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Flashback: Time To Act On S. Africa

Sun-Times editorial, July 18, 1986:

A top White House official this week told a reporter that President Reagan is unlikely to agree to economic sanctions as a weapon against South Africa's apartheid policies because, among other things, the women of America might have to "give up their jewelry."

It's time.

It's time for the president and his administration to exercise the moral leadership of the highest office of the nation that is supposed to embody the ideals found in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.

It's time for the president and his administration not only to start saying the right things but doing the right things.

We have been strong supporters of Reagan's policies toward South Africa, in the belief that constructive engagement would be the most peaceful, fair and effective way leading to the abolition of the hated apartheid policies.

We shared the White House's stated concern that heavy-handed economic sanctions would most injure those whom we should be saving from the horrors of apartheid - the blacks of South Africa.

This latest blunder by a White House aide only makes us wonder: How well does this administration understand the frustration of an entire nation of people? How well does it understand the frustration of people of good will in our own nation who are trying to push stronger policies to end apartheid? What are the administration's own motives and intentions?

The administration reportedly is going through a comprehensive review of its South Africa policy, and it may reveal its new attitude next week. The president also is reportedly considering giving a major address to the nation on the subject.

We hope and pray the administration's response is not to simply give us more of the same.

We hope the administration adopts policies that will more than merely invite the minority white government to negotiate openly, seriously and honestly with authentic representatives of blacks and whites. And the only way to get those negotiations going is for the South African government to understand that it will lose its last friend in the world if it doesn't.

The possible appointment of Robert J. Brown, a black businessman from North Carolina, to be ambassador to South Africa can be a step in that direction. Brown is expected to have more direct contacts with black leaders than the current ambassador.

Brown, however, can be only as effective as the policy that he is assigned to carry out. Moreover, if Brown's appointment turns out to be tokenism, the administration's credibility will only be further damaged here and abroad.

The administration also ought to consider a number of other diplomatic steps. Among them are a restriction on landing rights here for South African Airways and a reduction in American embassy personnel in South Africa.

But most importantly, the administration needs to increase its contacts with black leaders, including those in the African National Congress, the main, outlawed opposition group. Oliver Tambo, the exiled ANC leader, should be invited to the White House for discussions. Reagan should demand the release of Nelson Mandela, the ANC leader who has been in jail for 23 years. The administration should push to have the ban on ANC lifted. It should no longer leave the major vehicle of black aspirations exclusively to Soviet influence.

Other diplomatic measures may also be effective in making the white minority government understand that the United States abhors its policies. It should coordinate anti-apartheid policies with the 49-nation British Commonwealth, which on its own is leaving British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher more and more isolated in her policy toward South Africa.

America's own best interests are served by tougher action. To be perceived as the world's last, best friend of apartheid is immeasurably destructive of our diplomatic, economic and social interests in the world community.

Furthermore, we need to protect our continued access to the strategically important materials found mainly in South Africa. Platinum, for example, is an important catalyst in the production of high-octane, unleaded gasoline. Without South Africa, we would need to turn to the Soviet Union for much of our platinum. We need to prove our friendship now for those who almost certainly - either peacefully or through bloody overthrow - will run a new, majority government.

The most important reason for acting, however, is to be true to our own principles. We are diminished as a nation and as the guardian of precious human freedoms when we fail to act in support of those principles.

And the administration fails us, and insults us, when somebody very high up in the White House suggests that Americans cherish jewels more than freedom.

Five days later, the Sun-Times followed up:

After listening to President Reagan's long-awaited speech on South Africa we had to wonder: Why did he bother?

He enunciated no new policy. He staked out no new territory. He made no new proposals. He suggested no new vehicles for opening negotiations. He provided no new ground on which the antagonists could meet. He stirred no hope. He provided no vision. He showed no leadership.

We conclude so even though we agree with much of what he said. We agree that punitive sanctions will be counterproductive, that they would most victimize those already the victims of the oppressive apartheid system. We share the sadness over the black violence against blacks. And most of all, we condemn the brutality and injustice of the apartheid system.

But he or his administration have said all that before. He again urges the obvious: the need to get contesting sides to the bargaining table, the release of jailed African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela , establishment of a timetable for the elimination of apartheid, the legalization of black political movements. He says he will dispatch Secretary of State George P. Shultz to consult with Western allies on how internal South African negotiations can be encouraged.

But he has given neither side reason to move toward those negotations. Both sides still hear the same words, words the white minority government understands as winking at the oppression and the black majority understands as continued tolerance of an immoral system.

