What's behind Pretoria's brazenness?

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THE most curious aspect of South Africa's military raid against the African National Congress (ANC) in three black-ruled states is that it had no military significance. Zambia is the political and administrative headquarters of the ANC, a thousand miles from Pretoria. Zimbabwe has not permitted the ANC to use its territory for guerrilla activities since it became independent in 1980. Bostwana, a model of democracy, has kept ANC activities to a minimum and expelled its few political representatives months ago. The lightning air and commando attacks did not hit key military installations or command centers. One would expect that Pretoria's effective military and intelligence forces would have aimed at more important strategic targets if their real purpose was to diminish the ANC's guerrilla capabilities.

Why then, did South Africa execute this three-pronged attack, the most daring in its 25-year campaign against the outlawed liberation movement, knowing it would provoke an international outcry? It was a particularly brazen move in light of current international efforts to start talks between Pretoria and the ANC. A Commonwealth delegation led by Malcolm Fraser, former prime minister of Australia, and Olusegun Obasanjo, former head of state of Nigeria, was in South Africa at the time, pursuing efforts begun in October to start negotiations. The delegation cut short its visit in protest against the attack and is due to submit its report, with recommendations regarding sanctions, this month.

There are three possible explanations of South Africa's behavior. First, it could be seen as muscle-flexing of the South African Defense Force, which has waged a six-year campaign to deprive the ANC of sanctuaries in bordering states. The military may have felt that the time had come to make a dramatic show of force, regardless of the consequences. The intent was to demonstrate that Pretoria would not tolerate continued infiltration and was prepared to use far more repression to stop it, as President Pieter W. Botha had warned days before when he made allegations about ANC-Libyan connections.

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A second possible explanation is that Mr. Botha wanted to kill the Commonwealth initiative, but do so in a way that would avoid sanctions. Thus, Pretoria's raid may have been an attempt to provoke the ANC, which had been responding positively to the peace plan, into rejecting the terms laid down by the Commonwealth.

A third possible explanation of South Africa's behavior is that it was laying the groundwork for a bold new political move -- perhaps to release Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, and to legalize the ANC and other banned organizations, as the Commonwealth delegation proposed. Botha may have decided to make a show of force to appease his right wing and bring along his white constituency before he took what, in their eyes, was a radical step.

If this was the motive behind the attacks, then Botha must move very fast on the Commonwealth plan -- before the international commmunity responds to the raids with sanctions, business confidence collapses (the raids made the rand still weaker), a fresh round of violence erupts within the townships, and white extremists make further headway.

Unless Pretoria responds to the Commonwealth positively and promptly -- which is unlikely -- then the inescapable conclusion is that its raid was a product of either one or both of the first two explanations or a simple-minded pandering to the right wing. Under these circumstances, the raid sends a clear political message to the outside world: Pretoria is sufficiently confident of its military superiority, of its economic resilience, and of American reluctance to impose meaningful sanctions that it feels free to act with impunity in the region, defy outside pressures, and use Washington's patience for its own cynical designs. Rationalizing the raid by comparing it to the United States antiterrorist bombings in Libya, Pretoria made an invidious analogy that also shows total disregard of President Reagan, the best friend Pretoria has ever had. Both the raid and the way in which it was feebly justified underscore the ineffectiveness of current Western efforts to influence Pretoria and the need for far stronger and more consistently applied measures from the West.

Pauline H. Baker is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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