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Repressing the Press

Brass Tacks

By Joseph F Kahn

ON A NEWS PROGRAM this past week, South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha earnestly proclaimed that the state of siege his government has imposed on that country and the media censorship it has enforced are largely the results of a letter circulated among members of the South African Communist Party. The letter, according to Botha, indicated that the communist group had little interest in negotiating with the white minority government and therefore posed a threat of violence to the nation.

The second-ranking official in the nationalist government, Botha implied that the presence of communist ideologues warrants and justifies the immediate sacrifice of the rights of democracy, freedom of the press, and habeus corpus of the majority of the people within that nation. But the foreign minister's fear of a communist conspiracy, of which he offered no proof other than the existence of a letter, does not lend credibility to his government's increasingly repressive, even totalitarian policies.

Botha stated quite succinctly that the whites are interested only in their own survival as a separate race and culture in South Africa. Even in this time of intense international pressure for reform, he eschewed fundamental precepts of liberty and equality in favor of the continued predominance of the white population.

But the striking thing about Botha's position and the future of the country is not that communists are threatening the stability of a U.S. ally which has claimed to maintain Western values, but rather that his government is evolving rapidly into an Eastern Block nation itself. The limits to which South Africa is willing to go to avoid recognizing the humanity of its majority population is equal only to the repression prevelent in the world's notoriously closed societies. If Pik Botha truly fears the totalitarianism that characterizes many communist governments, he should properly fear the direction of his own regime.

Americans fear such a direction themselves. The continued exclusion of Blacks from the South African political process has exhausted the patience of liberals and moderates in the United States over the past years. But the recent declaration of a state of emergency and the stringent press restrictions which accompanied the expanded police powers have enraged many in this country to an all-time high.

This past week, news organizations have made South Africa their top priority, going overboard to condemn the government for its press restrictions and state of emergency. The House of Representatives by a voice vote approved the most sweeping sanctions bill ever considered on the South African question, calling for the complete withdrawal of all American business interests from the country and the prohibition of all trade excepting imports of strategic goods. It's relieving that after so many years of frustrated protest by Blacks in South Africa, it seems this nation is moving toward a more tenable stance on the country.

South Africa has responded to the pressure by blaming Western jounalists for abetting violence among its people and by further restricting the freedom of the press. South Africa, to a certain degree, has chosen to separate itself from the West, while the West is beginning to disassociate itself from an increasingly unpopular regime. Ironic as it is, the white minority government knows well that an increase in oppression of the press will produce a less enraptured audience in America. With the decline in the flow of information and reports out of South Africa, Americans will be deprived of the vivid pictures and descriptions of violence and protest which egg them on to protest. Congressional interest will dwindle without such public pressure--to the delight of the Pretoria government. As after the Sharpville and Soweto riots, South Africa is plotting to gain time out of the limelight to lick its wounds and quell internal and external dissent.

Just as the Eastern European Block regimes attract little steady attention from the American population, South Africa is relying on a closed-door policy just short of an iron curtain. If, as Pik Botha stated, the primary purpose of white South Africans is to survive, then perhaps a sacrifice of some of their public ties to Western nations would not be too high a price.

There are some obvious strategic advantages to maintaining a cordial relationship with South Africa, but if that country continues to act like an Eastern European nation, then the U.S. should treat it as one. Not only should this country forward the sanctions approved by the House, but diplomatic relations should be reduced to a minimum and the American government should work actively to build a consensus against South Africa as it did, with some success, against Libya and has consistently attempted to effect against the Soviet Union.

If the U.S. continues to allow an ally in good standing to exploit and repress a race in its population, restrict freedom of the press, and adamantly refuse to compromise its racist system of government in any substantial way, then it weakens its own claim to support the free elements of the world and demonstrates an inconsistency which will harm future diplomatic efforts. South Africa must not be allowed to remain in the drivers seat, closing off its society without international recourse when trouble arises and reopening its doors to the West when commericial demands arise and political dissent is under control. Let Pik Botha eat his words: treat this nation like the closed society it emulates.

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