South Africa has been unable to deflect interference with its exercise of sovereign rights within its own borders. Other states have declared that racial discrimination as practiced in South Africa is such an egregious offense against “fundamental human rights” that interference is required, and since the Carter administration, the United States has relentlessly asserted that South Africa could best be understood through the prism of human rights. This same guiding principle was reasserted during the second Reagan administration. Over the past decade, America has increasingly criticized South Africa for claiming the sovereign right to project itself by striking the havens of armed opponents across its borders. South Africa has been said to be internationalizing apartheid by attacking black-ruled regional states such as Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Zambia.

Yet for at least the past two decades, and often quietly, South Africa has been reinforcing its international sovereignty and credibility by participating in a number of important development projects to assist other African states. Pretoria’s Africa-centered approach was confirmed in New York City on December 22, 1988, when it joined Cuba and Angola’s MPLA party in signing the Tripartite Agreement to provide for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Angola and for “internationally acceptable” independence in neighboring South West Africa/ Namibia.

A few conservatives who had staunchly defended South Africa’s sovereign right to determine domestic policy as well as make cross-border raids assailed the agreement as “suicide.” Uneasy about where America’s Africa policy might go after the 1988 election, some conservative critics of the Tripartite Agreement took aim at South Africa and especially its enduring foreign minister, Roelof F. “Pik” Botha. This reflects in part their visceral distrust of diplomats in general and the US State Department in particular. In Angola, the State Department prefers UNITA absorption into a cosmetically broadened MPLA regime to the free, fair multiparty elections envisioned in the Alvor Agreement. Some conservatives impute the same motives to South Africa. A few have visited there and assailed the ruling National Party, an endorsement welcomed by Conservative Party opponents. These American conservatives may have unwittingly allied themselves with South Africa’s leftist opponents, who hope that Conservative Party gains in Parliament will polarize the country and make the revolutionary alternative irresistible.

Pretoria’s international stance is, however, best evaluated in the light of the exercise of sovereignty, not burdened with analyses based on human rights standards or the struggle against international communism. If necessary, a sovereign nation must be willing to go it alone. This is a right we claimed in Grenada, Britain claimed in the Falklands, and France in Chad. Sovereignty and the imperative to survive motivate South Africa in its goals, tactics, and strategies, and in its approach to domestic and foreign policy. The imposition of a human rights test from overseas or by domestic opponents is unlikely to lead to a productive description of what is happening in and near South Africa.

In exchange for sovereign rights, the US is only offering multilateralism. The concept of human rights, especially as conjured up in the United Nations Declaration, ideally suits itself to trashing South African domestic and foreign policy. What South Africa’s American critics may not always realize, however, is that by questioning South Africa’s sovereign rights we are endangering our own. Multilateral approaches can backfire. We who are now imposing the human rights test on South Africa, having accepted the legitimacy of that multilateralism, may find ourselves on the receiving end in the future, making the best of an unsavory deal.

In this we are not only violating our own tradition and principles, but (on a more practical level) willfully misunderstanding this country. By insisting that South Africa must adhere to human rights standards, and abandon its perception of national interest and sovereignty, the US and others enamored with multilateralism find Pretoria a frustrating puzzle. If Pretoria’s central motivations are ignored, American policy will always fail—as, in fact, it has since at least September 9, 1985, when President Reagan capitulated to State Department pressure and, adopting a human-rights approach, imposed his own punitive sanctions. A conservative analysis will likewise fail if conservatives insist on interpreting the Tripartite Agreement as a capitulation to communism, when Pretoria has instead been focusing on its own preservation. The mixture of evolutionary reform at home and assertiveness across borders does not mean that South Africa will bypass a diplomatic deal when it perceives that deal to be in its national interest.

Following the September 6 elections, South Africa’s challenge shifts to the domestic front. Some success asserting its sovereignty overseas has bought time for rapid, dramatic, and real political reform. In the election, English-speaking white voters returned to previous voting patterns and chose a new moderate-left party, the Democrats. Afrikaans-speaking voters picked either the National Party or the Conservatives. Finally, in the only province where successful multiracial powersharing negotiations have occurred, Natal, voters were comfortable with the moderation of black leaders. The Conservatives were shut out there.

President F.W. DeKlerk’s task is to preserve his nation’s sovereignty by pacifying internal ferment through negotiation. His course may or may not scotch assaults on South Africa’s sovereign rights. The American blindness remains: leftist Congressman Howard Wolpe, a Michigan Democrat, joins Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak in demanding more sanctions, while diehard conservatives, calling DeKlerk’s remarks a “speech at Appomattox,” may raise funds in the US for the Conservative Party. America would do better to contribute to positive change by supporting a responsible course, not by making South Africa more turbulent by fueling revolution.