SANTA BARBARA — President Reagan asserted in a radio interview made public Monday that South Africa has "eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country--the type of thing where hotels and restaurants (and places of entertainment) and so forth were segregated--that has all been eliminated."
Reagan's statement, which came as he is considering whether to veto pending congressional legislation imposing economic sanctions on South Africa's government, drew immediate and sharp criticism from anti-apartheid activists in the United States.
"Either he is misinformed or he is trying to misinform the American public to justify making apartheid tolerable and justify vetoing the sanctions bill," said Jesse Jackson, a former Democratic presidential candidate.
Features of Apartheid
California Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Culver City), an influential black congressman, said Reagan's statement ignored the worst features of South African apartheid, the government-sanctioned system of segregation.
"When you have people who can't live in certain areas, who must abide by curfews, who are restricted in their daily activities, not to mention their right to vote, it is obvious that a person who made a statement like that does not understand what's going on in South Africa," Dixon said.
"It's hard to believe the President of the United States believes that segregation has been ended in South Africa," Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) said. "Countless blacks are segregated in homelands, not only forcefully removed from whites but forcefully removed from their black families."
White House spokesman Larry Speakes tried to clarify the statements that Reagan made in a weekend telephone interview with station WSB of Atlanta, one of three interviews made public Monday.
"I think the President is talking about in major cities, where there have been steps in that direction to remove barriers of apartheid."
Although Reagan hailed South Africa's desegregation moves as "very substantial changes," hotels and restaurants in that country may become integrated only if they request international status. Only a small number of such establishments--primarily in major cities that receive a lot of foreign visitors--have asked for and obtained such a classification.
Movie theaters and trains still are segregated in South Africa, while commercial airplanes and some forms of surface transportation are integrated.
Reagan told the WSB interviewer that recent reforms mean "blacks can buy property in heretofore white areas, that they can own businesses in some 40 white-dominated business districts." He apparently was referring to reforms that have been promised but have not yet been widely implemented.
Blacks may not yet own property in white-designated areas, and only in the past year have they been allowed to sign long-term leases on property in black areas.
Situating a black business in a white area requires rarely granted approval from the highest levels of government. Even the African Bank, the country's largest and most influential black firm, encountered stiff resistance before being allowed to locate its headquarters in Johannesburg. It now is fighting for permission to locate a branch in Pietersburg, another white area.
Black lawyers have routinely been denied permission to locate their offices in white areas near courthouses.
Reagan also said that South Africa's government now recognizes interracial marriages. However, many mixed couples have avoided official recognition because it would mean they would have to live in black areas and that their children--classified officially as Colored--would have to attend inferior schools.
Almost three-quarters of South Africa's blacks are assigned to 10 black homelands. About 11 million actually reside in those areas, while up to 13 million are classified as temporary residents of the white areas in which they live.
In his interview with the Atlanta station, Reagan repeated his conviction that the Administration's existing approach to relations with South Africa will lead most quickly to basic reforms in apartheid, which he described as "very repugnant."
"For us to take an action now such as some are suggesting, turning our backs and walking away, would leave us with no persuasive power whatsoever," Reagan said.
In a separate radio interview with Washington Broadcast News on Saturday, Reagan said that he is "sitting back and looking with a kind of jaundiced eye at what (legislation) may come to me" on sanctions against South Africa, but that he will wait to see the specific provisions of the bill before deciding whether to veto it.
Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), a conservative who supports sanctions against the South African government, reacted to Reagan's statement Monday by noting that there has been some success in eliminating "petty apartheid laws." However, these moves "still don't get to the basic problem that apartheid, as the law of the land, is not being dismantled," he said.
Times staff writer Paul Houston contributed to this story from Washington.