PRETORIA, South Africa — Americans John and Ann Gass were having a quiet meal at a South African fishing lodge not long ago when a diner at a nearby table, overhearing their Oklahoma twang, sent over a bottle of fine white wine.
The South African stranger turned out to be the proud new owner of a Ford Motor dealership, sold when the American company pulled out of this country.
The wine, he told the Gasses, was a "thank you" to America for imposing sanctions against his country.
Until recently, most white businessmen and politicians in South Africa believed they already had taken America's best shot at sanctions--those imposed over President Reagan's veto in 1986--and survived, even prospered.
But the presidential candidacy of pro-sanctions Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, a new sanctions bill now in the U.S. Congress and renewed talk of sanctions in European capitals as well are rapidly changing those attitudes.
"There is undoubtedly a rethink going on here about the whole question of sanctions," said Andre du Plessis, of the university-based South African Institute of International Affairs. "There's much more uncertainty now, and the government is split over what we should do."
The debate over sanctions has grown increasingly acrimonious in South Africa lately, with whites disagreeing over how serious a threat they pose to the country and blacks at odds over whether to support them at all.
The new U.S. sanctions legislation "would devastate this economy and still not change the minds of the powers that be," said Adriaan Botha, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in South Africa. Once the economy is ruined, he contends, "the possibility of a phoenix arising from the ashes, as some pro-sanctions people expect, is absolutely nil."
If passed, the measure would end, within a year, nearly all U.S. trade and investment in South Africa. Among those affected would be 154 American firms, worth an estimated $1 billion, still operating here. Multinational firms that do business with both the United States and South Africa would risk losing their American trade if they did not pull out.
Probable Effects Calculated
Most economists here believe it would significantly alter the lives of most South Africans, in a variety of ways.
For example, conservationists fear a sharp drop in wildlife funds, 70% of which come from the fees paid by American hunters, who would no longer be able to take their trophies back to the United States.
A Johannesburg attorney who suffers from a lactose intolerance worries that he and others, primarily children, with the same condition would not be able to get lactose supplements, which contain a key ingredient--soybean protein isolate--imported only from the United States.
Dozens of other companies here, including those divested by U.S. firms, depend heavily on American goods and technology for their survival. Among the casualties of new sanctions could be some of the more popular cars on South Africa's roads. Although Ford sold out last year to local investors and employees and is now called Samcor, the American auto maker still provides parts, services and the Ford name under contract.
The government does not seem overly worried about the new sanctions bill.
'We're Ready for It'
"We've studied the effects down to every man, woman and child. We're ready for it, and we'll survive," said Kent Durr, the government's budget minister and chairman of the Foreign Trade Relations Committee, an advisory panel formed to assess the impact of sanctions.
"Certainly we're not going to be blackmailed into doing things we know to be wrong," Durr added. "We're not going to allow a Marxist government in South Africa in the name of 'liberty.' We're simply not going to do it. Forget it."
South Africa's 26 million blacks, who make up 80% of the population, are far from unanimous on the issue, although their debate has been muted by a state of emergency that makes it illegal (and punishable by a $10,000 fine or 10 years in jail) to advocate sanctions.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner, toured the United States in support of sanctions a few weeks ago, angering many whites back home. Tutu contends that sanctions are the only nonviolent way to change the system of racial separation known as apartheid, under which blacks are denied such civil liberties as a vote in national affairs and the right to live where they please.
Fear Loss of Jobs
Most black anti-apartheid leaders agree with Tutu, but Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, the conservative leader of 6 million Zulus, argues that sanctions will cost blacks their jobs and the economic power they need to force the government to negotiate.
However, among the general population, many, if not most, blacks are ambivalent about the issue. While they think sanctions and the withdrawal of foreign companies would pressure the white government to speed up reform, they fear that it could take years and, in the meantime, increase hardships for blacks.