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Unmistakable momentum

IN trying to shift control of US South African policy from Congress to the White House, the Reagan administration offers two carrots and one stick. In a long-shot attempt to persuade the GOP-controlled Senate to sustain his veto of Capitol Hill's modest package of economic sanctions against Pretoria, the President this week offered to impose a softer sanctions array by executive order and named Edward Perkins as Washington's first black ambassador to Pretoria. The stick: Secretary of State Shultz's warning to lawmakers that a veto override could harm the East-West talks coming up in Iceland. Congress is unlikely to be persuaded. The House has already overridden the veto. The Senate is expected to follow suit today. By its earlier action on sanctions, Congress has already made clear its abhorrence of Pretoria's apartheid policy. Congress's stronger set of economic curbs appropriately aligns the United States with the cause of justice and democracy in that region. The US, as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard Lugar has said, must be ``on the right side of history'' on this issue.

Pretoria may well manage to evade the harshest effects of global sanctions. Economically, it is markedly self-sufficient and has had ample time to develop contingency plans. The economic effects may indeed fall hardest, as President Reagan has suggested, on black South Africans -- some 6 million of whom are unemployed, according to one unofficial estimate -- and on neighboring black African nations so dependent on Pretoria for jobs and transportation of imports and exports. Despite that cost, a number of black leaders, including Archbishop Tutu, strongly urge sanctions.

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Considerable debate and anguish have gone into recent decisions by the European Community, the government of Japan, and Congress to impose sanctions. But the trend, one of gathering momentum, is unmistakable. All US companies operating in South Africa, for instance, regardless of how reformist, are under increasing pressure to get out. More than 60 US businesses have left South Africa in the last two years; most of the 250 remaining are expected to leave in another five years.

The message from these varied economic actions is by now abundantly clear to Pretoria, which has made all modest reforms to date only under pressure.

The time in which the US or any other nation or group can still influence change in a positive way in South Africa is short. Divisions and violence among blacks have been increasing. So has government repression. More than 1,700 civilians have been killed in unrest of the last two years. More than 10 times that many political and community leaders have been detained under Pretoria's three-month-old state of emergency. Even moderate Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi insists that apartheid must end quickly if a catastrophic civil war is to be avoided.

In reaffirming its stand for sanctions, Congress hopes to prod South African whites to increase pressure on the Afrikaner government in Pretoria to hasten political negotiations and power sharing with the nation's black majority. Even if that effort fails, Washington will have sent a clear message to blacks inside South Africa and in neighboring states that Pretoria's official policy of racial segregation is totally unacceptable from a human and political rights standpoint. Fundamental changes are under way in South Africa. The US cannot afford to appear to be an apologist for Pretoria -- the danger of relying on verbal criticism and pat-on-the-wrist sanctions. Congress realizes that the US needs to stand up and be counted on the right side.

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