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Sanctions against South Africa

THANKS to last month's bullying and unproductive raids on its neighbors, South Africa has provided a perfect justification for renewed comprehensive sanctions by the United States. A broad coalition of congressmen, Republicans and Democrats, has wanted for months to intensify US pressure on that apartheid-dominated country. But will Congress pass legislation that could encourage South Africa to seek real change rapidly; or as before, appropriately enraged, will it simply attempt to punish the white regime?

Last year's congressional attempt to legislate a range of sanctions against South Africa was overtaken at the last moment by a presidential executive order to put in effect a less complete set of prohibitions. In September, President Reagan reluctantly banned the sale in the US of South African-produced gold coins, halted new bank lending, tightened restrictions on the sale of high-technology equipment, and established a prestigious commission (now meeting) to recommend a new policy toward South Africa. But the President refused to include a trigger that would be activated if conditions in South Africa worsened or the white government of South Africa continued to refuse to talk with representative Africans about their joint future.

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The new congressional initiative wants to restore the trigger and demonstrate US displeasure with the slow pace of change in South Africa by broadening and deepening the range of US sanctions. The proposed new measures include a ban on new US investment in private business there and a strengthened ban on bank lending. It would prohibit companies like Fluor and Bechtel from continuing to construct oil-from-coal plants, which give South Africa partial self-sufficiency in energy.

Individual investments in South African gold mines and other shares traded in US stock exchanges would be halted. So would US deposits in South African banks. Imports of coal, uranium, and steel from South Africa, all of which compete with US supplies, would be denied, but not imports of critical minerals like manganese and chrome, which are vital in steelmaking. In a move that could cause acute stress to South Africans, their national airline would be denied landing rights in the United States. Later such a ban could be extended to all airlines serving South Africa.

The trigger would consist of the mandatory withdrawal of US computer companies -- principally IBM -- if, after 12 months, South Africa had still not dismantled apartheid. But like last year's congressional bill and the President's milder executive order, the proposals so far contain no substantial carrot for white South Africa. Other than the ability to avert the withdrawal of US computer facilities (and Japanese companies like Hitachi are already actively expanding in South Africa), the congressional proposals provide no calibrated incentives.

If the series of sanctions were staggered over a year, with different actions set for successive months, white businessmen in South Africa might have some hope of persuading their notoriously shortsighted government to begin meeting the political demands of South Africa's black majority. Positive reinforcements could also be added: Promises of financial support for black education, for example, could be contingent on moves toward real compromise.

Without substantial incentives, those realistic whites who have already weighed the consequences and begun to recognize the guerrillas of the African National Congress as a legitimate force will have more difficulty shifting a largely intransigent white political leadership into assuming anything other than a posture of bitter resistance. White businessmen have welcomed their government's conciliatory talks with a Commonwealth negotiating team, along with the possibility that those explorations would lead to official negotiations with the African National Congress.

South Africa's raids were intended to strengthen the white government's bargaining position and internal image at a time when 22 months of continuous protest by blacks, and the failure to quell violence by both the mailed fist of repression and the velvet glove of tepid reform, have substantially weakened its image locally. The talks with the Commonwealth team were hurting the government on its right wing, too.

Renewed pressure on South Africa from the US is timely, and much more likely to be effective psychologically, if not necessarily economically, than anything that can be achieved solely by university divestment or corporate disinvestment. But to achieve the maximum impact for good on a South Africa that is tense and volatile, the congressional legislation needs to give white South Africa the possibility of converting sticks into carrots, but without the whites' using the prevarications and obfuscations that will encourage the South African crisis to escalate indefinitely.

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Robert I. Rotberg is professor of political science and history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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