Reagan’s, Congress’ Plans Symbolic : Sanctions on South Africa: Not Much Impact Likely

Times Staff Writers

In purely economic terms, neither President Reagan’s newly imposed sanctions against South Africa nor the slightly harsher congressional version that the Administration hopes to preempt will have much impact on the white minority government, U.S. experts agreed Tuesday.

And even the purely symbolic impact of the Administration’s measures on South Africa has been substantially diluted, the specialists in African affairs say, because Reagan reversed his long-held opposition to any sort of punitive steps against Pretoria primarily as a tactical move to head off congressional action.

“If the Congress goes ahead and passes the sanctions legislation, the effect will be a whole lot greater in symbolic terms, regardless of what is in the legislation,” said Michael G. Schatzberg, a specialist in South Africa at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

He said the symbolism of Reagan’s actions would be weakened because South Africans, both white and black, realize that the President “has taken these actions to forestall congressional action.”


The belief that Reagan has weakened the impact of sanctions is one reason Democrats have vowed to keep pressing for a vote on the House-passed legislation, which is still pending in the Senate, despite the fact that there is little substantive difference between it and Reagan’s executive order.

A second attempt to break a conservative-led filibuster against sanctions is scheduled for today, with the vote expected to be close.

The other principal reason for the continuing drive for action on Capitol Hill is that congressional Democrats, joined by some Republicans, are unwilling to allow Reagan to take credit for adopting what they see as a politically popular hard-line policy toward Pretoria.

Conversely, key Republican Senate leaders, who formerly predicted Senate action in defiance of Reagan’s opposition to sanctions, now are arguing against continuing the fight.


Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar of Indiana urged Congress to shelve the sanctions bill to give Reagan’s new approach a chance to work. Both Dole and Lugar supported the bill before Reagan’s action.

“We have what we wanted; the President conceded the issue,” Lugar said Tuesday. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to go into a lot of nitpicking.”

Dole referred to the fight over the legislation as “this little partisan exercise.”

Michael Clough, an Africa expert on the faculty of the Naval Post-Graduate School and Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the sanctions--both in the executive order and the pending legislation--are “pretty meager.”


“The problem on both sides is political rhetoric,” Clough said. “What Reagan has done is to give the Republicans a little bit of political cover, and that’s about it.”

House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) contended that the President’s executive order is “full of loopholes” that might allow South Africa to escape the full force of the sanctions. He said there are no similar escape clauses in the House legislation.

However, U.S. specialists believe there is not much economic bite in either the bill or the executive order, anyway. Reports from South Africa also minimized the immediate economic effect of the sanctions, which would ban most bank loans to the South African government, restrict the sale of computers and nuclear technology and pave the way for a suspension of gold Krugerrand coin imports in the United States.

“These are not the kind of sanctions that are going to have an immediate, serious impact on the South Africans,” Clough said. “The much more serious pressure on the South African government is the banking situation precipitated by the refusal of American banks and other foreign banks to roll over loans. Compared to that development, this package of sanctions isn’t all that consequential.


“The bank loan provision is largely inconsequential because no banker in his right mind will give South Africa any money under these conditions anyway,” Clough said.

A ban on the sale of gold Krugerrands “certainly will force South Africa to change the way it markets gold,” he said. “Whether it will actually reduce gold sales is highly questionable because the gold can be sold in bullion.

“There are already restrictions on sales of computers to South Africa, and so it is difficult to say exactly how much more restrictive that executive order is in this area,” he added. “It’s not going to cut off the South Africans’ access to computers unless the Japanese and Western Europeans go along.

“The U.S. did not have a normal supply relationship with the South Africans in ‘nuke’ technology anyway, so the new provisions on nuclear technology transfer are not likely to have much impact,” he predicted.


Financial analysts in South Africa said that most of the U.S. sanctions would have little practical effect on the economy there.