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Facing southern Africa's South Africa problem

THE United Nations Special Session on Africa, which convened yesterday, will undoubtedly shed needed light on the still desperate condition of most of Africa's people, particularly the urgent economic problems of sub-Saharan Africa. It will not, however, be able to take up the dire situation faced by the nations of southern Africa. Southern Africa has severe economic problems, but these are quickly being superseded by the tragedy of violence, sometimes supported by the United States.

Present US policies reinforce the status quo in southern Africa, namely, regional domination by the giant state of South Africa, with its modern, $80 billion economy and sophisticated defense forces.

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American policy must be reoriented toward two goals:

Hastening the transition in South Africa from minority to majority rule.

Promoting economic growth in all the other countries of southern Africa.

Increasing stability in this region will not be easy: Two of the countries, Angola and Mozambique, suffer under civil wars; Zimbabwe still has significant civil unrest; Lesotho recently underwent a coup d''etat triggered in part by South African pressure; Zambia is facing the increasing probability of economic collapse; South Africa is in the painful process of moving from minority to majority rule; and all the countries in this region, reaching as far north as Zaire, suffer from South Africa's destabilization efforts.

Many Americans concerned by events within South Africa pay little or no heed to the dramatic effects that events there are having on its neighbors. This blindness keeps us from developing policies to redress, for example, the inability of the region's many landlocked countries to make use of the nearest and best ports. Important rail lines through Angola and Mozambique are closed, because of military activities funded in part by South Africa (and in Angola, now, by the US as well). The landlocked countries, then, are forced to use South African ports, at an annual cost of about $1 billion.

US policy toward southern Africa is in disarray following the dissolution of ``constructive engagement.'' Present policy leaves us praising President Pieter W. Botha in South Africa, sending lethal aid to Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebels in Angola, and continuing our support, however lukewarm, for Mozambique (a government that follows policies similar to those of Angola and is fighting a guerrilla movement not dissimilar to Mr. Savimbi's UNITA). The goals of these policies, although opaque, appear to be:

To insert a strongly pro-Western government in Angola, with Jonas Savimbi as one of its rulers (a policy strongly supported by South Africa).

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To continue a stalemated civil war in Mozambique (a policy unequivocally favored by the present South African government).

To abet, without advocating much acceleration, the present process of slow, bloody incremental change in South Africa.

To allow South Africa to continue to bully the region economically, as it desperately tries to maintain its own economic health in the face of massive internal protests for change.

These policies are the US response to the intensity of military activity in southern Africa, intensity that has allowed US military policy experts to predominate over economic development experts. This imbalance of views is the central reason for today's flawed US policies.

Economic growth is not possible with regional stability and peace. These will not be attained unless South Africa is kept from hindering and harassing its neighbors. The US could start by expressing strong disapproval of South Africa's continued support for aggression and instability and applying increasingly severe economic sanctions until such support stops.

We could learn from the example of US policy during Zimbabwe's transition to majority rule. After helping broker a remarkably sturdy agreement between black and white combatants, the US has proceeded to send economic assistance. Zimbabwe now is one of the very few African nations with a strong farming sector, involving both blacks and whites, and a healthy, growing economy.

American policy should be refocused on promoting regional stability and economic advances by minimizing South Africa's destructive efforts. To do otherwise allows South Africa's destabilization campaign to continue to succeed -- and prospects for economic growth elsewhere in the region to fade.

Anthony Gambino works on a project examining southern Africa issues for the Overseas Development Council in Washington, D.C.

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