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"It's very evident that we are one of the top mineral-producing countries in the world," says Dr. Dirk Neething, director of energy for the South African Department of Mineral and Energy Affairs.

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Moreover, South Africa's role as a major mineral supplier is likely to grow. This country uses domestic coal for some three-quarters of its energy requirements, and thus can transport and process its raw materials at substantially lower costs than countries that depend on imported oil for such tasks.

Consequently, South Africa is placing greater stress on the further processing of raw materials and is intent on becoming a major supplier of ferromanganese and ferrochromium (minerals alloyed with iron). In addition, South Africa is quietly starting to produce cobalt as a by-product of the platinum mining process (at the behind-the-scenes urging of the US, which is worried about the precarious finances and stability of Zaire).

All of this is enough to establish a certain degree of strategic importance for South Africa. But there is another important reason: The other major holder of several strategic minerals is the Soviet Union.

For example, the Soviet Union and South Africa together account for between 82 and 94 percent of the world's manganese reserves, 93 percent of its vanadium and some 90 percent of its platinum.

There is little likelihood the two countries would form a minerals cartel. After all, South Africa is bitterly opposed to communism and fears the Soviets may work through its restive black population to overthrow the white government.

Some Western analysts share such fears. They argue that should South Africa's mineral wealth fall under Soviet control -- either directly or through the installation of a black puppet government -- the West could be held to ransom over strategic minerals.

Backers of this view cite the so-called Lagovsky theory, named after Soviet strategist A. N. Lagovsky, which holds that the West's reliance on imported minerals, notably chromium, should be exploited to undermine its warmaking capability.

There are some indications the Soviets already have dabbled in mineral price manipulation. Some analysts claim that in 1978 the Soviets began buying up cobalt on world markets. Shortly afterward, guerrillas from Angola -- a Soviet client state -- invaded Zaire's Shaba Province, the source of much of the Western world's cobalt. When production halted and the price of cobalt skyrocketed, the Soviets then reportedly sold the mineral to Western countries at premium prices.

More recently, some experts have suggested that the intervention of Libya, a Soviet ally, in the civil war in Chad may be a grab for Chad's uranium resources.

But some people argue that Soviet price manipulations may not even be the issue.

Dr. Michael Hough, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the University of Pretoria, suggests that the ultimate Soviet goal may be "strategic denial" -- the refusal to sell minerals to the West at any price.

John Barratt, director of the South African Institute of International Affairs, says, however, that the "strategic denial" theory remains "just speculation."

"I've never seen any serious indications that that's what the Soviets are trying to do," he adds.

The Soviets have been involved in some unusual activity in the minerals field in recent years, however.

Daniel I. Fine, a resources consultant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes that beginning 1976, the Soviet Union started major cutbacks on chromium exports. In 1977, it did the same with platinum. By the following year, its manganese exports had been cut, and Soviet satellite states began shopping on the world market.

"The implications of this development for the US and the alliance are deeply disturbing to conventional assumptions of defense and economic security," he adds.