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Under Threat of Sanctions, S. Africa Prepares for Siege

September 15, 1986|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — With international economic sanctions now virtually certain, South Africa's white leaders are preparing the strife-torn country for a full siege.

President Pieter W. Botha's government, more determined than ever not to give in to international pressure, has developed a strategy to turn the sanctions into what one confident official calls "an opportunity, a challenge for the country."

"We do not desire sanctions," the 70-year-old president says, "but, if we have to suffer sanctions for the sake of maintaining freedom, justice and order, we will survive them. Not only will we survive, we will emerge stronger on the other side!"

Using the threat of foreign interference, Botha is trying to broaden white support for his step-by-step reforms, which offer the country's black majority an eventual share of political power but not the ability to dominate the white minority.

By threatening counter-sanctions against South Africa's neighboring countries, Botha is reminding them, and their friends in Western Europe and America, how economically dependent they are. He is hoping that as a result, they will accept a political settlement here that falls short of majority rule.

And, in putting South Africa's economy on a siege footing, Botha is also trying to pull it out of a prolonged recession so that it can resume the fast-paced, money-spinning growth that it enjoyed in the early 1980s.

If Botha's efforts succeed, strategists in his ruling National Party believe, the government will have freed itself from international pressure to give in to black demands for a new political system based on one man, one vote. At the same time, they say, it will have strengthened its own bargaining position in favor of a "power-sharing" compromise based on the equality of the country's four "racial groups"--blacks, whites, Asians and Colored, the latter South Africa's term for persons of mixed race.

"If we can prove international pressure, such as sanctions, will not force concessions from us, then we are significantly closer to negotiations and, I believe, to a realistic settlement," said a political scientist who advises the government and asked not to be quoted by name.

"Sanctions are not the way I would choose to do it, but . . . they will strengthen our resolve, and they will make the others see the need for compromise," he added.

The impact of sanctions on the South African economy depends on the scope of the measures eventually adopted and on how well they are followed and enforced.

A bill passed Friday by the U.S. House of Representatives on a 308-77 vote includes many of the most-discussed measures. Among other things, it would bar all new U.S. investment and bank loans in South Africa; ban imports of uranium, coal, iron, steel, textiles, arms and agricultural products from South Africa; ban U.S. exports to South Africa of petroleum products and computers; withdraw landing rights for South African airliners in the United States, and bar U.S. airlines from providing air transportation to South Africa.

10 Days to Act

The bill, which has already been passed by the Senate, faces a possible veto by President Reagan, who, together with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, remains strongly opposed to sanctions as a way to promote political change here.

Reagan has 10 days from Friday to act on the bill.

More than 60 of South Africa's trading partners are expected to have imposed some form of economic sanctions before the end of this year, according to Western diplomats.

The European Communities, a group of 12 nations, is expected to reach a decision this week. Most of the 49 member-nations of the Commonwealth appear almost certain to act later this month, and Japan will decide in October.

Still, none of South Africa's major trading partners--the United States is No. 1, followed by Japan, West Germany and Britain--is likely to cut all economic ties, as urged by Pretoria's harshest critics.

The government's early strategy was to fight imposition of any sanctions, warning that they would hit blacks here much harder than whites and that they would inevitably hurt South Africa's black-ruled neighbors as well.

That remains Pretoria's formal position, but the Botha government now accepts that sanctions are inevitable and is fashioning its response accordingly.

Customs Slowdown

The warnings to the West about the likely impact of sanctions on neighboring countries have thus been replaced with blunt reminders to the neighbors themselves that South Africa remains the economic engine of the whole region. Often the reminder comes in the form of threatened counter-sanctions.

Road and rail traffic to Zambia and Zimbabwe, both heavily dependent on South Africa's transport system, was slowed to a crawl for three weeks last month as South Africa customs officials conducted crate-by-crate examinations of all cargoes. Importers in both countries also must now post expensive customs deposits on goods coming through South Africa.

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