South Africa's formula for negotiating a settlement in Namibia (South-West Africa) apparently is to talk and wield a big stick at the same time.
Amid fragile negotiations and mounting optimism that an independence agreement is achievable, South Africa this week mounted one of its most damaging raids against SWAPO (South-West Africa People's Organization) guerrillas in 16 years of warfare over Namibia.
The attack -- against rebel bases in Angola, a country that is now a central party in the settlement talks -- rekindles skepticism over whether Pretoria really wants to relinquish control of the mineral-rich territory on its northern border.
Splashed across South African newspapers Aug. 11 were pictures of some of the 15 South African soldiers killed in the raid against SWAPO forces in southern Angola. During that battle, and in a raid one day earlier, 314 SWAPO guerrillas were killed, according to the South African Defense Force.
The offensive in Angola comes at a particularly sensitive time and could have important repercussions. Western negotiators are trying to create conditions in which Angola, SWAPO, and South Africa can all take a step back from the conflict , while not appearing to be giving in to others' demands. A steady stream of reports here has predicted some form of cease-fire in the near future.
But South Africa's military incursion -- a major one considering the level of fatalities -- could complicate matters.
''It certainly adds a further question mark to the whole process,'' comments one knowledgeable analyst.
Pretoria has sought to justify the attack as a retaliation against the ''double standards'' of SWAPO -- standards South Africa alleges are shown in secret documents that it says prove SWAPO was stockpiling arms, planning political assassinations, and ordering major acts of sabotage in Namibia in advance of a settlement.
The South African Defense Force said that the operation in Angola has been going on over the ''past weeks,'' confirming recent allegations to the same effect by Angola. The forces have not indicated they plan to stop such raids.
But this week's attack could make it more difficult for Angola to send home Cuban troops. South Africa is demanding removal of the Cuban force as part of a settlement.
Cuban withdrawal is not formally linked to negotiations for a Namibia election, but South Africa's demands have made it a central issue. South Africa insists the troops, estimated to number between 15,000 and 20,000, would influence an election and be a threat to any new government in Namibia. Pretoria wants them out before a vote.
But Angola, pointing to repeated South African raids on its soil and Pretoria's military intervention in the Angolan civil war in 1975, says the Cubans are needed for protection against South Africa.
This threat, as seen by Angola, has an internal dimension, too. South Africa is widely recognized as providing support to the UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) forces fighting the government in the territory.
Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos' position is reported to be that he wants some form of assurances or guarantees that South Africa will stop invading his country before sending home the Cubans. Some resolution of the internal threat from UNITA is also regarded by analysts as important since sending the Cubans home might weaken the government's position internally.
The recent raid into Angola could also heighten mistrust between South Africa and SWAPO. Mistrust is already considered a serious obstacle to a settlement.
The loss of 15 South African servicemen is the largest loss of life in a single incident for Pretoria since the war began.
Yet there remains no visible and widespread antiwar feeling among South African whites. Within the dominant Afrikaans community, the war is still seen as ''just'' despite the United Nations' view that South Africa is occupying Namibia illegally, analysts here say.
There are a number of other questions to be resolved before Namibia could become independent. These include the withdrawal of South African forces from the territory and SWAPO forces from the border area, establishment of a United Nations transition assistance group to monitor the election process, UN impartiality in light of its recognition of SWAPO as the ''sole, authentic'' representative of the territory, and the precise voting scheme to be employed.