WASHINGTON — George P. Shultz has decided to make his first trip to southern Africa as secretary of state. What he should do is take President Reagan along. In a relatively short period of time, Reagan could learn a great deal that would help him untangle and correct current misbegotten American policies in that turbulent part of the world.
The visit would be easy to arrange, because the President already has an invitation. Just last month, President Kenneth D. Kaunda of Zambia, speaking on behalf of six of the black-ruled "front-line states" in the region, suggested that Reagan see for himself how the grave economic problems of these countries are being aggravated by the continuing racial crisis in South Africa. Now the number of African countries willing to welcome the President is up to eight.
Of course, Reagan would not have to restrict his itinerary to places like Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. He could also call on his friends in white-ruled South Africa, with whom he has been carrying on a "constructive engagement" for more than five years.
If Reagan spoke with people on all sides in South Africa--from government officials in Pretoria to exiled leaders of the African National Congress in the Zambian capital of Lusaka--and if he visited the black township of Soweto and the Crossroads squatter camp, he would learn things that elude most Americans.
Indeed, there are many reasons why it would make sense for the Administration to entertain Kaunda's original proposal.
A Reagan visit to southern Africa would instantly raise the American consciousness about the neediest and most neglected continent. It would help destroy some stereotypes of Africa as a backward, uncivilized place. And it would demonstrate Reagan's personal interest in peace for a region that is becoming almost as volatile as the Middle East.
In terms of both domestic and international politics, the trip would be a clever move; the President could score points against the Democrats and the Soviet Union at the same time.
If Reagan is the quick study some of his friends and associates say, there are certain things he would discover. Some of his previous travels abroad have proved enlightening. He returned from Latin America, for example, saying "You'd be surprised. They're all individual countries," and, after visiting China, he said capitalism was flourishing there.
In southern Africa, he would find that for all their fancy boasts, the white rulers of South Africa have done little to dismantle the structure of apartheid. Thus the level of violence continues to increase. If he asked around about Jonas Savimbi, the allegedly pro-Western guerrilla leader in Angola who now has CIA money and anti-aircraft missiles, he would learn that Savimbi is viewed as a garden-variety opportunist, that his "freedom fighter" designation is an artifact better applied to American, than African, politics.
But there are some more subtle and perhaps surprising lessons that Reagan could learn--all of them bearing upon his fundamental world view:
The ANC, rather than being the vanguard of the communist menace in South Africa, appears increasingly to be accepted as part of the mainstream--a moderate force in the rapidly changing spectrum of that country's black politics.
To be sure, the ANC has a military wing, and some of its young militant members, asserting that more traditional tactics have failed, have become more violent in response to intensified government oppression. Civilians, in addition to military and police officers and facilities, are now victims. It is also true that there are at least a dozen card-carrying communists among the ANC's 30-member Executive Committee. (It is no secret, of course, that there were communists in the broad-based coalition that formed the nationalist movement in 1912.)
But the basic tone of the ANC's political leadership remains conciliatory. Indeed, even after 22 years in prison, ANC leader Nelson Mandela supports negotiation over confrontation.
This willingness to negotiate with the white regime makes the ANC vulnerable to charges of selling out. Most of the "comrades" who have taken charge in the black townships seem to want nothing more to do with the ANC and other multiracial organizations like the United Democratic Front. Even Zulu leader Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, until now a bitter rival of the ANC and the UDF, may soon find it necessary to form an alliance with them against the far more radical forces that are growing in influence.
Zimbabwe, hardly the Marxist state that its ruler's rhetoric would suggest, in fact accommodates capitalism and operates a Western-style economy.
Prime Minister Robert Mugabe has made many mistakes. His human rights record, with regard to members of the Ndebele black minority, is not good. He has often seemed to sacrifice other interests in his drive to create a one-party state. He has indeed been tactless in dealings with the United States and other Western nations that generously aided Zimbabwe.