By adopting proposals to reduce their economic dependence on South Africa, the nine independent black states in southern Africa have thrown out a subtle challenge to the West.
Help us achieve our goals, is the message from the African summit conference just ended in Lusaka, or remain identified with the racial policies of white-ruled South Africa.
Of the nine states that attended the summit, only two, Angola and Tanzania, do not trade directly with South Africa.
The other seven -- Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, and Rhodesia (soon to become independent Zimbabwe) -- all have close economic links with the country whose racial policies they abhor.
Whether or not these nations can terminate their little-publicized dependence on South Africa remains to be seen. A number of them send large contingents of their men year after year to work in South Africa's mines, thereby using South Africa as a source of money in the form of wages and as an employer of otherwise surplus black manpower.
South Africa also is a supplier of muchneeded foodstuffs and manufactured goods to many of its black neighbors to the north.
The agreement signed at the Lusaka summit calls for the strengthening of individual economies and promotion of regional trade, with the aim of reducing their collective dependence on South Africa, the subcontinent's dominant economic power.
To achieve this goal, the nine leaders have proposed a seven-point plan of action, which includes the formation of a transport and communications commission and the setting up of a southern African development fund.
Other important elements are a food security plan and manpower and industrial development programs.
The essential thing about the plan is that huge investment will be needed -- some of the delegates talked privately of $2 billion over 20 years -- if the summit's goals are to be realized.
None of the nine is capable of raising anything but a small fraction of the required funds, and it is frankly admitted that the loose economic union will have to turn to international agencies and Western countries for help.
The nine already are planning a meeting of potential donors in Maputo, Mozambique, in November, at which the development plans would be explained in greater detail and aid sought.
Western nations attending the meeting may well find themselves in a dilemma. For example, the black African leaders feel that the transportation network will have to be improved significantly if regional trade is to be encouraged.
There is no doubt that links between many of the countries are poor. Mozambique and Tanzania, for instance, are neighbors but have no connecting railroad and only a third rate road route.
However, Western aid officials here are already saying that a cautious approach to infrastructural improvements is needed.
They have two main reservations. First, they doubt that any of the countries can develop enough trade to warrant new roads or railways for at least a decade.
They also claim that many of the arteries of trade between the black nations are currently underutilized because of inefficiency and poor planning.
As an illustration, they point to the new Chinese-built Tazara railroad linking Zambia with Tanzania, built expressly to reduce Zambia's dependence on the railroad though Rhodesia to South Africa. The tazara, they say, currently is handling less than 40 percent of Zambia's trade.
The rest is being funnelled south through Rhodesia because that railroad is run more efficiently, and there is less congestion in South African ports than at the Tanzanian Indian Ocean port of Dar es Salaam.
Similar reservations are held over industrial development in countries which, Western officials say, are inefficient producers because of state control of much of the productive sector.
However, experts here recognize that reluctance to assist with black African projects -- even those that are arguably uneconomic -- will be interpreted by some as a delberate strategy designed to undermine the nine's efforts and prop up white South Africa.
"We may be in the process of being outmaneuvered politically on economics issues," said one diplomat. "It looks like a no-win situation for us."