Johannesburg — For years, it has been a war fought more with rhetoric than bullets. Now, the struggle for control of South Africa has taken another grim escalation: For the first time, the government here has admitted invading the capital of a neighboring country to strike at black nationalist guerrillas.
And there are hints that attacks against guerrilla bases in other neighboring countries may be in the offing. "South Africa will in future attacks terrorists wherever they are," a South African military analyst declared.
In an audacious pre-dawn strike Jan. 29, South African soldiers devastated a number of houses near the Mozambican capital city of Maputo. The government here says the houses were used to plot "terrorist" operations in South Africa, while the Mozambican government says they held only refugees.
But there is no dispute on one point: The occupants, at least seven of whom perished, were members of the banned African National Congress (ANC), which is committed to the overthrow of white minority rule here.
The attack on the ANC dwellings was one more proof -- if, indeed, any was needed -- that the organization now has become the most important of the South African liberation movements, and apparently the only one that causes Pretoria any major concern.
Oldest of the black nationalist movements (founded in 1912), the ANC operates a number of underground cells in South Africa. It has claimed responsibility for a series of daring attacks on major installations within the country, including a $7.5 million blast on an oil-from-coal plant outside Johannesburg last year.
Militarily, the ANC presents nothing like the threat to South Africa that, for example, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) does to Israel. And it lacks the diplomatic standing enjoyed by either of the wings of the Patriotic Front guerrilla alliance during Zimbabwe's war for majority rule.
Nevertheless, the ANC's prestige grows almost daily in the embittered black townships of this white minority- ruled country. "There is only one liberation movement -- the ANC," one supporter fairly shouted to this reporter recently.
The ANC's leader, Nelson Mandela, is being held by the government in a maximum security prison off the South African coast. Even after 17 years of imprisonment, Mr. Mandela is still something of a cult figure to many black South Africans. Indeed, some black activists say that he is front-runner to become the first prime minister of a majority-ruled South Africa.
The South African government charges the ANC is merely a front for the Soviet Union -- a claim that the organization hotly denies. One ANC leader notes that Americans relied on French help during the American Revolution, and yet did not become French subjects afterward.
"Yet when we ask the Cubans to train us, this is called interference," he complains.
Russian, Cuban, and East German backing for the ANC has nevertheless done little to further one of its primary goals: recognition as the "sole authentic liberation movement" in South Africa by both the Organization of African Unity and the United Nations.
Informers, who have apparently infiltrated the organization, have also hampered its effectiveness. The South African military is thought to know the location of virtually every ANC training camp on the African continent.
Why did the government choose to strike against the ANC now, especially when it is already facing international condemnation over alleged foot-dragging in granting independence to Namibia?
Government sources claim the organization was planning a major sabotage campaign inside South Africa. But some critics note that the raid came less than 48 hours after South African Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha called for new elections in the country, elections in which his government will be depicted as protectors of the white minority against a " total onslaught" from outside the country.