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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

A new crop of U.S. diplomats is at work for the past two years, a group unusually well-suited to cultivate contacts in black politics. One current U.S. official in Pretoria has several years' experience in Lesotho and Botswana with the Peace Corps and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. He speaks two languages spoken by black South Africans. Another official in Pretoria came from a stint in London, where he came to know African exiles and government officials who passed through. In Botswana, a listening post for developments in South Africa, the deputy chief of mission is a black American with experience in Mozambique. He once served on loan from the State Department to the House subcommittee on African affairs, a bastion of liberal activism.

In Washington, E. Gibson Lanpher has joined the Southern Africa desk. Lanpher was the U.S. delegate to the Lancaster House talks that ended the war in Rhodesia and negotiated the transition to black majority rule. Lanpher also met with leaders of the African National Congress in January to prepare for ANC President Oliver Tambo's visit to Washington.

State Department officials say the assignment of experienced hands to South Africa issues isn't part of a grand plan. Yet the assignments clearly help establish U.S. links outside the ambit of embassy cocktail parties.

Another cadre of relatively enlightened officials administer a $25-million budget at the U.S. Agency for International Development, which circumvents the host government and gives money directly to black labor, legal, and community organizations.

Yet many black South Africans remain leery of U.S. intentions--and especially U.S. money--after years of neglect. Walter Sisulu, an ANC leader serving a life sentence at Pollsmoor Prison issued a recent statement recently urging blacks to spurn U.S. aid: "When the ANC was banned, our people went to the West to ask for help. That request was shunned--but our struggle continued. Today those same people, who shunned us in 1960 are coming to us with dollars in their back pockets and ideas on how to solve our problems. We do not need them. We will win our struggle ourselves."

His antagonism comes from his history. In 1960, a frustrated Sisulu, then 48, went underground to fight for blacks' political rights. At that time, ANC petitions for U.S. support had gone unanswered for more than 50 years. The American Embassy never even invited blacks to a reception until July 4, 1963. By then, Sisulu was serving his life term. To overcome that history will require patience by U.S. officials. "The important thing," said a U.S. official in Pretoria, "is to reflect what we stand for and let the current flow past us."

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