Johannesburg — The attack by South African commandos on alleged African National Congress (ANC) guerrilla bases in neighboring Botswana has raised questions about the direction of South African policy in southern Africa. The raid last Friday was the first major attack in the subcontinent by the South African Defense Force since the signing of the peace pact, known as the Nkomati Accord, nearly 15 months ago between South Africa and Mozambique.
It comes in the wake of the much-publicized interception of South African commandos by Angolan security forces in the oil-rich enclave of Cabinda on May 21.
Against the backdrop of divestment legislation passed by the United States Congress, the raid marks a low point in South African relations with the Reagan administration.
US Ambassador to South Africa Herman Nickel has been recalled to Washington for consultations. In announcing the recall, State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb made clear US reservations about the sincerity of Pretoria's long-term commitment to peace.
In the attack on the homes of South African exiles in the Botswana capital of Gaborone at least 12 people were killed, including three women and a young child. The South African commandos launched simultaneous attacks on 10 ``ANC targets'' in Gaborone.
The purpose of the raid, observers said, was to assert Pretoria's dominance and to dissuade its neighbors from offering support of any kind to ANC rebels.
Two questions are raised, analysts say.
Was the raid a display of strength specifically designed to force Botswana to accede to South African demands to expel ANC cadres?
Or was it a reversion to the policy of ``destabilization'' that held sway in South Africa before the March 1984 signing of the Nkomati Accord with Mozambique and the Lusaka agreement with Angola the month before? (Both agreements commit each government to a policy of withholding support from each other's foes.)
Destabilization raids on neighboring states, intended to compel them to close their borders to ANC fighters generally, and in some cases to expel specifically-named ANC members, began in January 1981.
The raids included attacks on the Mozambique capital of Maputo in January 1981, May 1983, and October 1983; on the Lesotho capital of Maseru in December 1982; and incursions -- not related to the ANC -- by large numbers of South African soldiers into Angola.
Destabilization included support from South Africa for rebels in neighboring territories seeking to overthrow their respective governments: the Mozambique National Resistance, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, the Lesotho Liberation Army, and dissidents of the Zimbabwe African People's Union.
The policy concluded in March 1984. Assisted by US mediation, both Mozambique and Angola signed accords with South Africa. Lesotho had earlier agreed to expel ANC cadres and to participate in joint border-security surveillance with South Africa.
Last year ANC attacks declined to 44, against 56 for 1983. The 1983 figure reflects the largest number of attacks in a single year since the 24-year-old ANC guerrilla campaign resumed in earnest after the 1976-77 rebellion in South Africa's black townships. According to the Pretoria government, the Nkomati Accord was a fatal blow to the ANC's ``armed struggle'' because it deprived the rebel organization of its bases in Mozambique.
But the respite was short-lived. By March this year the ANC strike rate increased. The grenade attacks on two members of parliament and a police station in Cape Town last week brought the number of attacks by insurgents in South Africa to 34 this year.
The situation is aggravated by the on-going rebellion in the black townships. Begun in September of last year, it has claimed at least 400 lives and has rendered some townships partly ungovernable.
Further aggravating matters is the fact that the raid comes almost on the anniversary of rioting that broke out in Soweto, June 16, 1976. During eight months of violent protest over forced teaching of some subjects in the Afrikaans languague in black schools, 575 people died.
South African police reported that riot squads went into action this weekend as anniversary rioting broke out in several black townships.
Observers here cite the immediate cause of the raid on ANC targets in Botswana as the grenade attacks in Cape Town but say the deeper causes lay in the rising number of ANC attacks and the rebellion in the townships.
Closely related to these causes was Pretoria's belief that Botswana had replaced Mozambique and Swaziland as the main conduit for ANC guerrillas entering into and fleeing from South Africa -- and that the ANC was, in the last analysis, behind the unrest in the townships.
Botswana has denied that it allows ANC guerrillas transit through its territory to or from missions in South Africa.
It has denied that it allows the ANC to establish permanent bases. There was no evidence at the Gaborone targets attacked by South African commandos that they were occupied by armed ANC fighters. Pretoria insisted this was evidence of ANC ingenuity in disguising its Botswana operations, not the inaccuracy of its ownintelligence.
Pretoria regards its policy as consistent: It will attack ``ANC terrorists wherever they are.''