JOHANNESBURG — BRITISH Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in the neighborhood last week, but didn't stop by. Still, her mere presence in the region caused quite a political stir here. The reason: Observers are trying to assess the impact of Mrs. Thatcher's renewed push for ``constructive engagement'' - which emphasizes quiet pressure over overt criticism - on Pretoria's policy of apartheid. Though there are few clear answers, analysts agree the approach has a better chance of success now than when it was first pushed by the United States eight years ago.
As originally scheduled, her trip covered Morocco, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. But, in a last-minute addition, Thatcher arrived in Namibia Saturday - the day the territory finally shook free of South African rule. She said Namibia's transition to independence heralded peace, freedom, and justice through southern Africa.
Speaking earlier in Zimbabwe, Thatcher promoted dialogue rather than economic sanctions as the best means of ridding South Africa of apartheid. ``It is not through ... isolation or sanctions that we will achieve what we most want to see: the release of Nelson Mandela, the suspension of violence, and the opening of negotiations about a political future in which black people have their rightful role ...,'' she said.
Prof. John Barratt, of South Africa's Institute of International Affairs, cites three factors working in favor of this latest version of constructive engagement: the settlement in Namibia; the improved relationship between Pretoria and President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique; and the Soviet Union's emerging role as a promoter of negotiations to end regional conflicts.
``It all improves the climate for settlement in South Africa,'' Professor Barratt says. But he cautions that these improved atmospherics play second fiddle to the issues themselves, which include:
Whether the African National Congress (ANC) is ready to abandon armed struggle for negotiations.
The leadership vacuum caused by President Pieter Botha's stroke in mid-January and his subsequent resignation as leader of the ruling National Party.
The inhibiting effect of pending elections on any major policy initiatives.
Professor Peter Vale of Rhodes University points to one development favorable to negotiations: the eclipse of ``securo-crats'' - the men in the influential upper echelons of South Africa's military, police, and intelligence services. Observers link the fall of the securo-crats with Mr. Botha's illness and probable replacement by new party leader Frederik de Klerk.
Prof. Deon Geldenhuys, of Rand Afrikaans University, agrees that opportunities have opened for ``actors outside the security establishment.'' He characterizes these individuals as less inclined to ``define everything in terms of security'' and, therefore, more flexible.
In addition, says Geldenhuys, ``It is no longer a bilateral game between the National Party and the ANC. There are new players: Mrs. Thatcher and the Soviet leader, Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev.''
In recent months, many observers have speculated about the possibility that Thatcher could lean on Pretoria to talk to the ANC, while Mr. Gorbachev urged the ANC to seek a political solution.