South Africa has delivered back-to-back slaps at key critics - the outlawed African National Congress and the United States government. Political analysts here expect this official mood of defiance to persist at least until a white national election, to be held in the next six months. Similarly, US influence with a South African government fuming over recent economic sanctions can be expected to erode further.
In both of its recent moves against pressure for greater political reform, the South Africans have acted through restraints on news coverage of the political conflict here. At midnight last Thursday, the government published an unprecedently wide ban on reports about the ANC, the country's oldest group opposing apartheid (strict racial separation). Then, over the weekend, Pretoria in effect closed the South Africa bureau of the New York Times. This was done by formally expelling its correspondent, who was due for transfer, and then denying a visa to his designated successor.
Although the immediate target of both actions was the news media, their significance went further. The ANC curbs were ostensibly a reply to surprise pro-ANC advertisements last week in some local newspapers, marking the group's 75th anniversary. The new decree, however, outlaws not only such publicity. It forbids publication of anything intended ``to commend, to defend, to explain or to justify any action, policy or strategy of such an [outlawed] organization, or [acts of] resistance against or subversion of the authority of the state.''
The two major English-language newspaper chains here - which have a history of opposition to the largely Afrikaner-white government - have vowed to challenge the ban in court. ``SILENCED'' blared a banner headline in Johannesburg's Sunday Times. The paper charged that ``new press gag laws have virtually banished the African National Congress from public debate in South Africa.''
The expulsion of the Times correspondent, Alan Cowell, and the refusal of a visa for his successor also seemed only partly aimed at the US's most influential newspaper. That the authorities resent Times reporting and editorial comment is beyond doubt. In 1966, an earlier government closed down its bureau here - allowing it to be reopened only 10 years later.
Still, the latest action also underscored official ire at the US Congress' imposition of economic sanctions against South Africa some three months ago.
On at least one occasion before the sanctions vote, South African officials are understood to have come close to ousting Mr. Cowell. But in that instance, energetic representations by US diplomats helped persuade Pretoria to reconsider.
This time, according to a source involved in similar representations, the South African government refused to listen to US objections. At one point, the source says, a South African official refused even to accept a phone call from US Ambassador Edward Perkins.
The implications of the Times' ouster on overall South African policy toward the foreign media is difficult to predict. There has been widespread speculation here that the move could presage the shutdown of other US news organizations. Though a number of foreign newsmen have been expelled since the government declared a state of emergency last June, Mr. Cowell's case is the first in which the South Africans have interceded to bar a routine change of personnel.
At least so far, the South Africans have not explicitly told the Times that the newspaper's office here has in effect been closed. But the implication of official communications is understood to be that no early application for a new correspondent is likely to be granted.
The clearest sign of future policy toward the US media here could come sometime in the next 10 days. Talks are scheduled in Cape Town, between the government and visiting editors of the Los Angeles Times, over the future of its correspondent Michael Parks. Late last year, he was ordered to leave South Africa by Dec. 31. Officials suggested this reflected anger here over the newspaper's editorial policy. But in response to appeals by the Times and by US officials, the deadline was extended until the end of this month.
But no further sign is needed of the South African government's generally toughened mood toward opposition to its policies from at home and abroad.
The major shift came with the declaration of the state of emergency and the officially confirmed arrest of thousands of alleged antigovernment activists. Until then, the official emphasis had been on a gradual repeal of race-discrimination statutes, and offers of ``power sharing'' with South Africa's black majority. But critics had rejected the race reforms as too little and too slow, while alleging that the government's vision of ``power sharing'' included fine print designed to perpetuate white political domination.
Under the emergency, the major stress has been on ending the black political unrest of the past 27 months. Sources in the ruling National Party suggest this strategy has hardened with the approach of the white election. Although the NP's comfortable parliamentary majority seems in no danger, it does face strident criticism from the extreme right, which argues the government has gone too far in reforming apartheid.
This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.