SOME South Africans call it ``terrorizing the terrorists''; the African National Congress (ANC) calls it ``state gangsterism.'' By whatever name, the brutal political killings and kidnappings that are part of the intensifying shadow war against anti-apartheid activists inside South African townships and in neighboring states make for a deplorable strategy. The exact perpetrators of this death squad activity are unidentified. Groups like Amnesty International condemn the results but are reluctant to say more without documented evidence. The United States State Department similarly deplores the violence but points no fingers. We welcome the denial of any connection with the death squad activity by the government in Pretoria. The action may be the work of vigilantes. But the tactics used strongly suggest a pattern orchestrated by South African military intelligence, which often operates independently of the government.
In the past Pretoria has sponsored commando raids on bases of the outlawed ANC in ``front-line states,'' such as Zambia, as ``defensive'' moves to prevent attacks. In what looks like a shift toward use of South African security agents operating incognito, the attacks and kidnappings have grown more frequent in recent months. They have been most notable in Swaziland, where 13 people, most of them known or suspected ANC members, have been gunned down so far this year. Similar attacks have occurred in Mozambique, Zambia, Lesotho, and Botswana. Four men were recently charged in far-off London with conspiring to kidnap British-based leaders of the ANC.
Pretoria considers the ANC, the most prominent anti-apartheid group in the region, a terrorist group bent on violence. The government has been particularly scornful of a July meeting in Senegal attended by ANC leaders and 50 South African whites. A few days ago President P. W. Botha accused Western diplomats of trying to undermine South Africa's sovereignty by supporting such efforts; he threatened to tighten controls on the passports of those collaborating with South Africa's ``enemies.''
Violence and humiliation often beget more of the same. Suspected agents of the ANC, the more solidified for the repression, have retaliated with hit-and-run attacks against South African security agents.
One of the saddest side effects of all this is further polarization between the government and the nation's black majority.
The only encouraging news on this front is word that President Botha is working to develop a new formula by which jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela might be freed. Other imprisoned ANC leaders may be freed first to soften the impact on blacks who would view Mr. Mandela as the returning hero of heroes. Most moderate blacks insist Mandela must be released before they would participate in any negotiations with the Pretoria government.
Such dialogue sooner rather than later is in the ruling Afrikaners' own best interests. We can only hope Pretoria seizes the opportunity. In the meantime, the West must continue to encourage more black-white dialogue in Southern Africa wherever possible.