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S. Africa grappling with its role To lead or not: Nigeria's execution of nine men last week has become a test for South Africa in its relations with the rest of the continent.


A photo caption on Page 2A in yesterday's editions incorrectly identified a Nigerian official. He is Foreign Minister Tom Ikini.

* The Sun regrets the error.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The confusion in South Africa's dealings with the rest of Africa is as obvious as the headlines in the newspapers.

"SA Will Not Lead Boycott of Nigeria" reads one. "Mandela Calls for Oil Ban" proclaims another.

Nigeria's execution of nine political activists last week has become a peculiar, difficult test for South Africa. Should a country proud of its 18-month-old democracy deal with a nation guilty of human rights violations?

Does ending all contact with a government help or harm dissidents? Can South Africa be the policeman of a continent, or is it just one of many nations?

Before Nigeria hanged playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other prisoners, South Africa maintained normal diplomatic ties with that country -- though its military government was already nearly as ostracized as had been the all-white governments that enforced apartheid.

Officials here argued that only by keeping channels open could they influence Nigeria's ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha.

That is, South Africa behaved toward Nigeria as the United States behaved toward South Africa -- a policy of "constructive engagement," of never letting all contact lapse, even with leaders responsible for abhorrent acts.

The leaders of the new, majority-black government of South Africa found it hard to impose on Nigeria the isolation they thought should have been imposed on apartheid-era South Africa.

"I don't think South Africa should be grandstanding on this," Aziz Pahad, South Africa's deputy foreign minister, says to explain his opposition to boycotting Nigeria's exports of oil.

"It's the countries that produce and buy the oil -- England and the United States -- that should call for such a thing. We are not going to call for it just because it sounds good."

President Mandela says he will telephone U.S. and British leaders to ask them to take that action.

"I will urge them to apply oil sanctions," he told reporters yesterday during a visit to New Zealand. "We can see we are dealing with a very irresponsible fellow."

That is closer to the sort of moral leadership that many expected from South Africa's first democratic government, particularly on matters concerning the continent of Africa. For in the past, dictators seemed sheltered from criticism as long as they voiced opposition to South Africa's apartheid.

No one has been more vocal than Desmond Tutu, the country's Anglican archbishop whose anti-apartheid work led to a Nobel Peace Prize.

Mr. Tutu argued that the government's policy toward Nigeria in the months leading up the executions put South Africa "in danger of being a laughingstock."

That policy included trips to Nigeria by Mr. Tutu, Mr. Mandela, Mr. Pahad and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, to plead for freedom for political prisoners. The executions, says Mr. Tutu, were "a spit in Mandela's face."

"We have got to be in the forefront in calling for sanctions to be applied," he says. "We have been through this here. We know we have got to call for this because it is a moral point. We have got to call for a boycott of Nigerian oil."

Nigeria carried out the hangings while leaders of the Commonwealth -- the association of Great Britain and its former colonies -- were meeting in New Zealand.

On the urging of Mr. Mandela and others, the Commonwealth suspended Nigeria's membership, an unprecedented move, and allowed two years for the country to restore democracy or face expulsion. Mr. Tutu objects that two years is too long, saying that unless Nigeria shows clear progress within one year he will call for tougher measures.

The executions persuaded the African National Congress, its labor union partners, human rights groups and sports associations to form a committee to look for ways to support a return to democracy.

But it has done little beyond kicking Nigeria out of a soccer tournament and planning a rally in front of the Nigerian consulate for tomorrow.

Cheryl Carolus, deputy director of the ANC, suggests these are only first steps -- that the committee is still deciding upon tactics.

"But what we do say very strongly is that as people who were beneficiaries of international support in the past, we are morally obliged to leave no stone unturned in supporting people who are struggling for democracy, particularly on the continent of Africa," she says.

Mr. Pahad, the deputy foreign minister, insists that South Africa's powers are limited.

"We do not want to overestimate the capacity of South Africa to wave a magic wand and solve the world's problems," he says, describing the country's $24 million in annual trade with Nigeria "a drop in the ocean."

"We really have got no economic clout with Nigeria. We intend to play a role within the limited capacity we have in international relations. We should not lead where we have no capacity to lead."

South Africa, Mr. Pahad says, does not want Nigeria and West Africa to "collapse into instability." And he thus again echoed the words of those who sought to maintain contact with South Africa during the era of apartheid.

He doesn't shrink from the term "constructive engagement." But he labeled that policy of the United States and Great Britain "destructive engagement," because it included virtually no contact with the ANC while it was still in exile. He contrasted it with the visit to the ANC by a Commonwealth delegation.

That group was led by the then head of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, who has since been jailed for life.

Nigeria's pro-democracy movement is far less organized than its old counterpart in South Africa. There had been formal structures led by South Africans inside and outside the country, coordinating tactics and strategy. Ms. Carolus of the ANC says that one of the first tasks of her group is to establish contacts with Nigerians to see what kind of support they want.

"We do not want in any way to harm the people of Nigeria who stood with us in the past," she says. And it will be up to Nigerians to solve their country's problems; the international community can only support what they begin themselves.

Mr. Tutu urges that meanwhile it must not be forgotten that nine people were hanged.

"We ought to be appalled that these people were executed," he says. "We in South Africa remember that there was a time when our people were strung up and then buried without their relatives even being notified. The same thing happened there.

"Maybe we can't move the rest of the world. But we should let it be known that we tried."

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