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Extremism Is Catching

The House of Representatives, with understandable emotion but inappropriate intemperance, has adopted sanctions against South Africa that demonstrate how doing too much can be just as counter-productive as doing too little.

The outrageous events of recent days in South Africa have invited this sort of response. The unprecedented repression has seemed to make a peaceful solution more distant, more unlikely. The bald efforts to conceal the deteriorating situation behind censorship and press control have measured the desperation of the white leaders clinging to power. Unfortunately, it is no easier in this crisis than it was before to devise effective external action to accelerate the promised end of apartheid.

As the House has gone too far, so President Reagan has failed again to do enough. Through the new emergency he has clung to his policy of “constructive engagement,” and that is unfortunate. From his first month in office Reagan has managed to encourage the white rulers of South Africa, perhaps not always intentionally, by his postures and positions. Now, when sterner measures have an even better prospect of winning concessions, Reagan seems content to limit his role to diplomacy so quiet that it can readily be interpreted in South Africa as approval of the regime.

But, as Rep. Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Africa subcommittee, has made clear, there is no simple solution. “It is not sanctions in and of themselves that will bring down apartheid,” he commented the other day. But that makes sanctions no less important in present circumstances. It just underscores the need to find the right ones.

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We remain convinced that selective sanctions are more likely to be effective than massive divestiture or the termination of American involvement, as ordained in the House legislation. Lost in the final House vote were the constructive proposals adopted earlier by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Among them were a prohibition of new American investments and loans and a halt to imports of South African coal, steel and uranium. Another appropriate proposal that the President could implement immediately, without awaiting further congressional action, would be a ban on South African commercial flights to the United States.

It is now for the Senate to shape the extreme legislation adopted by the House into an effective instrument of carefully targeted sanctions--the kind that the Eminent Persons Group of the Commonwealth seemed to be inviting.

Herbert Beukes, South African ambassador to the United States, insists that President Pieter W. Botha remains committed to negotiating “a genuine form of power-sharing” to put an end to apartheid. If that is to be taken at face value, it must mean that Botha is for the moment frustrated by the rising resistance from the whites on the extreme right--those committed to perpetuating apartheid. Indeed, the most recent official South Africa press digest features a reprint of an editorial reviewing the difficulties of Botha’s position in the light of rightist extremism.

The ambassador has sought to reassure foreign critics that the extreme emergency measures of the last few days were just “a tactic” to clear the way for serious negotiations. His claim would have been more persuasive had the government, in repressing the black foes of apartheid, been equally forceful in seeking to control the white advocates of racism. But if Botha is serious he will surely welcome economic sanctions from abroad, for, when carefully crafted, they can be an effective way to bring home to those clinging to apartheid the risks of what they are doing.

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The extreme action of the House at least communicates one important message to those opposing reform in South Africa: There are limits to the patience of other nations. Recalcitrance inevitably would produce total sanctions.


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