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South African businesses try to prevent US disinvestment

South Africa's business community is starting to ring the alarm about threatened United States legislation aimed at punishing South Africa economically. The emerging counterstrategy against the US legislation amounts to unprecedented local business pressure on the Pretoria government to reform its system of racial segregation, called apartheid.

Meanwhile, the South African government and the subsidiaries of US companies here are also taking action to blunt the disinvestment drive in Washington.

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The strategy of South African businesses, says one official with one of the country's largest companies, is to let US companies do the lobbying in Washington, and to focus local efforts on pressuring the government into faster and more fundamental reform of apartheid.

Last week the South African business sector took action on two fronts. A coalition of six business groups representing 80 percent of the industrial, mining, and commercial work force, tried to nudge the government into giving ``visible expression'' to the reforms promised by President Pieter Botha in January.

The coalition said government action now could have a ``positive impact'' on overseas opinion and the disinvestment debate in the US. The joint statement came from English, Afri- kaner, and black business organizations, an indication that the business community is increasingly united in its attempts to speed up reform.

Also last week, the conservative, low-key South Africa Foundation took off the gloves in criticizing government policy at its annual meeting. Peter Sorour, the director general, said ``not only is there impatience'' with the slow pace of reform, ``there is also anger in business circles.'' Mr. Sorour said the private sector would be much more insistent this year that the government take steps to eliminate apartheid.

The South African government has expressed deep concern about possible punitive legislation in the US. But it is uncertain whether that concern will wring new reforms from the government.

The Department of Foreign Affairs recently appointed an official to spearhead the government's efforts against the US disinvestment drive. Analysts here say this was a sign the government knows it needs a more coordinated approach to fighting disinvestment and also needs better communication with the business community.

US companies operating here have decided to leave lobbying efforts in the US to their parent companies. This caused the executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in South Africa, Steve Bisenius, to resign recently and set up the new American Association for Trade and Investment. The group will be ``actively'' involved in trying to thwart the disinvestment movement, Mr. Bisenius says.

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Rather than lobbying in the US, the American Chamber of Commerce here has vowed to try to put more pressure on the Pretoria government for reform. A delegation from the chamber recently met with the minister of constitutional development, J. Chris Heunis. Chamber president Frank Lubke says the government was urged, among other things, to phase out the ``pass laws'' that restrict where blacks can live, work, and travel, stop forced removals of blacks to ``homelands,'' and open up business districts to all races.

South Africa's business community began to show a more unified impatience with Pretoria late last year.

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