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Diplomats Shape New U.S. Policy Toward Bloodshed in South Africa

September 20, 1987|Steven Mufson | Steven Mufson is a U.S. journalist recently returned from two years in South Africa

WASHINGTON — At the dawn of the Reagan era, Chester A. Crocker, the chief architect of Administration Africa policy, theorized about how the United States should wield its influence. Trying carrots instead of sticks, America would abandon threats against the South African government. Crocker theorized that by assuaging whites' fears, the United States could gently persuade the Pretoria regime to loosen the shackles on black political and economic freedom.

As the Reagan era winds down six years later, Crocker is still ensconced as assistant secretary of state for African affairs, but the men working around him in the State Department and in the U.S. Embassy in South Africa no longer mention the former Administration plan. "Crocker's policy of constructive engagement is finished," says an official who helped prepare a report by Secretary of State George P. Shultz's advisory committee on South Africa. "Constructive engagement has become a pejorative phrase," he says.

Eight months after that report was released, there has been a subtle shift in strategy. The United States has abandoned a central tenet of constructive engagement relying on private dialogue and "confidence building" to persuade change in the white government. Instead the United States is paying greater attention to engaging black leaders while making U.S. opposition to apartheid more public. The Administration no longer views the white South African government as the pivotal center for change, nor as the main target of diplomacy designed to safeguard U.S. values and interests.

Despite this shift, it is difficult to fix a new label to U.S. policy toward South Africa. There has not been, nor will there be, any grandiose Reagan initiative as there was in the Middle East, nor a formal launch of a new policy.

The reason lies in State Department fatalism about racial conflict continuing for the foreseeable future in South Africa. Officials who used to talk about differences that U.S. policy could make in South Africa now believe it is futile to hope for a settlement during this Administration--or for years to come. Pretoria won't budge on its refusal to share power with blacks and blacks remain unable to dislodge the government by force. "I come from the stations-of-the-cross-school of foreign policy," says one State Department official, referring to Jesus Christ's tortuous path as he carried the cross to his crucifixion. Suggesting that South Africans must endure more agony, he says, "You can't skip any stations."

That view reflects a sober realism following both the failure of constructive engagement and the toughening of Pretoria's resolve after mild sanctions were imposed. "Before, there were unrealistic notions here and on the hill that actions taken by us would be decisive," says the official. "There is more sobriety and realism now than there was a year ago."

To avoid blame for the South Africa deadlock, U.S. officials now try to impress that realism on all South Africans and convince them that there isn't much U.S. policy can accomplish. "South Africans, black and white, have fallen into the easy trap of looking to outsiders for solutions to their own problems. They hoped that we could act as a surrogate accepting responsibility for their own fates," says the State Department official. "We stand ready to help, but we don't have a lot of leverage. We never did."

This is far different from earlier Administration attempts to counteract four years of hostile relations under Jimmy Carter. But efforts to work with the Pretoria government produced continued intransigence among members of the white Cabinet and increasingly virulent anti-Americanism among blacks.

Without any hope for concrete short-term gains, U.S. diplomacy has turned attention to long-term intangible issues, like instilling American values among black leaders who inevitably will run the country one day. "Our greatest leverage is far more intellectual," says the U.S. official. "We're talking about challenging people, giving them ideas to think about like constitutions or bills of rights."

To exercise that influence, the Administration is establishing contact with a broad spectrum of black political leaders and organizations. Slowly it is mending the damage done by constructive engagement, which had become a battle cry for anti-Americanism.

Only a year and a half ago, the U.S. Embassy had trouble deciding whether to send a representative to a crucial political funeral in Alexandra township near Johannesburg, finally sending someone at the last minute. U.S. absence would have been conspicuous amid the full complement of foreign dignitaries who attended. Now U.S. officials pop up in obscure rural villages, visit victims of right-wing vigilante violence in hospitals and offer assistance to illegal squatters resisting government removal efforts.

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