The leaders of the Commonwealth nations heard strong demands Wednesday for mandatory economic sanctions against South Africa as the only realistic way to end that nation's policy of apartheid.
Typical of the calls for punishing the Pretoria regime was the speech by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during the opening session of the 20th meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government.
Charging that South Africa "is impervious to reason" and is waging war against its own people, the Indian leader said the Commonwealth "must demand comprehensive and mandatory sanctions. The question cannot be deferred."
Nonetheless, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the main opponent of radical measures against the Pretoria regime, appeared unmoved by the pleas for joint action by the 49-member group.
She sat expressionless throughout the seven opening speeches, her hands primly folded in her lap even when most of the audience applauded the constant anti-South African remarks.
Sources in the British delegation said Thatcher remains a committed opponent of apartheid, but opposes mandatory sanctions and boycotts because she believes they would be ineffective, would hurt South Africa's blacks and would strengthen right-wing elements in Pretoria.
Instead, they said, she wants to keep up pressure on South Africa while encouraging the government there to extend economic and political rights to the country's 25 million blacks.
But the sentiment during the 90-minute session was clearly running against Thatcher. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed belittled the British arguments.
"If sanctions can help destroy a despicable policy like apartheid," he said, "then sanctions must be applied and they must be applied by those . . . countries with the biggest economic clout. Failure to do so would mean hypocrisy on the part of those countries."
As it became clear that Britain's position isolated it from the other Commonwealth nations, several leaders, including those from Canada and Australia, pushed their efforts to find some formula that would allow the biennial meeting to end Tuesday with a joint statement, a goal of all Commonwealth meetings.
Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney told the delegates, "We have always worked by consensus (and) we must do so now on so important an issue." He suggested a compromise might be possible if the Commonwealth nations were to issue a joint call for "an early transition to equal rights and equal participation in all aspects of national life by all South Africans."
Sources in several delegations said Mulroney's suggestion was tied to a Canadian plan, still not formally disclosed, that would set up a schedule of reforms Pretoria must take to avoid the imposition of sanctions from Commonwealth members.
Another proponent of such a plan, Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, acknowledged the need "to examine and be prepared to implement the option of further economic sanctions."
Limits of Power
But he warned that the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of former British colonies and possessions with no way to enforce its decisions, should be aware of the limits to its power.
Furthermore, he said, the member nations should be careful "to sustain the flame of enlightened self-interest that has been lit in South Africa," a reference to the efforts by South African businessmen and moderate politicians to eliminate apartheid.
South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth group 24 years ago, as it was about to be expelled.