PRETORIA, South Africa — Despite the growing international criticism of apartheid, South African officials believe that the West needs their country for economic and strategic reasons and must therefore tolerate its policies.
Economic sanctions now under consideration in the United States and several European countries will prove ineffective, senior government officials maintain, simply because the West needs South Africa's minerals far too much to stop trading with it.
Further diplomatic isolation similarly runs counter to the West's interests, they argue, for this could destabilize the southern half of Africa, opening it further to the Soviet Union, and could even put at risk the important sea route around the Cape of Good Hope at the continent's southern tip.
Such views may seem strange to those who believe that international pressure can force a quick end to apartheid, South Africa's official system of racial separation, and they are widely disputed by Western diplomats and some political analysts here. Still, they are central to the thinking of the white minority regime here and are the basis for its recently renewed declaration that South Africa will continue to set its own course regardless of world opinion.
"The world needs South Africa," said a senior government official here, speaking on condition that he not be identified. "It needs our gold and our platinum and our minerals. Without South Africa, the economies of the United States and of Western Europe would stop dead--no steel would be made, no oil refined.
"The West also needs our guardianship of the Cape sea route, and it needs us as a stabilizing force in the subcontinent (southern Africa). The West should realize our importance to its own interests . . . and that we share its culture, values and civilization.
'We Are Not So Sure'
"What we would like is some understanding of our particular situation," he said, "that things are different here and that we are embarked upon reform but this requires time. We thought we had this understanding from the United States, at least, with the Reagan Administration's policy of 'constructive engagement.' Now, we are not so sure."
Some South Africans carry this tough-mindedness further to argue that Pretoria should, as one newspaper commentator put it this month, "snap the whip over their heads," with thinly disguised threats to use its "mineral weapon" against critics.
"Economic sanctions are a two-way street," says Prof. Carl Noffke, director of the Institute for American Studies of Johannesburg's Rand Afrikaans University, who has researched the implications of the current campaign for sanctions against South Africa.
"If we were denied vital industrial equipment, say, or if there were a total pullout of foreign companies that operate here, then there would be strong feelings that we should retaliate and withhold certain minerals and metals. Besides, there would probably be serious production problems in mining and processing these different ores.
"I doubt that we would go this far (to retaliatory sanctions) because we want to be a dependable supplier for the West and we are opposed to trade sanctions . . . . Still, we do have a mineral weapon, just as the Arabs have an oil weapon."
There are major elements of truth in the South African argument, but how much real leverage they provide is greatly disputed here.
Rich in natural resources, South Africa is a major world supplier of not only gold and diamonds, its most famous exports, but also of minerals and metals essential in steel-making, oil refining, electronics manufacturing, weapons production and many high-technology industries.
Without manganese, for example, no steel can be made. And chromium is essential for stainless steel and many super-alloys used in nuclear reactors, jet engines and other high-technology industries. South Africa produces about 45% of the manganese and chromium used in the West, according to a U.S. Bureau of Mines estimate. It has about 93% of the West's known manganese reserves.
Vanadium, widely used in steel, titanium and other alloys for hardness and strength, comes primarily--about 60% of Western supplies--from South Africa, which has the world's largest vanadium reserves.
Platinum and five related metals are so widely used as catalytic agents in petroleum refining, in super-fast microelectronics connections and for hardness in various alloys that scientists find it difficult to imagine their replacements. About 85% of the West's platinum now comes from South Africa, according to the U.S. Bureau of Mines, and an estimated 70% of the world's platinum reserves are here.
The list of South Africa's mineral and metal exports runs from the mundane coal, asbestos, nickel and lead to the more exotic uranium, cobalt, vanadium, titanium, antimony and zirconium.
For many of these, South Africa is the world's largest producer and owner of the largest reserves, rivaled only by the Soviet Union; in most others, it ranks no lower than No. 3 or No. 4.