Mediation Failure Bolsters Push for S. Africa Sanctions

Times Staff Writer

The reported failure of a group of Commonwealth leaders to establish a dialogue between the South African government and black nationalists pushing for an end to apartheid has increased the pressure for tougher economic sanctions against the South African government.

The mission--headed by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser of Australia and former Nigerian leader Olusegun Obasanjo and known as the Group of Eminent Persons--was reported over the weekend to have given up its effort to negotiate a settlement. It is expected to make public a report later in the week calling indirectly for sanctions against the government in Pretoria.

“They aren’t explicit, but the message is obvious,” a source in the Commonwealth’s secretariat said Monday.

Motives Questioned


A Commonwealth spokesman said Saturday that the group has concluded that sanctions are required because the South African government is not genuinely interested in entering into talks with black leaders about ending racial separation and working toward a representative political system.

The heads of government of the seven countries represented in the Group of Eminent Persons will meet in London on Aug. 2 to discuss the report and recommend action to the 49 countries of the Commonwealth, the independent successor group to the nations of the old British Empire. Besides Australia and Nigeria, other representatives are from India, Canada, Barbados, Britain and Tanzania.

The group’s South African effort grew out of a meeting of Commonwealth leaders last October in Nassau, capital of the Bahamas. Establishing the group was seen as a compromise between Britain, which is firmly opposed to sanctions in principle, and many Commonwealth countries that want to take strong economic measures against South Africa.

Raids Instead of Talks


In May, the group visited South Africa amid signs that the white-minority government might be willing to talk with black leaders. There were indications that Pretoria was considering the release of Nelson Mandela, patriarch of the outlawed African National Congress, and might even be willing to establish some form of working relationship with that guerrilla group--banned since 1960 and anathema to successive governments.

But a hardening of the South African position--combined with its military raids in nearby Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe on May 19--doomed the mediation mission, Commonwealth sources said.

At the October meeting in Nassau, the Commonwealth leaders pledged to consider further measures against South Africa if the “eminent persons” failed to achieve a breakthrough. Now there are indications that intense new pressure is being put on Britain to abandon its stand against sanctions.

Prime Minister David Lange of New Zealand, one of the few leaders who opposed sanctions at Nassau, said in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview Sunday that he believes further economic measures against South Africa are inevitable.


Citing the mediation mission’s pessimistic conclusions about the prospects for dialogue, Lange said: “If dialogue is pointless, then there is an inevitable next step. Let’s not call them sanctions, but let’s do them.”

Prime Minister Bob Hawke of Australia, an advocate of sanctions but author of the eminent persons approach, renewed his call for tough measures. President Kenneth D. Kaunda of Zambia has threatened to pull his nation out of the Commonwealth if it fails to act promptly and decisively.

A British Foreign Office spokesman conceded Monday that events have put considerable pressure on Britain.

“What these leaders have said is very important to us,” the spokesman said. “At this point, anything is possible.”


Queen Involved

Meanwhile, there are reports that Queen Elizabeth II, in her role as head of the Commonwealth and head of state of 18 member countries including Britain, has become involved. The queen is said to have discussed South Africa with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at their weekly meeting last Tuesday and with Lange last weekend.

The queen, it is said, is an admirer of Kaunda, whom she has known for nearly 30 years, and thus would take seriously his threat to withdraw from the Commonwealth. She has taken an active role in matters of Commonwealth unity in the past, and there is speculation that she may try to persuade Thatcher to give way on the sanctions question in order to head off a split.

In any case, many British officials argue that punitive economic measures are ineffective. They cite the failure to bring Ian Smith’s rebel regime to heel in Rhodesia despite years of broad economic sanctions in the 1960s and ‘70s.


Britain is South Africa’s No. 3 trading partner, and in the first nine months of last year, Britain’s exports to South Africa were valued at $2.3 billion. With unemployment here at a postwar high, the Thatcher government has strong domestic reasons for opposing any sanctions that would reduce that trade.