JOHANNESBURG — AFTER decades of strife, South Africa is moving toward a rapprochement with its black-ruled neighbors. ``Eventually all the front-line states and ourselves will have to join,'' said Foreign Minister Roelof Botha on the eve of a meeting between National Party leader Frederik de Klerk and Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano last week.
He was referring to the bloc of six southern African states - Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Angola, Mozambique, and Tanzania - which flank South Africa's northern borders. The other four nations involved in the rapprochement are Zaire, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Malawi.
Mr. Botha, a leading advocate for forging closer ties with black Africa, said that his vision of a Marshall Plan-style initiative to rebuild the regional economy, had been significantly advanced by the talks with the Mozambican leader.
Mr. Chissano said that South Africa's readmittance to the southern African bloc depended on progress toward racial equality.
``If there is a process - a sound process - of change in South Africa, I think South Africa will become part of this group,'' Chissano said after the meeting.
The idea of a massive infusion of foreign investment, mooted in Western capitals, has been directed at the front-line states to aid their efforts to reduce dependence on South Africa. Combined with economic sanctions by the United States and Europe, this policy has amounted to a potent signal to Pretoria to operate in regional peace and development.
The era of military destabilization, orchestrated by hawkish ``securocrats,'' appears to be giving way to increasing pragmatism.
The De Klerk-Chissano meeting has also added momentum to a regional summit between South Africa and 10 black-ruled states, that could reverse deepening violence and economic devastation.
Mozambique is regarded, both by Pretoria and the West, as South Africa's political bridge to the front-line states and, thus, key to regional peace and development.
Chissano, whose predecessor, President Samora Machel, was the first front-line leader to seek rapprochement with Pretoria in 1984, is eager for a return of South African and foreign investment, which fled following the 1976 Frelimo revolution.
The United States and Britain are already investing substantial sums in Mozambique. But a crippling and brutal war waged by the South African-backed Renamo rebels against the Marxist Frelimo government has ensured that Mozambique remain one of the world's poorest nations.
The July 19 meeting coincided with an abortive first attempt to hold public peace talks between Renamo and a delegation of church leaders in Nairobi, Kenya.
In spite of the 1984 peace accord between South Africa and Mozambique, the Renamo rebels - described by a US State Department report as ruthless bandits responsible for 100,000 civilian deaths - have continued to receive South African support.
On the eve of the Maputo summit US Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs, Herman Cohen, said the US had evidence that the rebels were still receiving South African aid.
The regional momentum toward peace has been set in motion by the US-brokered peace initiative in south west African countries of Namibia and Angola.