President Reagan has signed an executive order requiring that the second week in September in Washington be uncommonly hot, that Pete Rose break Ty Cobb's hitting record and that Jesse Jackson make a speech.
His packet of economic sanctions against South Africa is, in other words, a combination of the already accomplished, the obviously imminent and the utterly unavoidable.
Notwithstanding the unaccustomedly strong language with which the president condemned apartheid and the pained response of Pretoria, the Reagan package gives comfort to the South African government. The reason, as Jackson might have put it, lies not in the text but in the context.
The text of Monday's announcement was powerful: "America's view of apartheid is simple and straightforward: We believe it is wrong. We condemn it. And we are united in hoping for the day when apartheid will be no more."
One part of the context is that sanctions the president then announced were, for practical purposes, mere endorsements of the status quo: a ban on the export of nuclear goods or technology to South Africa (none was being exported); a ban on most loans to the South African government (U.S. banks, for a combination of economic and domestic political reasons, already had stopped making such loans), and an announcement of consultations tow banning the importation of krugerrands, the South African gold coins for which the U.S. market has all but disappeared and whose importation would have been banned outright by legislation being wrapped up in Congress.
Which is the other, more important part of the context of Reagan's announcement. Passage of somewhat stronger sanctions was a foregone conclusion, the only live question being whether the legislators would override the expected presidential veto.
If Reagan supported sanctions, he simply would have waited and signed the legislation that was headed his way. But he didn't support sanctions. He had said so on a number of occasions. It follows, then, that he did what he did on Monday not to punish South Africa but to mitigate its punishment.
Roger Wilkins, a leader of the Free South Africa movement, puts it this way. "It was an attempt to defang the legislation, which was on track, and substitute something much milder. The congressional legislation had both carrot and stick, requiring specified steps in the next 18 months which, if they were met, would lead to relaxation of the sanctions but if unmet would lead to harsher measures. Moreover, the sanctions bill flat out proscribed importation of krugerrands. The president will discuss it. His establishment of a commission (to provide recommendations on measures to encourage peaceful change in South Africa) isoutrageous after 40 years of the National Party and four- and-a-half years of 'constructive engagement.'
"My sense is that the president's announcement indicates a reluctance to express, in policy terms, all-out indignation at the injustices in South Africa."
And my sense as well. The strong language of the Reagan announcement might have been written by Bishop Desmond Tutu, who called him a racist. If he had said those things and even hinted at sanctions six months ago, it might have forestalled the tragedy now unfolding in South Africa, because it would have disabused Pretoria of the notion that it could count on its White House pal to save it from America's growing impatience and disgust.
But given Reagan's announced opposition to sanctions, his incredible, subsequently modified, claim that Botha's "reformist" government has "eliminated . . . segregation" in all places of public accommodation and his insistence on sticking with his discredited policy of "constructive engagement," Monday's announcement takes on a different meaning.
To understand what that meaning is, don't just read Reagan's harsh words or Botha's hurt-eyed response. Rather, ask yourself whether, given a choice, Botha would have preferred that the president keep quiet and let Congress do its thing.