WASHINGTON — It began with three arrests on Thanksgiving Eve in front of the South African embassy, and soon the anti-apartheid demonstrations had a waiting list of eager participants. Congressmen, singers, actors, athletes, students, labor leaders, blacks, Jews, Catholics, feminists--all were lining up to be arrested in the bright television lights.
Now, four months later, more than 1,400 people have been politely arrested and quickly released. Although news media attention is waning--television cameras rarely appear now--the organizers say they can go on for months.
But are the demonstrations and arrests accomplishing anything? Or has it all been an empty show that will soon fold for lack of an audience?
The answer is probably some of each. "Those who say it's had no impact are lying in their teeth," said former U.N. Ambassador Donald McHenry, now a professor at Georgetown University. "So are those who claim it's been decisive."
Drawn Nationwide Attention
The protesters can credibly assert that they have drawn nationwide attention to apartheid. A Washington Post poll in late January found that 70% of those who had heard of the demonstrations approved--though only 52% had heard about them.
Since the demonstrations began, Ford Motor Co., Citibank Corp. and Washington's Riggs National Bank have announced that they will shed some of their South African investments or tighten their restrictions on new investments there.
And the protests have inspired a raft of proposals in Congress: to impose economic sanctions against South Africa, to ban the sale of South African gold Krugerrands, to enforce more strictly the existing American law against exporting military equipment to South Africa, to increase U.S. scholarships to South African black college students and to boost U.S. support for black businesses there.
After the demonstrations began, 35 Republican senators sent South African Ambassador Bernardus Fourie a letter sternly critical of America's policy of "constructive engagement"--of favoring "quiet diplomacy" over confrontation--in southern Africa.
But whether the protests have made a difference where it really counts--in South Africa or even in the Reagan Administration--is another question.
Administration spokesmen deny that the demonstrations have shaken their commitment to constructive engagement as the way to end apartheid. And, although Reagan strongly condemned apartheid in public statements in December, his spokesmen maintain that his harsh words had nothing to do with the protests.
Backers Claim Credit
As for South Africa itself, protest supporters claim credit for two recent government actions there: The release from prison of the 11 black trade union leaders whose arrests had triggered the U.S. protests and Prime Minister P. W. Botha's offers of limited local self-government and new business opportunities for blacks.
"These are all cosmetic changes, but at least it proves the demonstrations are bothering them," said Dr. Nana Seshibe, a South African who now teaches at Howard University.
The Administration, on the other hand, says credit for progress inside South Africa belongs to its quiet diplomacy, and the South Africans deny that they have been influenced at all. "Those things had all been planned for a long time," said Fourie.
Fourie said that the demonstrations may do more for their organizers' images than for the lot of South African blacks. He called the demonstrations a ploy by the Congressional Black Caucus, many of whose members have been arrested, to "catapult them into the limelight again."
A Republican congressional aide agreed, saying: "It's one of the few things the Black Caucus can agree on." Another GOP aide in Congress said that protest organizers have used the demonstrations to breathe new life into the "decaying" civil rights movement.
End Result Important
Randall Robinson, national coordinator of the Free South Africa Movement, which is organizing the demonstrations, replied that civil rights groups "have not cynically turned to this as a way to recapture past glory." But he conceded: "If the movement metes out benefits to black institutions, that's well and good."
Robinson, one of the three persons arrested on the first day of demonstrations, adds that the timing was dictated by Reagan's reelection last November. He said the protesters decided to take public action because they regarded the President as "hopeless" on apartheid.
Robinson says the demonstrations can go on for months. "There's no shortage of protesters," he said.
But with media attention waning, the Free South Africa Movement is changing tactics. Arrests come in bigger bunches: 147 in one day recently. Celebrity arrests are being spaced out: Jesse Jackson, who was arrested on Monday