Johannesburg — A stranger in South Africa might be forgiven for thinking an invasion imminent. A newspaper broadside, in big red letters, heralds "proof of Russians on South African borders."
A headline warns of "more red warships on east coast."
And the government-controlled radio and television carries the stern pronouncement of Defense Minister Magnus Malan: The Russians are attempting to open a "second front" against South Africa from Mozambique (the first being in Namibia, formerly South-West Africa).
Cynics tend to dismiss these alarms as another sign that elections are approaching here, since threats of the "red menace" have become commonplace just before the white electorate heads to the polls to choose a government for this minority-ruled country.
Perhaps the cynics are right -- for the time being. For there is no indication of any recent major upsurge in Soviet activities in the African subcontinent.
Yet the new administration of President Ronald Reagan has committed itself to aiding countries facing communist-inspired insurgencies -- a class to which South Africa claims it clearly belongs.
Consequently, South Africa's assertions of a growing Russian threat on its borders bear close scrutiny, if only because the United States may one day be called on to give military assistance to Pretoria. For the United States has undeniably become dependent on a number of vital minerals from South Africa, notably chromium, manganese, platinum, and vanadium.
Also the British government has recently been prodding its allies to consider taking defensive measures in areas outside the region covered by the NATO. That could involve South Africa, since Great Britain is even more dependent on this country's minerals than is the United States.
A hard look at Russian armaments in southern Africa discloses that they are mainly defensive in nature -- and somewhat dated in technology.
They pose a threat to South Africa, an analyst says, only if Pretoria's troops and aircraft happen to venture into neighboring countries.
Yet that is precisely the point that Pretoria's strategists worry about. In their view, a classic "Vietnam pattern" is developing in southern Africa. Guerrilla activity aimed at destabilizing South Africa is on the upswing, yet South Africa finds its ability to strike at guerrilla bases in neighboring countries somewhat limited.
The reasons?International condemnation when its troops violate other countries' borders, and the possibility that a clash with government regulars -- or even Russian, Cuban, or East German soldiers -- during a cross-border raid might escalate into a direct conflict with the Soviets.
Here is a country-by-country breakdown of what Pretoria's northern neighbors can use to keep the South Africans at bay:
* Mozambique. This most recent victim of South African cross-border activity is the most recent host for Soviet naval visits.
At this writing, a Soviet warship is in each of the Mozambican ports of Maputo and Beira, and more may be on the way. The Soviets say this is in response to South Africa's recent raid into Mozambique to hit a black nationalists belonging to the African National Congress (ANC).
Pretoria says the ANC members were responsible for the attack last year at an oil- from-coal plant near Johannesburg that did some $7.5 million worth of damage. The South African government claims they were planning more operations inside South Africa when the raid took place.
Mozambique has 24 Russian MIG-17 jet fighters, flown by Cuban pilots. However, the aircraft are dated -- in the "first generation" class of Soviet fighters -- and are intended for air defense work. They are considered a poor match for South Africa's Mirage fighters, which were supplied by France.
In addition, there are an estimated 5,300 foreign troops in Mozambique, including 1,500 Russians and 1,500 Cubans. Another 1,000 East Germans are thought to be involved in intelligence and secret police activity.
More worrisome to the South Africans are the 205 T-34 and T-76 tanks in the country, most of which are thought to have been shipped in during the last 18 months.
However, the South Africans earlier confiscated several T-34 tanks bound for Uganda from the hold of a ship that stopped in Durban for repairs. They are thought to have used the tanks to perfect their own armor-piercing weaponry.
In addition, there are missile sites at Mapai and Maputo, and they are equipped with Soviet-made SA-3 missiles. The SA-3 is also a defensive projectile, dated, and relatively easy to avert. However, newer anti-aircraft radar tracking and guidance systems are thought to have increased their capabilities. There are now thought to be a total of 60 SA-3 missiles in Mozambique.
* Zimbabwe. At present, Zimbabwe does not receive soviet weaponry. There are a few Soviet-made tanks in the country -- part of the Ugandan shipment confiscated by South Africa and sold to the former white-minority regime of Prime Minister Ian Smith. There are also probably a number of SAM-7 anti- aircraft missiles in the country, brought in by the guerrillas who fought the Smith government are now awaiting integration into the national army. Nevertheless, Zimbabwe is neither armed by the Soviets -- nor subservient to them.
* Botswana. Like Zimbabwe, Botswana has relations with both the Soviet Union and the United States. However, this democratic country has not received major armaments from either superpower.
* Angola. Some 264 Soviet-made tanks, most of them T-34s and almost all manned by Cuban crews (though Angolan troops are being trained), are in Angola. In addition, there are 38 MIG-21 fighters, mostly flown by Cubans and East Germans. Again, these planes are primarily for air defense missions.
There are thought to be some 24,000 foreign troops in Angola -- 21,000 Cubans and 3,000 East Germans.
There are also at least four SA-3 missile sites in Angola. Luanda (the capital) and Sa da Bandeira are two known locations.
Some analysts see nothing unusual about countries bordering South Africa shoring up their defenses. The South Africans have hardly respected their territorial integrity in the past.
One analyst says simply that other countries are "tired of being humiliated" by South African raiders.
Others claim to see a more devious scenario being played out in southern Africa. Dirk Kunert, a professor of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, predicts that by next year the Soviets will begin channelling more war material to southern africa. He says they will also dispatch more East German and Soviet advisers to the region for tank warfare training, perhaps in preparation for a conventional assault against South Africa.
The Soviets, whom Professor Kunert calls "true mercantilists," would profit immeasurably by controlling South Africa's strategic minerals, he says.
Moreover, he says, the Soviets are buoyed by the belief that this country's political and economic inequalities make a "classic Marxist-Leninst revolution" inevitable.
Indeed, one Western diplomat based in Maputo predicts that further South African strikes into Mozambique will undoubtedly push the Mozambique government closer to the Soviets.
Consequently, some critics claim the South African government is its own worst enemy when it comes to countering Soviet influence in its own country and neighboring states.