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It Is Business as Usual for Workers Inside the South African Embassy : Ambassador, Others Feel Misunderstood by American Public

May 05, 1985|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Inside the imposing four-story embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, in an elegantly furnished, white-carpeted room, a uniformed maid served tea and curried-chicken finger sandwiches as the ambassador's wife talked about her life style.

What makes life different for Daphne Fourie are not the luxurious surroundings and service that are de rigueur in diplomatic circles. Rather, it is the focus of world attention on the demonstrations that have been taking place outside the embassy for more than five months.

Thousands Arrested Daily

This is the embassy of South Africa, and nearly 2,000 people, many of them prominent Americans, have been arrested in daily protests against the South African government's policy of apartheid.

The protests also have spread to college campuses where students are calling on universities to withdraw investments in racially segregated South Africa.

It is against this backdrop of controversy and disagreement that a small group of people go to work everyday, filing reports, typing letters, gathering and dispensing information, planning social events and otherwise conducting the everyday business of an embassy.

Those inside the embassy portray themselves as unmoved by the demonstrations outside and complain that they are misunderstood by Americans and, in particular, by an unfair American press. They contend that hundreds of supportive letters have been received from Americans who oppose the demonstrations. And, added social secretary Aliceson Wagner, social invitations sent to embassy personnel have doubled.

Said Daphne Fourie: "Our views are the same, if not more sure we're doing the right thing."

When demonstrations occur, she said, "it doesn't affect me that much. If I have to go out in my car, I do. Sometimes I don't even know they're there."

Embassy Life Unchanged

In an interview, her husband, South African Ambassador Bernardus G. Fourie, added: "There's a feeling we live like hermits. Life really goes on exactly as before."

Andre Kilian, a South African employed as political counselor, said he doesn't talk to the demonstrators, but wishes he had, at least in one case.

"I would love to have talked to Stevie Wonder," Kilian said. "My daughter would have been thrilled."

(Shortly after the interview with Kilian, Wonder's music was banned in South Africa by the South African Broadcasting Corp., which has a state monopoly on the airwaves. The action was taken after Wonder dedicated his Oscar for the tune, "I Just Called to Say I Love You," to Nelson Mandela, the country's imprisoned black nationalist leader.)

An American secretary working for the embassy, Maureen Doyle, 22, said that when she saw the protesters, "I wanted to scream at them, 'You don't understand!' "

Social secretary Wagner, a carefully coiffured South African, took a lighter view, and said she enjoys the new-found attention that has been focused on her country.

"This is a very exciting, invigorating time," she said. "It's a superb time. It's lovely. We can share ideas. We're so proud. We have the most beautiful country."

Randall Robinson, the 43-year-old, Harvard-educated lawyer who organizes the protests at the South African Embassy, vehemently disagrees with those employees who maintain the protesters have had no effect.

"The demonstrations without a doubt have produced in the U.S. Congress a commitment to support a program of economic sanctions against South Africa," said Robinson, executive director of the TransAfrica lobbying group and national coordinator of the Free South Africa Movement, which has organized similar protests in 26 American cities.

"One does not naively expect that any government will change a course of action based on a change of heart. When those sanctions are imposed, and I think they will be, when the loans are cut off, when the Kruggerand market is cut off, when American investments are cut off, then you will begin to understand how dramatically South Africa has been affected by these demonstrations that have led to a world focus on the nation."

Inside the embassy, there is agreement that change is necessary in South Africa, but embassy personnel say they do not understand why their nation has been singled out for criticism at a time when the South African government is making what it considers dramatic improvements, such as last year's rewriting of the Constitution to provide representation in Parliament for Indians and "coloreds," those of mixed race.

Vicky Coetzee, a South African and an agricultural researcher who has worked for the embassy for 15 years, said Americans do not understand how South African whites feel about blacks.

Fondness for Blacks

"We're fond of them. We don't hate them. Absolutely, sincerely, that is not true," Coetzee said. "Most South Africans recognize that changes are needed. It's just a matter of the pace. I don't think (American demonstrations) are the solution. They may have wonderful aspirations and goals but they are uninformed.

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