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Venturing into powerful orbit of South Africa

By Edward GirardetSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 1986

Lusaka, Zambia

Leaving East Africa behind, and heading south, one quickly becomes aware of a new dimension: the pull of South Africa. The more pronounced South Africa's influence over the region visited, the greater the dilemma over how to deal with it.

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The nearly 400-mile highway running from the Malawian border at Mchinji to the Zambian capital of Lusaka is asphalt. For a main axis route, it is also in reasonably good condition. In fact, as well-traveled residents will tell you, you can drive on the ``tar'' all the way down to Cape Town in South Africa.

On this road, convoys of fuel trucks bearing Zimbabwe registration plates roar toward Malawi spewing out clouds of black exhaust. Unable to pass through war-torn Mozambique, they are Malawi's sole source of gasoline, a supply that originates from the South African port of Durban.

In Lusaka, transport vehicles from ``down south'' can be seen everywhere. Some firms have not even bothered to appease Zambia's opposition to apartheid, South Africa's policy of strict racial separation: They ply continental routes, their vehicles marked with Johannesburg company names and telephone numbers. Spare parts, machines, and consumer goods (paid for in precious hard currency) that have come through South Africa or are produced there end up as far north as Zaire and beyond.

The visitor to central and southern Africa finds it hard to believe the extent of Pretoria's stranglehold over these regions. Despite efforts by the ``front-line states'' -- seven nations that are geographically and economically close to South Africa -- to diminish their economic dependence on South Africa, its grip is as strong as ever.

Economically, their precariousness is brought home by South Africa's ability to sever road and rail links as part of any retaliatory measures. Last month's raids in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia on alleged bases of Pretoria's rebel foe -- the outlawed African National Congress -- served as a reminder of the military vulnerability of some of these nations. As political rhetoric for sanctions against the Pretoria regime steps up, the dangerous position of these nations has become a major concern in some government and business circles.

``How can we resist?'' asked a representative of Manica Freight Services, a leading African transport company. ``We're cutting [off] our noses to spite our faces.'' At least half of Zambia's trade comes through South Africa, as does nearly a quarter of Zaire's, roughly 90 percent of Malawi's, and more than 90 percent of Zimbabwe's.

Of all the front-line states, Tanzania is in the best position to thumb its nose at Pretoria. With its own outlet to the sea, it does not have to worry about being cut off. It has sought to eliminate all links with the ``racist apartheid regime,'' also referred to in casual conversation as the ``unmentionable.''

Tanzania's fellow front-liners, on the other hand, a couple of which are landlocked, must pursue a more cautious approach.

Malawi criticizes apartheid, but considers official diplomacy with Pretoria vital for survival. It is the only independent African nation to have formal diplomatic links with South Africa.

Zimbabwe pushes hard for its own self-sufficiency and regularly chastises South Africa for its racial policies. But it still maintains quasi-diplomatic relations in the form of a trade mission. Zambia, which serves as exile headquarters for the African National Congress, quietly counts on South African commercial ties to help keep itself above water.