Johannesburg — South Africa's audacious attack against African National Congress members in Lesotho is likely to be at best a qualified victory for Pretoria.
The raid may well go down as one more example of South Africa winning the ''battles'' while it is considered to be losing the long-term ''war'' against rising black nationalism.
The conflict between South Africa and the African National Congress shows every sign of going the way the ANC would like, informed analysts here say.
While the ANC bears most of the bloody consequences of the campaign, it is winning its major goal of being seen in and out of South Africa as the main contender for black power in the republic. Each military encounter, almost regardless of its outcome, tends to enhance this image.
The Lesotho raid was the latest example of the escalating conflict and a demonstration from Pretoria that it will do whatever is necessary militarily - including invading other countries - to fight the ANC.
The pre-dawn strike Dec. 9 was the most devastating yet against the ANC. The South African Defense Force swept into the suburbs of Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, killing 30 alleged ANC members. Five women and two children caught in the cross fire were also killed, the defense forse said.
In claiming innocent lives and violating the sovereignty of Lesotho, South Africa set off a wave of protest. But Pretoria stands by its policy of crossing borders in its fight against the ANC, which is committed to overthrowing the South African government and is outlawed in the republic.
The Lesotho raid followed the precedent set last year by a raid into Mozambique. The attack in Lesotho claimed more lives but was militarily less complicated since Maseru sits on the border with South Africa.
The South African Defense Force said the ANC was planning attacks against the republic during the holiday season, and thus this raid was preemptive. Defense Force chief Gen. Constand Voljoen also alleged the ANC was ''regularly receiving advice'' from the Palestine Liberation Organization and was being ''influenced'' to eliminate black leaders in South Africa.
Analysts here see the government's efforts to establish an ANC-PLO link as perhaps part of a new campaign to discredit the ANC internationally.
But a closer look at the ANC demonstrates differences between it and groups like the PLO that may explain its relative success so far in gaining widespread black sympathy in South Africa.
The greatest distinction is that the ANC studiously avoids civilian targets and so does not consider itself a ''terrorist'' group. The ANC has caused civilian casualties, but they have been byproducts of attacks against ''hard'' targets - rail lines, police stations, and government buildings. Individuals considered collaborationists with the government are also targeted by the ANC.
''The principal intended function of these attacks has been propagandist,'' says Tom Lodge, who has studied the ANC. The aim has been to ''excite admiration'' among black people rather than to intimidate whites, he says.
Compared to a group like the PLO, the ANC is small and poorly funded. But in African terms, Lodge says, the ANC is ''exceptionally professional and well-financed.''
Founded in 1912, the ANC has been on the rise most dramatically since 1976, when black unrest across South Africa hardened black attitudes and drove dissidents out of the country into the arms of the ANC.
Polls have showed the ANC has broad support among blacks, particularly in urban areas. ANC leader Nelson Mandela, serving a life sentence in a South African jail, is revered by blacks.
The ANC is no military threat to South Africa, but its armed attacks are increasingly sophisticated. In June of this year a record 12 attacks occurred in one month, including six simultaneous explosions in a small mining town.
Although the ANC is apparently succeeding in gaining political credibility from high-profile acts of sabotage, analysts wonder how long the group will avoid civilian or ''soft'' targets. A recent report allegedly compiled by the US Central Intelligence Agency says the ANC may soon go after white civilian targets.
There is no evidence that this sort of shift is under way, but Lodge sees signs the ANC is considering a ''transition to a more advanced stage of insurgency fairly soon.''
ANC head Oliver Tambo spoke recently of attacking the enemy ''face to face.'' The implication is that the ANC may launch attacks intended to damage the state, rather than just striking to create political support.
However, any major shift to a rural guerrilla campaign, like those used in neighboring states to dismantle white rule, is not seen as likely in South Africa. Security analysts say geography and South Africa's military dominance over its neighbors make a large-scale rural campaign problematic for the ANC. They foresee continued attacks in the urban industrial areas instead.
The Lesotho raid came after strong warnings by the South African government to that country, as well as to Swaziland and Mozambique, that it would not tolerate ANC military activities in neighboring states.
Still, the raid was surprising since Lesotho has been considered the least important base of ANC activities. Many observers here remain skeptical as to whether the alleged ANC members killed were actually involved in military activities.
Lodge says the attack may be intended to serve primarily as a warning to other states of what is to come if they continue allowing the ANC to operate in ways South Africa finds threatening.
The sternest warnings about harboring the ANC have been issued to Mozambique. But to prove South Africa was not preparing to invade that country, Minister of Foreign Affairs Roelof ''Pik'' Botha arranged for foreign correspondents to tour the Mozambique border on the day final preparations were made for the raid into Lesotho.
Generally, Lodge says, states bordering South Africa are used by the ANC for recruiting and screening new members. Among them are Angola, Zambia, and Tanzania. The most promising recruits are sent to Eastern Europe for further training.