A drab gray frigate, the President Pretorius, sits idly in the harbor, its radar antennas rotating in slow arcs. It is the only vessel in a massive tidal basin here at the Simonstown base of the South African Navy. The base, a multimillion-dollar facility opened earlier this year, could accommodate up to 50 ships.

But the base was planned in a different era, when South Africa was politically closer to Western nations. Then, the crews of many a visiting man-of-war found that nearby Cape Town fully lived up to its sobriquet -- "the Tavern of the Seas."

Today, however, due to this country's internal racial policies, South Africa is a pariah among nations. Military vessels from the West steam right past South Africa: No american naval ship has called here in more than a decade. And what is arguably one of the best military port facilities in Africa stands underutilized.

Underutilized, perhaps, but not unnoticed. A Western world tenuously tethered to the oil fields of the Gulf has become newly sensitized to the need to protect its floating oil lifeline. Events like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq-Iran war have seen to that.

And as the United States steps up efforts to protect oil shipments, increasing attention is being focused on South Africa -- a country that sits astride the junction of the indian and South Atlantic Oceans.

Assessment of South Africa's maritime importance is no easy task. By some calculations, fully 90 percent of the oil from the Gulf is shipped around the Cape Agulhas, at Africa's southern tip -- including 60 percent of America's oil imports and 80 percent of Western Europe's.

For several years, the South African government has been ballyhooing the importance of the Cape sea route in an effort to draw Western nations closer. And opponents of the white minority government here have just as strenuously belittled the Cape's strategic importance in an effort to isolate South Africa further.

The issue has become so politicized, says Deon Fourie, a lecturer in strategic studies at the University of South Africa, that "it's never been analyzed objectively."

Is the Cape passage "the jugular vein of the free world," as US Rep. Melvin Price (D) of Illinois, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee says?

"There is no Cape sea route," Mr. Woods writes. "There is a vast ocean between South Africa and Antarctica, and to call that a sea route is like calling the Atlantic [Ocean] a sea route."

A more accurate view, however, may be somewhere in between these extremes.

Dr. Michael Hough, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the University of Pretoria, concedes, "There are about 6,000 nautical miles of water between Cape Point and the ice of Antartica" -- theoretically giving a hostile power wide berth to interdict shipping without ever coming close to South Africa.

But other analysts point out that the icy stretches below latitude 40 degrees south are so hostile -- mariners have dubbed them the "roaring 40s" -- that is unlikely that oil tankers or attack vessels would venture that far. Consequently, ship traffic is funnelled to within 500 nautical miles of the South African coast.

But arguments over the width of the Cape passage may largely miss the point.

Some analyst argue that there are a number of other "choke points" along the oil supply routes to the West. And, they add, there is little reason to believe a hostile power would choose the Cape over any other locale to disrupt oil tanker traffic.

"I see the whole oil route as very important," says John Barratt, director of the South African institute of International Affairs.

"But the most important place," he adds, "is the Gulf, where the oil comes out of the ground, and the Strait of Hormuz [at the mouth of the Gulf].

"I have not been able to see where the Cape is more important than the coast of Kenya, or the straits between Madagascar and the African continent."

Moreover, experts argue, any interference with Western oil shipments, no matter where it takes place, would be taken as an act of aggression that probably would lead to Western retaliation.

"If the Soviets interfere here, the US could retaliate in some other part of the world," says Mr. Barratt. Given this view, South Africa becomes neither more nor less important than any other country on the Indian Ocean littoral when it comes to policing the oil shipping lanes.

"The route is a long one," says Mr. Barratt. "there could be sinking anywhere along it."

Therefore, he continues, South Africa's maritime importance may not concern "so much the Cape sea route as the communications and port facilities" on shore. using South Africa as a base would allow Western ships to maintain a presence in vast stretches of the Indian Ocean, not just around the Cape.

Mr. Fourie goes further, arguing that possible future Soviet moves to disrupt oil shipments are a far less important strategic issue than "what the Soviets can do now."

Since 1968, the Soviet naval presence in the Indian and South Atlantic Oceans has been growing steadily. In Africa, the Soviets have been accused of using their Navy to support military action in Angola and Mozambique, to intimidate the government of Ghana (when that country arrested captains of Soviet fishing trawlers operating illegally in Ghanaian waters), and to attempt to influence elections in Sierra Leone.

"The Soviets have made themselves very obvious," says Mr. Fourie, adding that "some sort of military linkup in the Indian Ocean is needed to neutralize the political influence of the Soviet Navy."

And the South African naval base at Simonstown theoretically would provide a key coupling in any such linkup. Indeed, some planners hold that Simonstown offers the finest docking and maintenance facilities between Singapore and the Strait of Gibraltar.

Simonstown can handle most Western military vessels (with the exception of the largest nuclear aircarft carriers). Its work force of 2,700 is capable of refitting nine ships yearly, says Simonstown production manager Capt. C. J. Lautenbach, and that capability could be increased without undue difficulty. But, he adds, South Africa would probably need certain advanced maintenance equipment if American ships began calling at Simonstown.