Instead of giving a boost to the middle ground, as he intended, his speech leads to further polarization, and damages America's moral leadership. Witness the reaction of black Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, considered to be among the nation's moderates: "I think the West, for my part, can go to hell."

How much further could the president have gone? He could have called for a Camp David-style meeting of antagonists. He could have insisted on the unconditional release of Mandela , without the usual preconditions demanded by the South African government. He could have set his own timetable for elimination of apartheid. He could have set a meeting with South African President P. W. Botha.

Instead, he sent a message to the world that this is something not really deserving of his time. Again, we are troubled by what appears to be the president's lack of passion in a cause so crucial to the United States, to the free world, to humanity.

Nothing less than the credibility of what should be the free world's leading spokesman has been seriously damaged. And there wasn't too much of that credibility left to squander anyway, thanks to the stubbornness, ignorance, confusion and indecision that have marked the administration's South Africa policy.

Two years later:

White-ruled South Africa for the past 25 years has always had its reasons for keeping African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela in prison. They all amount to the same thing: He is dangerous.

Makes sense, because he is committed to the overthrow of a system in which the white minority rules and the vast black majority has no rights or powers in its own country.

Mr. Mandela, whose 70th birthday was recently marked in dozens of countries and spurred a torrent of demands and requests and suggestions for his release, can actually gain his release, but on the government's terms, not his.

From a man convicted of violent revolutionary activities, all the government now wants is a public promise that he would not preach or practice violence again. What could be more reasonable?

The reasonableness is deceptive, however, at least from a black South African point of view. Mr. Mandela has no incurable interest in violence, but he had resorted to it when all other avenues of fighting oppression were closed. Could he organize a rally? No. Could he vote? No. Could he fight in any other way the white government's all-pervasive discriminatory rule that reduced him and his people to the status of a subhuman? No.

Admittedly, the South Africa that Mr. Mandela would come out into has changed drastically in the nearly 26 years he has been in prison, especially in the past couple of years. But it still has not changed enough to allow a black to vote, or to fight for peaceful change.

The almost mystical quality of the stature the aging revolutionary has acquired is in part because of the government's insistence on keeping him locked up. Not just his writings but also his photographs are banned. We don't see any other 70-year-old political prisoner's birthday being celebrated on such massive scale and with such intense concern.

And now that, too, seems to have become a reason for not releasing him! Not at this time, not after all this - the worldwide celebrations - a cabinet minister said.

Well, he could have been freed before.


President Pieter W. Botha of South Africa has made some solicitous noises in recent days in regard to the ailing and imprisoned black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela . Essentially the suggestion is the same as it has been before: Mr. Mandela , now 70 and in the 26th year of incarceration, can be released if he renounces violence. In fact, Mr. Botha seemed to be saying he would like to free Mr. Mandela and that it is up to the latter to enable the government to do that by "cooperating."

But it is like putting the cart before the horse.

South Africa today is a society where the government's "reforms" have created a pointed affront to black dignity: a tricameral parliament in which the whites, the mixed-race Colored and the Asians - all minorities - are represented, but not the blacks, who constitute the vast majority.

It is also a society that, after what seemed to a brief era of welcome and irreversible change for the better, is stubbornly going backward.

Mr. Botha himself declared last week that as long as he is in power, there would be no black majority rule in the country. "I'm not even considering to discuss the possibility," he told a meeting of his party.

Earlier this year, in February, in a sweeping, stunning action he had banned virtually all nonviolent opposition activity.

And now he is trying to tighten up the Group Areas Act, the hated instrument of residential segregation, in an effort to undo such desegregation as has taken place peacefully - but technically in violation of the law - because of economic forces, and to prevent it from happening in the future.

Parliamentary debate on this proposal begins today, amid cries of outrage from business as well as civil rights organizations. The independent Sunday Times, the country's largest Sunday newspaper, said in a front-page editorial: "Suddenly, South Africa is confronted by (legislation) straight out of the darkest ages of apartheid." Even the pro-government Afrikaans-language paper Beeld has joined in the criticism.

The Colored and Asian chambers in parliament are adamantly opposed to the new package of legislation, but their opposition is irrelevant because what finally matters is what the white chamber does. And the white chamber seems quite inclined to go along.

It would be nice if Mr. Mandela came out of prison and found violent struggle no longer necessary. But Mr. Botha - by suppressing peaceful dissent, by hardening residential segregation, by proclaiming that blacks can't be allowed to govern - isn't doing much to help create an environment conducive to peaceful change. What he is doing simply stokes the fires of revolutionary violence.


See also:
* Royko: Mandela Showing Gold-Meddle Form.


Comments welcome.


Posted on December 6, 2013

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