Johannesburg — Southern African diplomacy is a bit like tennis -- the initial smack on the ball may be less important that the follow-through. In like manner, the initial break in diplomatic relations between Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and South Africa may be less important than what comes after it.
South Africa, for the time being, has left the ball in the court of Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, after his announcement that diplomatic ties between the two countries would be severed due to South Africa's racial policies.
South African Foreign Minister Roelof F. Botha has recalled senior personnel from the South African diplomatic mission in Salisbury (the Zimbabwe capital), and announced that it is up to Mr. Mugabe to outline what sort of links between the two countries he has in mind.
But many analysts here suspect that Mr. Mugabe will be forced by historical and geographical realities to keep open some links with South Africa, probably at the consular or trade-mission level, to preserve his country's economic relationship with South Africa.
And Pretoria, although disappointed that it could not maintain formal governmental relations with its northern neighbor, nevertheless is willing to continue serving as an export-import conduit for Zimbabwe. The belief is that economic leverage ultimately may be more important than formal diplomatic ties.
During early 15 years of worldwide economic sanctions, the former white-run Rhodesia became almost totally dependent on South African trade for its economic survival. Now, having attained independence and international recognition, that situation is changing -- but the change is slow.
For its vital oil imports, for example, Zimbabwe remains almost totally dependent on South Africa. Zimbabwe has an oil pipeline to the Mozambican port of Beira on the Indian Ocean, but the pipeline was shut down during the sanctions period. It now appears to have developed leaks during the shutdown.
In addition, Zimbabwe officials admit that "logistical problems" in the port of Beira mean they must continue to depend on South Africa for oil for the foreseeable future.
Most southern and central African nations are in a similar position. Although only one of those nations -- Malawi -- maintains diplomatic ties with South Africa, virtually all of them rely on South Africa for oil, food, and consumer goods imports, and raw material exports.
Last year, South Africa reportedly exported nearly a billion dollars worth of goods to other African nations, and purchased some $300 million worth of products from them.
This economic subordination suits Pretoria. For one thing, it gives South Africa economic sway over any nearby country that might consider allowing black nation alist guerrillas to launch attacks against this white-ruled republic.
For another, it gives South Africa some measure of insurance against sanctions being imposed by other countries.Pretoria is fond of warning that should sanctions be imposed against it, landlocked southern African nations such as Botswana, Lesotho, and even Zimbabwe would be "the first to suffer."
When the Dutch parliament recently considered an oil boycott against South Africa to protest against its internal racial policies, Zimbabwe Minister of Commerce and Industry David Smith was forced to admit his country could not withstand such a move.
Western experts have been predicting a diplomatic break between the two nations since Mr. Mugabe gained power last April. Initially, however, the South African government apparently nurtured hopes that they could prevent a formal break with Mr. Mugabe's government.
The impact of the break on white Zimbabweans is difficult to assess.Some jittery whites formed long queues at the South African diplomatic mission in Salisbury this week, trying to make formal application to emigrate to South Africa in case the mission is shut down. (White emigration from Zimbabwe continues at the rate of more than 1,000 persons a month.)