WASHINGTON — In a dramatic move that stunned and perplexed even members of the Democratic majority, the House on Wednesday voted to virtually sever trade ties with South Africa and to order American companies and individuals to rid themselves of all assets now held in the racially torn country.
Sponsors of the legislation, which passed on a voice vote, acknowledged that it has no chance of surviving intact in the Republican-led Senate. But the unexpected development, linked to a conservative ploy aimed ultimately at blocking enactment of any new punitive measures against Pretoria, signaled increasing frustration in Congress not only with the white-minority government in South Africa but also with the Reagan Administration's close ties to it.
Milder Bill Considered
The turn of events came as the House was considering legislation sponsored by Rep. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) that was designed to tighten U.S. economic sanctions against South Africa to protest rising violence and racial repression.
Gray's bill would have blocked only new American investment and bank loans in the country. But conservatives opposed to the bill suddenly stopped fighting it in mid-debate and embraced an amendment by liberal California Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Oakland) that called for total U.S. divestiture and a trade embargo. Before the switch, the Dellums proposal had little chance of winning approval.
Gray asserted that the sweeping nature of the House bill would put "irrepressible pressure" on a balky Senate and the White House to agree to some new sanctions to protest the worsening situation in South Africa.
"Even if the Senate doesn't do what we've done, . . . the message that goes to the U.S. Senate is to get off the dime," Gray argued.
But leaders of the anti-sanctions forces said they decided to back the Dellums amendment to make the bill so unpalatable that President Reagan would be forced to veto it if it ever got to his desk.
"Better to let a lousy bill go through than one that was lukewarm that might have muddied the waters," Indiana Republican Rep. Dan Burton argued. Agreed Rep. Mark D. Siljander (R-Mich.), another vocal critic of sanctions: "Dellums' bill is a lemon. It's the kiss of death."
Some lawmakers and staff aides suggested another motive for the unorthodox ploy: Conservatives were spared a recorded vote that could have come back to haunt them in an election year.
The Dellums amendment, which like the full bill also passed on a voice vote, would require the nearly 300 American companies now doing business in South Africa, as well as Americans with private investments in the country, to sell off or withdraw their assets within 180 days from the date of enactment of the legislation.
It would also ban new American investment or loans to South Africa, as well as prohibit the importation into this country of most South African products, except for strategic minerals.
Bans Technology Exports
As amended, the bill also would ban the export to South Africa of U.S. products or technology and would bar South African aircraft from using U.S. airports. The measure makes permanent a temporary ban, imposed by Reagan last year, on the importation of South African Krugerrand gold coins into this country.
After balking for months, Reagan reluctantly ordered a watered-down sanctions package last September to head off congressional passage of stiffer penalties against Pretoria. As it did a year ago, the White House is resisting the new attempt to toughen sanctions, contending that increased pressure will backfire and reduce Washington's ability to influence the white-run government to bring about change.
John M. Poindexter, Reagan's national security adviser, made that point in a letter delivered to House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) before Wednesday's vote.
"Americans are builders, not destroyers," Poindexter wrote. "We should help expand the middle ground, not strengthen the hands of extremists. Further sanctions would have precisely this latter result."
Senate Bill Pending
Legislation similar to Gray's original bill is pending in the Senate. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), while signaling reservations about the effectiveness of new sanctions, has acknowledged that some legislation is likely to emerge from Congress this year and has scheduled three days of hearings on the matter for next month.
Wednesday's actions marked a heady, if temporary, victory for Dellums, perhaps the most liberal member of the House, who has fought in vain for years to sever U.S. economic ties with South Africa. He said that adoption of his proposal showed that "momentum is on our side." But Gray and other sanctions proponents acknowledged that a compromise almost surely would have to be made with the Senate.