It's irony time again. The issue today is South Africa and how the U.S. Congress proposes to help eradicate apartheid.

Did you know, for instance, that one provision in the Senate bill to impose sanctions on South Africa makes clear that the U.S. government may subsidize agricultural sales to South Africa? This provision, approved 55-44, was introduced by Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., who told the Senate that not only South African blacks but also U.S. farmers should not be subject to discrimination.At the start of Senate debate on the sanctions bill, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., implored his colleagues not to bar imports from South Africa for protectionist reasons. The Senate proceeded to vote embargoes on South African textiles and agricultural goods, in addition to steel, coal and uranium -- all import-sensitive products.

The draconian sanctions passed by the House were proposed on the floor by Rep. Ronald Dellums, D-Calif. They superseded a measure that represented weeks of work by two House committees. Rep. Dellums belongs to neither committee. Will he, as father of the House bill, participate in the House-Senate conference on sanctions legislation - the conference that will draft a final sanctions bill?

If Congress enacts a tough sanctions bill over President Reagan's veto, South Africa, it is rumored, may retaliate by halting some strategic mineral shipments to the United States.

The United States, which produces no chromium, buys nearly three-fourths of its chromium from South Africa or other nations in southern Africa. The United States also does not produce platinum and related metals and about 60 percent of these imports are from southern Africa. Similarly, the United States relies on southern Africa for most of its cobalt.

Last year, the Reagan administration proposed to downgrade the U.S. government's strategic minerals stockpile. It urged selling off all stockpiled platinum and cutting by at least 75 percent the stockpile goals for chromium and cobalt. Congress, through foresight or inertia, has not acted on the proposal.

Among the platinum group of metals is rhodium, which is at least as special as platinum. Rhodium, along with platinum, is essential to the manufacture of 3-way catalytic converters, used in today's automobiles. Without rhodium, U.S. and foreign car makers couldn't make converters that meet U.S. Clean Air Act standards. If South Africa were to stop exporting rhodium, the only alternative foreign source would be the Soviet Union.

But even the Soviets, experts say, do not have enough rhodium to meet U.S. auto industry demands.

What to do? Provisions of the Clean Air Act would have to be suspended by Congress, to save the auto industry. Many of those in Congress spearheading the drive for South African sanctions are fervent environmentalists.

What kind of sanctions bill is likely to emerge from a House-Senate conference? Or will there will be a conference? Will the House simply accept the milder Senate sanctions?

House Democrats might figure that sending a bill from the Republican controlled Senate to President Reagan would especially embarrass Republicans at election time. The White House, of course, is opposed to legislated sanctions on South Africa. Democrats obviously would relish a photo opportunity at which the president vetoed a Republican bill.

Partisan politics aside, the Senate does have a better case than the House for insisting on its bill. After all, it passed its sanctions measure by an 84-14 vote. The House cleared its bill on a collective but anonymous voice vote. The odds, then, are for Congress' approving a Senate-like measure, unless the White House, at the 11th hour, bows and imposes enough new sanctions on its own against South Africa to get legislators to forsake a bill, as was done a year ago.

The Senate bill would cement into statutory language last year's computer and nuclear export curbs, the import embargo on South African gold Krugerrands and the ban on new loans to South African government agencies.

The new import curbs on coal, steel, uranium, textiles, food and other farm products would cover close to one-third of total U.S. imports last year

from South Africa. But that total included Kruggerrands, which are no longer imported.

South Africa could keep exporting such big items as platinum group metals, diamonds and other precious or semi-precious stones. A ban on diamonds could be imposed, however, within a year.

The denial of South African commercial air rights, abrogation of a tax treaty with South Africa, barring South African agencies as U.S. bank depositors, and prohibiting new U.S. corporate investment - except earnings reinvestment - in South Africa round out the Senate-voted sanctions.

The investment ban, for one, seems redundant, given that U.S. firms reportedly halved their South African investments to $1.3 billion in 1985 from $2.6 billion in 1981. U.S. trade with South Africa has fallen steadily. Last year, imports from South Africa fell by $300 million to $2.2 billion and exports to South Africa were down $1 billion to $1.2 billion.

The United States, it appears, is by itself no overwhelming trade and investment factor in South Africa. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Nordic countries have announced sanctions against South Africa and the 12-nation European Community may do so this weekend. Whether even loosely concerted international economic measures will force basic political changes in largely self-sufficient South Africa remains in doubt.

In the ultimate irony, South Africa, with the collaboration of neighboring African states that could profit from sanctions, might survive them indefinitely.

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