Bush continues tragic mistake

Wiley A. Hall

September 27, 1990|By Wiley A. Hall

President Bush met with South African President F.W. de Klerk for about two hours Monday.

It was a historic occasion, since it marked the first such meeting between an American president and a South African head of state in the White House in over 40 years.

Whatever Bush heard during those two hours must have been awfully compelling, for he rushed from the meeting in an apparent frenzy and announced that apartheid had started down an "irreversible" path to extinction.

"I think all Americans recognize that President de Klerk is courageously trying to change things. We believe the process of change in South Africa is irreversible, a fact that we will bear squarely in mind as we consider issues in the future," Bush said, and he said it so effusively that even de Klerk was said to have been taken aback.

"Clearly," said Bush, "the time has come to encourage and assist the emerging new South Africa."

After he was finished, Bush whirled and, according to published reports, pumped de Klerk's hand several times, saying repeatedly that he was "pleased, very pleased," by their meeting.

Later, he added that he would not allow Congress to "push the goal posts back" and make it tougher to lift the economic sanctions.

Now Bush, as we all know, is a prudent man, a kind and gentle man, and normally I would trust anything he said without a qualm.

If Bush were to say that today is the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, for instance, I would mark the date on my calendar without hesitation. In his two years in office, Bush has gotten that date wrong only once, and he apologized for his error immediately.

But the president, for all of his prudence, also is a conservative Republican.

And, every time conservative Republicans have tried to tell us what to do about apartheid in South Africa, they've been horribly wrong.

They told us that economic sanctions against South Africa would never work, for instance.

They told us that the African National Congress was run by a bunch of communists, for instance.

They told us that the every-day men, women and children in the United States who pressured universities, businesses and local governments to divest themselves of companies doing business in South Africa were naive and misguided, for instance.

They even told us the impossible tale that reports of the horrible suffering of South African blacks under apartheid were exaggerated. South African blacks, they tried to say, live better than blacks anywhere else on the continent.

Wrong, all wrong.

True to form, the president's report of a new millennium in South Africa appears to have been premature.

"With all due respect, I believe the president must have been hallucinating," said a spokesman at the Washington office of the African National Congress, passionately.

"You look at all the murder and all the carnage that's going on over there," the ANC spokesman continued. "You look at the homelessness and the misery. You look at the security laws that are still in place and the economic deprivation and you have to wonder what he [Bush] was thinking about. In fact, it makes me suspicious. I think he's speaking as a white man trying to protect the settler interests there."

Anne Griffin, of TransAfrica, said, "In a tragic way, I found the president's performance amusing. Remember that Bush never was in the forefront of the sanctions movement. Neither he nor his predecessor ever wanted to pressure South Africa to abolish apartheid. In that context, I guess he was being consistent.

"What we are looking for is substantial change, real progress," Griffin continued. "The pillars of apartheid are still in place: The prohibition against owning land, or the population and registration act, or the internal security act. Now is not the time to let up the pressure."

Perhaps Richard Knight, of the American Committee on Africa, had the best perspective: "The basic premise behind U.S. policy on South Africa has never changed from administration to administration, and I think we're seeing it here: 'If we're nice to the whites, maybe they'll be nice to the blacks.' That has been the historic, tragic mistake of our policy-makers right on down the line."

"When we have an agreed upon constitution in South Africa," said Knight, "maybe then -- and I can only say maybe -- but maybe then we can say change is irreversible."

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