Mr. Barratt notes that South Africa's importance to the West is heightened as "the competing power -- the Soviet Union -- takes an interest in the region."

And a South African naval spokesman, Capt. Edmund Palmer, says there is rising Soviet interest in southern Africa. South Africa is expecting assignment of more Soviet maritime advisers to friendly governments in the subcontinent, he says. Moreover, he cites unconfirmed reports that Coetivy Island, off the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, is being converted into Soviet base facilities and that the Soviets are seeking base rights in Mauritius.

Even if the Soviets do not gain these base rights, says Captain Palmer, Simonstown could still prove attractive to US ships -- if for no other reason than to allow "R and R" (rest and recuperation) in nearby Cape Town. Mombasa, Kenya, is now the only place on the East African coast where American crews can take shore leave. And the recent killing of a Kenyan woman by a visiting US seaman, which provoked a strong public outcry, has underscored the delicacy of that arrangement.

As Western patrols of the Indian Ocean are stepped up, Captain Palmer predicts "morale problems" due to long stretches on board ship. But, he says, Cape Town -- undeniably one of the world's most stunningly situated cities -- offers plenty of diversions.

Other observers, however, wonder whether Us sailors -- many of whom are black -- could enjoy themselves in a racially segregated city. although Cape Town is perhaps the most liberal-minded of South Africa's cities, it still puts many restrictions on its nonwhite residents.

Of course, US military use of South African ports remains very much in the realm of speculation. The last Us naval vessel, the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, visited Simonstown in 1969. Even then, angry Washington officials banned all shore leave for the crew after black sailors were harassed by South African whites.

Also, there would have to be a sea change in American attitudes if South Africa's Navy was to play a significant role in an Indian Ocean or South Atlantic alliance. In years past, the South African Navy was included in north Atlantic Treaty organization planning, specifically in providing protection for convoys rounding the Cape.

But, since the 1977 arms embargo, South Africa has been forced to concentrate its aging fleet on shore protection duty. Its thre frigates are of 1960s vintage, and its three Daphne-calss submarines (supplied by France before the embargo) are small and have only limited capability. Eight coastal mine sweepers, six missile-equipped "strike craft," and five large patrol craft round out its Navy, according to Jane's Fighting Ships 1979-80. But the Navy remains "purely a defensive force " says one well-informed observer here.

It is problematical whether the West could aid in beefing up South Africa's fleet without running afoul of the arms embargo. Some observers suggest that the West could provide maritime surveillance aircraft -- to bolster South Africa's declining antisubmarine warfare capability -- without causing too much political uproar.

But there argue that any military cooperation with South Africa is bound to provoke a hostile reaction from balck Africa -- notably from Nigeria, the No. 2 exporter of oil to the US.

Mr. Fourie suggests, however, that the two governments should be able to "work out some gradations of aid" that are aimed at countering Soviet influence rather than propping up white minority rule in South Africa.

One possible model: a pact giving the US base rights in Somalia, a country widely viewed as an aggressor by its African neighbors. The arrangament, negotiated earlier this year, sparked both domestic and international controversy. But the United States administration was able to convince some critics that it would not become involved in Somali military adventurism or get dragged into Somalia's conflicts with neighboring states.

"There's quite a lot that can be done" to foster similar cooperation between the US and South Africa, says Mr. Fourie, "if American politicians see this as politically safe."

But there are other, behind-the-scenes ways that the West and South Africa could pursue their joint military interest. One is through cooperation in intelligence-gathering.

The sophisticated South African communications and surveillance center at Silvermine, for example, is apparently capable of tracking ships, aircraft, and submarines in a gigantic arc from South America to the Indian Ocean, stretching southward to Antartica. The South African government claims the center can chart the movements of "every ship sailing the Southern Hemisphere," besides determining the nationality, type, and armament of each one.

Monitor correspondent Stephen Webbe reports from the Pentagon that it is likely that intelligence on Soviet naval movements in the Cape region already is being passed between Pretoria and Washington. Indeed, he adds, the Cape would be a logical location for the Sonar Surveillance System, which is part of the US Navy's intelligence-gathering effort to keep tabs on Soviet submarines.

Some South African politicians have been exculting about the possibility of a "new relatiopnship" with the WEst after the victory of Ronald Reagan in the American presidential election. But many South African analysts are under no illusions about the extent of possible military collaboration between the two governments -- unless major changes are made in South Africa's racial policies.

South Africans should "certainly not" harbor "the hope of any [outside] assistance against an insurgency," says Mr. Fourie.

"It would be unrealistic," concludes Mr. Barratt, "for anyone to assume that the American government can give outright support to this [South African] government."

"That," he says, "is just not on."

Next: Limiting Soviet influence in southern Africa

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