LUANDA, ANGOLA — ASK veterans of South Africa's former apartheid regime now stationed across Angola how long they have been in the country, and the response is invariably the same: ''Working for which side?''
Having fought for the rebels during the days when South Africa tried to overthrow a Socialist neighbor, white soldiers are now helping their former enemy, Angola's government, as pilots, advisers, and even fighters.
Like Bob Denard, the most famous foreign mercenary in Africa, who led his third coup attempt in the island-nation of Comoros last week, the South Africans are not motivated by ideology or ideals, but by money.
The post-cold-war era has left the continent simmering in civil wars and abandoned by once-meddling superpowers - opening myriad possibilities for adventurers with military training.
With many South African ex-special forces unemployed in the new democratic age, the $2,000 to $5,000 a month plus benefits paid by the Pretoria-based private company Executive Outcomes (EO ) is alluring. ''I'll work for whomever pays me,'' explained Johann, a former South African soldier, giving only his first name.
Military analysts say several hundred men have been recruited, also from Namibia and the former Rhodesia.
Many aspire to be like former French officer Denard, who has dedicated his life to destabilizing other people's governments. Since beginning his mercenary career in Katanga in 1960, he has fought in Biafra, worked covertly for South Africa, and tried to oust leaders in Benin, Gabon, and Libya.
His pet is the Comoros, a former French colony in the Indian Ocean. In 1978 he and 50 European mercenaries overthrew leader Ali Soilih to reinstall former President Ahmed Abdallah, who had been overthrown three years before.
Denard in effect governed the country for several months. He resurfaced in 1989 when President Abdallah was assassinated during an attack by some of Denard's men. France persuaded him to leave - but he returned last week to stage a coup.
His days finally may be numbered with the harsh response of France. He surrendered Thursday to French troops.
Less easy to remove are South Africa's out-of-work soldiers employed by EO.
Since EO first sent men into Angola in early 1993 with a multimillion-dollar contract to aid the government, led by the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), it has helped bring the rebels to their knees to agree to the November peace accord aimed at ending 20 years of civil war.
EO has now moved into Sierra Leone to help the government there inflict defeat upon the rebels of the United Revolutionary Front. EO pilots say they are flying to other African countries such as Uganda and Mozambique.
''EO certainly played a major role in shifting the military balance in favor of the MPLA,'' says William Sass, a retired South African brigadier who is deputy director of Johannesburg's Institute for Defence Policy.
''They trained the MPLA to use its new equipment and filled the gap that Cuban and Eastern bloc advisers left. They probably gave training in tactics, planned operations, flew planes, and might even have gotten involved in some shooting.''
Are they true mercenaries?
''Yes. They are not doing this out of love and charity but for money,'' Mr. Sass says. ''But they are different from Denard in that they are more like a managerial organization offering services rather than a private army.''
South African officials privately express relief that the men are causing trouble outside rather than at home. But the black-led government of Nelson Mandela is embarrassed by the group, which is undermining its nonintervention policy in the region.
However, the government says it does not have the legal means to close EO's operations.
EO shows no signs of quitting Angola, despite claims by the rebels (known as the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA) that its presence is violating the peace accords that stipulate the repatriation of all foreign mercenaries.
The Angolan government says the EO men are mere advisers and security guards, and in turn accuses UNITA of enlisting other foreign mercenaries - a claim that Western diplomats confirm.
Diplomats say EO has set up several front companies since the peace agreement, stationing up to 350 men in trouble spots including the northern diamond areas near the Zairean border, where the government has launched a ''clean up'' to oust UNITA. EO men fly in and out of Cabo Ledo, south of Luanda, and guard vital oil installations in Cabinda and Soyo.