of policy: "A tone of empathy is required not only for the suffering and injustice caused to blacks in a racist system, but also for the awesome political dilemma in which Afrikaners and other whites find themselves."

No doubt Mr. Crocker's thinking went into a recent White House statement that promised continued US opposition to apartheid; plain talk to South Africa in a constructive not confrontational spirit; support for "a genuinely independent and democratic Namibia, recognized by the international community:; and strengthened mutual understanding and cooperation with all African state.

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It is a good beginning, requiring the most thoughtful specific steps to carry through its general goals.

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