The next date to watch for in the great South Africa sanctions debate is Aug. 4. Then, seven Commonwealth leaders will gather in London to discuss the issue, which is being hotly contested by three influential groups. The first group is made up of most African and third-world nations, South Africa's black nationalist movement, and sections of Western opinionmakers. It argues that comprehensive sanctions against South Africa are the quickest and most effective way of forcing it to abandon apartheid, South Africa's policy of strict racial separation, and work toward negotiating a new nonracial, democratic constitution.
The group is demanding total economic, cultural, military, and political sanctions designed to isolate and to weaken the Pretoria regime.
Admittedly, says the group, comprehensive sanctions would adversely affect employment and living conditions of black South Africans and the economies of neighboring countries. But black South Africans and neighboring states will accept these sacrifices in order to hasten the fall of apartheid.
In addition, comprehensive sanctions, according to this group, are likely to be relatively brief. It expects the Western community to provide economic and other support to South Africa's neighbors, to alleviate the hardships sanctions would bring.
The second group is led by Britain and West Germany. Other members include much of South Africa's business community, South Africa's official white opposition Progressive Federal Party, and Chief Gatsha Buthelezi's Inkatha movement. This group gives the following reasons for opposing sanctions:
Embargoes cannot be implemented effectively against a country with as many economic and other resources as South Africa has. South Africa is strong enough to weather even an effective economic blizzard for at least three or four years. Thus, the belief in quick results is a serious misjudgement.
The likeliest outcome of total sanctions would be to force Pretoria to take economic counteraction against its neighbors. In the short run, this action would wreak greater havoc on their economies than on South Africa's.
The suffering of black South Africans would be much greater than the sanctioneers admit. It would most likely increase the level of inter-black conflict and interracial violence to a point where no orderly transition from apartheid could take place.
South Africa's economy is likely to be destroyed, leaving a bleak heritage to any future government.
Self-interest is prominent in the minds of South Africa's Western trading partners: They would have to accept significant losses in trade and other earnings as well as unemployment at home in industries which greatly rely on exporting to South Africa. Thus, they refuse to contemplate a program which they regard as unrealistic and unlikely to hasten the end of apartheid.
The third group adds further reasons for blocking any moves toward sanctions. Led by South Africa and influential right-wing groups in Western Europe and the United States, this group argues that sanctions would also freeze the momentum toward political change.
Pretoria, says this group, would be forced into maintaining a siege economy, halting efforts to remove apartheid laws systematically and to encourage political negotiations between white and black leaders.
The tough actions Pretoria would then take against its neighbours would destabilize the fragile economies of these nations and their regimes, producing chaos in the region. The group insists that this would create conditions allowing the Soviet bloc more influence than the Western world in South Africa's future.
It would be folly to ignore the capacity and readiness of each group to maintain their positions. It would also be unhelpful to ignore the realities and fallacies present in the arguments advanced by all three groups.
One of the realities is that a number of the most influential African member-states of the Commonwealth are prepared to abandon the ``club'' rather than to accept Britain's refusal to impose any further sanctions. But it is unrealistic to suppose that they would maintain their stand on maximalist demands for comprehensive sanctions. Some middle ground between the two is possible, with the emphasis on selective, strategic sanctions.
It is difficult to determine how long South Africa could withstand the imposition of sanctions, or what the immediate consequences of tougher measures will be. Clearly, however, South Africa is capable of maintaining a siege economy for at least five years. Therefore, to base hopes on an early collapse of the regime because of economic pressures is unwise. This makes it necessary to look much more carefully at the cost sanctions will bring to South Africa's black workers, and at the ability of its neighbors to withstand countersanctions.
Apart from trade, the most serious risk to the neighboring states would be that South Africa would cut them off from trade routes across its territory. This would leave many of them dependent on slow, costly, ill-maintained, and often ill-managed railways.
Therefore, it would be myopic to minimize the economic and security risks to South Africa's neighbors if comprehensive sanctions were to be imposed. Even a limited expansion of sanctions is likely to provoke counteraction from Pretoria.