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Don't Let Up if Nelson Mandela Is Freed : Much More Is to Be Done Before the Purpose of Sanctions Is Met

September 27, 1987|STEPHEN M. DAVIS | Stephen M. Davis, a writer and policy analyst in Washington, is the author of a new book, "Apartheid's Rebels: Inside South Africa's Hidden War," published by Yale University Press. This article is adapted from his book.

After nearly a year of U.S. economic sanctions, South Africa's white minority government is considering the freeing of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela and other black political rebels from prison.

If it happens, the release would meet one of the prime objectives of Western pressure. Moreover, the televised sight of Mandela's walk into freedom after 25 years of incarceration might convince public opinion worldwide that apartheid's days are numbered.

But hold the champagne and keep those sanctions. Even if Mandela is liberated, a peaceful end to the civil war over apartheid will be impossible without sustained Western intervention.

Mandela is widely considered the only individual in South Africa capable of ordering an effective guerrilla cease-fire and "delivering" the black community into a peace accord with whites. According to the polls, the 69-year-old founder of the ANC's military wing holds the admiration of more blacks than any other single leader.

Mandela also has long-standing ties with ANC rivals, such as Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi. For a time, Mandela should be able to patch up feuds that rend the black community, giving him clout in confronting the government.

As a free man, however, Mandela would be exchanging his days as an icon for the rough-and-tumble of pragmatic politics. His popularity would likely peak in the honeymoon days after his release, but ebb with each decision he makes that vexes one anti-apartheid faction or another. Should Mandela endorse a policy to avoid civilian deaths in sabotage operations, young militants might begin to wonder if he had secretly "sold out" to gain his freedom. Should Mandela join his colleagues in advocating disinvestment, black traditionalists might consider him too radical for their tastes. Should Mandela engage in summits with white businessmen, labor unions might suspect him of neglecting worker interests.

Ironically, it is the prospect of a cease-fire and negotiations with Pretoria over the future of South Africa that represents the greatest threat to Mandela's influence. Reports have already surfaced concerning at least three recent efforts by South African government representatives to begin such talks with people in the African National Congress.

Judging by past actions, South Africa's President P. W. Botha is steadfastly committed to white rule. He might well conceive of Mandela's release as a means of drawing international recognition to a peace conference which, in turn, his government could use to forge a compact withconservative blacks who oppose the ANC. Frozen out, the ANC would have little choice in such an event except to reject the outcome and revive its insurgency.

Yet Botha might hope to claim legitimacy, both at home and abroad, for his new multiracial accord. Indeed, if abetted by key governments in the West, the ploy could buy a few years of relief from international anti-apartheid pressure even as the ANC's guerrillas step up their attacks.

In negotiations, therefore, Pretoria would have an interest in dividing the black opposition. Provocative acts, such as mass detentions of one faction's activists, could do it. Or Botha could inflame old controversies among blacks by pressing the ANC to sever ties with the Communist Party, or to recognize scorned tribal ministers as co-equal negotiators.

Whichever way Mandela turns in response--conceding, compromising or stonewalling--he risks upsetting black unity or sparking renewed guerrilla warfare and rioting that he might not be able to control.

This is where sanctions come into play. Rather than loosening the economic boycott if Mandela is released, the West should keep the pressure on.

Sustained United States, European and Japanese intervention in the form of sticks (trade embargos, lending prohibitions, disinvestment and airline bans) and carrots (promises of restored economic ties) should help compel Pretoria to seek a peace accord that, in the end, includes the main anti-apartheid parties.

There is too much at stake in South Africa, from vast mineral wealth to a suspected nuclear arsenal, for the West to allow Botha to get away with an illusory agreement that leaves out the majority of blacks and ensures escalating violence and instability.

Indeed, the risk is that, amid the euphoria, Mandela's freedom from prison might be misunderstood as South Africa's imminent release from apartheid. The truth is that South Africa's most difficult days will have only just begun.


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