One of the most vital imports South Africa gets from the United States is a television program: "The Cosby Show." Cosby is the most popular program on South African TV. Next come ''Dallas," "Golden Girls," "Dynasty," "Murder She Wrote," "Winds of War," and "The A-Team." If the intent of sanctions against South Africa is to communicate outrage at apartheid, and to do so in a way that puts more pressure on whites than on blacks, then why not impose a ban on the export of American TV shows to South Africa? Switching off American TV would demonstrate American feeling to whites in a direct, personal way, and it would hurt them much more than it would hurt blacks. Nearly 94 percent of white homes have sets, compared to only 22 percent of black homes.

With the total collapse of the Reagan administration's policy of "constructive engagement," sanctions against South Africa have become inevitable—a minimum condition for America to meet if its stance against apartheid is to be credible. In his July 22 speech on South Africa, however. President Reagan offered only ritualistic condemnation of apartheid—and no alternative to a policy that would include sanctions. Instead, he maintained his usual solicitude toward the "flawed" Afrikaner government. If the president hears an "emotional clamor" for sanctions, it is because his own halfhearted reproach of the racist white tribe has made it necessary for others to speak America's conscience—and to deny Pretoria the imprimatur of American acquiescence.

But we should be clear about what sanctions can and cannot accomplish. It is already very late to be debating them. The political situation in South Africa, never easy to affect from the outside, seems to be more resistant than ever to external pressures for reform. State President P W. Botha has already thumbed his nose at the West, most recently in his hostile reception to British foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe. He has made it clear that the Afrikaners would rather go it alone than "commit national suicide."

There are also formidable practical obstacles to sanctions. South Africa has abundant natural resources. It has long pursued economic self-sufficiency in preparation for possible sanctions. A total boycott on trade and investment, such as the one called for in the sanctions bill that passed the House in June, is bound to be leaky. The porousness of existing embargoes on oil and arms proves just how resourceful the South Africans can be (and just how unprincipled many other countries can be) when it comes to shipping forbidden goods into South African ports. "There are always traders who will trade," a white banker recently told the Wall Street Journal—though it may mean dealing through phony companies or diverting goods through complaisant third countries.

Nevertheless, just because sanctions may be essentially a symbolic gesture doesn't mean that they are an empty gesture. To blacks, imposing sanctions is an offer of inclusion in the Western community, showing that the West recognizes the justice of the black grievance. Bishop Desmond Tutu's call for sanctions is a plea for just such inclusion. He and other South African moderates, both black and white, recognize that the West's best chance of keeping an eventual black government from tilting toward the Soviets is to make our moral leanings clear now.

Just as important is the message to whites. South African whites cherish the conceit that they belong to the Western community. And it's partly true—like Americans, they have a taste for VCRs, Toyotas, and buying on credit. But their political system profoundly separates them from the fundamental values that unite other Western nations. One goal of sanctions is to drive that point home: the whites won't be welcome among free people until they show some understanding of what freedom means. That's where the Cosby sanction comes in. Though it's possible that Dr. Heathcliffe Huxtable broadens the thinking of some Boers, Mr. T and J. R. Ewing probably do not. Let whites contemplate Dallas-less screens—and reflect on what they and their leaders have done to inspire so much revulsion around the world.

Our TV export ban is meant to be emblematic of an overall approach to sanctions that would emphasize steps that target the white government and white individuals. It could go well as an amendment to the sanctions bill that recently passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That measure hits the white government by freezing the U.S. bank accounts of South African government or state-owned corporations and banning imports of goods that are produced by government-owned corporations. The bill targets white individuals by denying U.S. landing rights to South African airlines. The only South Africans who fly regularly to the United States are members of the white elite. They can get around the ban, but adding inconvenience would serve to remind them of American disapproval of their country's system. The Senate sanctions would be lifted if the South African government does three of the following: free jailed African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, lift the state of emergency, legalize political parties, repeal the Group Areas Act, which keeps certain residential areas off-limits to blacks, and start negotiations with the black opposition. If Pretoria doesn't make progress toward ending apartheid in a year, additional sanctions could follow.

The bill includes a ban on bank loans to South Africa and on new investment in South Africa by American companies. The importance to Pretoria of American investment is only partly economic. New investment has already all but dried up—not for moral reasons, but for cold economic ones. Pretoria seeks it mainly as an endorsement of the claim that positive change can, and is, taking place in South Africa. Therefore, although the economic impact of a ban on new investment is probably not very great, the symbolic impact is powerful. Meanwhile, it's worth recalling that American companies don't automatically exert a progressive influence. Lately there's been a rush by U.S. firms to sign the Sullivan Principles, which require equal pay for equal work, desegregated working facilities, and management training for blacks. Still, only 199 American firms out of 284 subscribe, and some of them don't meet the highest standards of compliance. There's no reason all companies can't play by these basic rules of decency, and they should be required to do so.

Sanctions help return American policy to a course that reflects American values. But our policy will have to employ other means of moral suasion as well. We use every available opportunity to condemn the Soviet Union's human rights abuses, without much hope that our words will bring systemic change. But we speak out because we feel a duty to prevent Soviet evils from passing unchallenged, and to provide succor to those who oppose that system. The same sense of obligation should apply to our public posture on South Africa, especially since there is more chance there that our words can affect the direction change takes.

After President Reagan signs a sanctions bill, he could give collective recognition to the various representatives of South Africa's anti-apartheid movement. Secretary of State George Shultz recently expressed willingness to meet with Oliver Tambo, president of the ANC. President Reagan should do the same. Why not convene a Rose Garden meeting of all the leading figures in the South African opposition? The guest list should include: Tambo; Bishop Tutu (he's already been to the White House once); Alan Boesak of the United Democratic Front; Saths Cooper of the Azanian Peoples Organization; Gatsha Buthelezi of the Inkatha movement; and Helen Suzman of the Progressive Federal Party. Let them and other leading anti-apartheid activists, black and white, present their ideas for Sout Africa's future and their suggestions for how the United States could play a useful role. It's time we got constructively engaged with the right people.

This article originally appeared in the August 25, 1986, issue of the magazine.