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South Africans - white and black - largely ignore US election. They say the candidates range from ignorant to misguided to hostile on S. Africa's problems

It is an exaggeration to say that South Africa is indifferent to the outcome of the US presidential election this year, but, sadly, not much of one. This is reflected by the coverage not only in the insular Afrikaner press, but also in English-language newspapers that once prided themselves on their cosmopolitan outlook. The full-time South African writing corps in the United States has shrunk over the past three years to just five: two representing the Argus group of afternoon papers, one each from the Johannesburg Sunday Times and the leading Afrikaans daily, Beeld, and myself, serving the Times Media Ltd. stable that includes Business Day and the Cape Times.

One or two of us may go to the national conventions this summer, but that will probably be the full extent of our ``live'' reportage of the election outside Washington. This in part is a matter of resources - the rand does not go a long way here - but it also is indicative of the lack of space devoted to foreign news that does not specifically affect the parochial concerns of a nation under seige.

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This is unfortunate, for it means that South Africa's window on the outside world is narrowing just as surely as domestic censorship is closing the world's - and our own - window on South Africa.

Aside from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, none of the candidates appears to have given South Africa or its unhappy region much thought, except in the defensive sense of seeking to avoid pronouncements that might make waves among certain highly sensitized constituencies.

The Rev. Mr. Jackson apart, the Democratic hopefuls are ready, when asked, to go through a litany that includes apartheid's bestiality, the gross errors of ``constructive engagement,'' and the need for new leadership that basically entails a further tightening of the economic screws and the bludgeoning of America's most important trading partners to follow suit.

Jackson, at least, has a coherent program concerning aid to the front-line states bordering South Africa, sanctions, and summitry, and he has had a little first-hand experience with the region. So, and because he is likely to be a major influence on any future administration's Africa agenda, it is on him that the bulk of our attention has tended to focus.

I think it is fair to say that if Pretoria did have any serious preference for who should not be sworn in next January, Jackson would be it. But as noted at the outset, Pretoria does not appear to care exceedingly who wins.

South Africans of all races and political persuasions have begun to conclude that there is no joy to be found in the politics of the outside world. The government, along with most of its white critics on both ends of the spectrum, has come to feel that the West, and the United States in particular, has at best abandoned South Africa and at worst is bent, either blindly or by design, on its destruction.

The perceptions of black South Africans are not that different. In their appeals for international action against Pretoria, figures like Archbishop Desmond Tutu or even Oliver Tambo, president of the outlawed African National Congress, may sound as though they put great store by Western policies, but they, too, have started to discount the world's capacity or will to help solve their problems.

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In addition, there are a number of blacks - a more substantial number than one is often led to believe over here - who have devoted their lives to eroding the system from within. I refer not so much to Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, the Zulu leader, as to a growing array of black labor unions, trade associations, and entrepreneurs who are attempting to develop black South Africa's latent economic muscle into an effective veto of apartheid.

Such people are embittered by American attempts to undermine the economy at the very moment they are discovering how to use it for their own empowerment. They find it incomprehensible that American companies, many of which have been useful allies in their endeavors, should be forced to leave, or that outside funding for education, union development, and private-enterprise promotion should be cut off as is envisaged in legislation now working its way through the House of Representatives. Such a cutoff would be particularly bizarre because Pretoria is studying ways to do precisely the same thing.

On all sides of South African society, there is thus a deepening cynicism about American leadership, whether Republican or Democrat. The lesson South Africans have learned from the past few years is that it does not matter very much who is in the White House. Since October 1986, Congress - an institution ill-fitted to the task - has been making South Africa policy. If George Bush wins, that will almost certainly continue to be the case; if Michael Dukakis or Jesse Jackson wins, the approaches already developed on the Hill will be continued, and perhaps expanded, by the new administration.

These approaches are doing no one any good. Demonstrably, they are not empowering the disenfranchised, even marginally. To the contrary, Pretoria is becoming ever more adept at channeling whatever pain sanctions do inflict on those who need it least. The ANC has rarely been in greater disarray. As for the internal opposition, it has effectively been silenced without the government even beginning to deploy the power at its disposal.

And perhaps the greatest irony of all is that in attempting to sever all ties with South Africa, the US is putting Afrikanerdom where it has always sought to be: in solitude, away from the outside world and its baneful meddling.

If it is going to have any truly beneficial contribution to making black South Africans the masters of their own destiny, the American political establishment is going to have to think things through rather more rigorously and honestly than it has heretofore. It is going to have to understand that slowly and against gigantic odds, a revolution is under way in South Africa.

It is not a revolution of bombs and mass upheaval; it does not have leaders made instantly recognizable by the Western press or the Nobel prize committee; and it is not being run by easily bannable political parties or organizations. Yet quietly and with an imperceptibility that is often quite deliberate, black South Africans are infiltrating apartheid's citadel, burrowing with infinite patience into its foundations in ways that the government cannot begin to stop.

Eventually, and sooner if America and its allies help them dig and do not seal off their tunnels with sanctions, these infiltrators - a vast legion of ordinary people simply trying to make a better life for themselves and their children - will reduce the state's power to an empty shell and take control for themselves.

Whoever ultimately wins in November will almost certainly refuse to recognize, much less abet this process, preferring or being required by Congress to continue battering at the parapets from without. Which is a futile exercise, and a major reason why most South Africans, whatever their political stripe, are not exactly gripped by the election.

Simon Barber is Washington correspondent for Business Day in Johannesburg.

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