Johannesburg — Intensifying guerrilla war in South Africa appears to be threatening the stability of the subcontinent. The threat is the result of attacks into neighboring countries by South African security forces seeking to destroy alleged bases of the outlawed African National Congress. The ANC says it is stepping up its guerrilla campaign to overthrow the white-dominated South African government.
There are growing fears among South Africa's neighbors that the situation may be getting out of control. Desmond Sixishe, minister of information in Lesotho, summed up the views of many observers when he said recently:``I think the South African police are unable to control the situation and are looking for someone to blame.''
Mr. Sixishe was commenting on a statement by a South African security police officer that ``ANC suicide squads'' were being directed by ANC operators in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho as well as in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana.
On Wednesday a spate of hand grenade attacks and other violence left 10 dead.A huge fuel depot was also set alight in the black ``homeland'' of Transkei. Black unrest over the past 10 months has claimed an estimated 400 lives in South Africa.
The threat of regional instability follows a brief glimmer last year of a more peaceful trend. South Africa and some of its black-ruled neighbors had begun cooperating more closely.
But regional violence is now on the rise. South African commandos attacked purported ANC bases in Gaborone on June 14, an action that drew a rebuke from Washington followed by the withdrawal of the US ambassador to South Africa. US-South Africa relations are at their lowest ebb since President Reagan took office.
In late May South Africa conducted a raid into the Angolan enclave of Cabinda. Because South African security chiefs have repeatedly warned that they will not hesitate to launch cross-border attacks on suspected ANC targets, Sixishe appears concerned that Maseru might be hit next by Pretoria.
Maseru was attacked by South African commandos in December 1982 because of the alleged existence there of ANC bases.
Within hours of Sixishe's statement the pro-government South African newspaper, Beeld, stated in a front-page report that political observers believed that ``retaliatory and pre-emptive attacks by the SA defense force on the hide-outs and bases of the ANC in African countries will increase.''
The report appeared shortly after saboteurs ignited fires in Umtata, the capital of the Transkei ``homeland.'' It was the most spectacular strike against South Africa since guerrillas blew up an oil refinery at Sasolburg, in June 1980.
The fire attack on Umtata coincided with the end of a major ANC conference Tuesday in Lusaka, Zambia, where it was decided that the ANC would be less concerned about possible civilian casualties in future attacks -- partly because civilians have died in attacks by South African soldiers.
As ANC activity intensifies there is the prospect of an increase in ``retaliatory and preemptive strikes'' by South African forces.
As a result of this joint instensification of hostilities, analysts feel there will be a corresponding destabilization of the subcontinent. So far this year guerrillas have launched more attacks than they did during the whole of last year, 46 against 44.
Tom Lodge, senior lecturer in political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who has carefully monitored the ANC guerrilla campaign from its beginnings in 1961, says that security forces have been less successful in capturing insurgents in the past few months.
The less successful South African security forces are in arresting guerrillas at home the more likely they are to attack alleged ANC bases in neighboring countries, some analysts feel.
In an effort to increase the number of arrests the South African government has offered a $500 reward for information leading to the capture of ANC guerrillas.
Similar public offers have rarely, if ever, being made in the past, largely because a police network of clandestine informers made them unnecessary.
The fall in the number of attacks last year from a peak of 56 strikes in 1983 was interpreted by South African officials as evidence that the Nkomati Pact between South Africa and Mozambique had struck a fatal blow to the ANC's campaign of armed struggle.
The Pact, signed in March 1984, resulted in the expulsion of ANC fighters from Mozambique, which until then had served as the main conduit for guerrillas to and from South Africa.
But the rise in the rate of attacks since the beginning of this year showed that Nkomati was not the major deterrent it was first thought to be. The present trend points to a record number of more than 80 attacks by the end of the year.
Dr. Lodge says that ``If Nkomati was meant to prevent an escalation in attacks, it has clearly failed.''
Botswana, which adjoins South Africa's northwestern border, has replaced Mozambique as the new conduit for externally-based guerrillas, say senior South African military and police officers.
If ANC guerrillas did succeed in entering South Africa from Botswana, they did so clandestinely, without the blessing of the Botswana authorities, who have announced that they will not knowingly harbor the rebels. Botswana courts have jailed men for unlawful possession of weapons of war.
Botswana's government is hostile to the use of its territory by the ANC as a springboard for attacks on South Africa, said Craig Williamson, a senior South African security police officer at a press conference last month.
But opening a new route through Botswana, experts say, cannot in itself fully explain the increase in guerrilla attacks.
The ANC has stated that it has established permanent bases in South Africa, an assertion South African security police have dismissed as bravado.
But according to analysts the increased number of attacks and their wide geographical spread may mean that ANC fighters have been able to take advantage of the unrest in the black townships to establish a more or less permanent presence in black areas within South African borders.