Zimbabwe sees South African conspiracy in rebel sabotage attacks

The year has started on a violent and unhappy note for Zimbabwe, with 12 people killed in dissident-inspired violence in western Zimbabwe over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

The renewed outburst of rebel activity is the more serious not only because it comes after three quiescent months when dissident activity looked to be substantially on the wane, but also because Zimbabwe's chief security minister, Emerson Munangagwa, has linked South Africa with the dissidents.

Mr. Munangagwa claims, for the first time, that the Matabele rebels are being exploited by Pretoria as part of a systematic campaign of destabilization.

The rebel attacks - on a bus and train, a car ambush and the killing of its six occupants, the destruction of $2.5 million worth of construction equipment, the abduction of two whites one of whom was subsequently found murdered - took the government by surprise. Ministers had been claiming that the security forces had the upper hand in the struggle.

The renewed dissident activity, blamed by ministers on former members of Joshua Nkomo's ZIPRA guerrilla army, comes at a bad moment for Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, who is preoccupied with serious economic problems.

Few members of the government appear to hold the minority ZAPU opposition leader, Mr. Nkomo, responsible.

Nkomo's public statements disclaiming all responsibility for the rebel activity are widely believed, except by militant ZANU-PF supporters, who are anxious to end Nkomo's political career. Instead, it appears that Mr. Nkomo has lost control of the younger elements of his party and is probably losing ground among the party membership as a whole.

But the dissident campaign has been given a new and more serious dimension following charges by Minister Munangagwa, minister of state for security, that South Africa is training a ''Matabele brigade'' at four military camps in the northern Transvaal on the southern borders of Zimbabwe.

The minister has accused Pretoria of infiltrating its black trainees into Zimbabwe to carry out sabotage activities. Twenty-four hours after this allegation was made, saboteurs blew up the main electricity power line from the Kariba power complex to eastern Zimbabwe.

Although the police have not confirmed that Kiriba sustained a a sabotage attack, the fact that road blocks were established close to the Beit Bridge border post, more than 500 kilometers south of the explosion, suggests that officials believe that South African agents must have been responsible.

This latest, if minor, sabotage attempt comes less than a month after the Dec. 9 attack on the Beira oil tank complex in neighboring Mozambique. It was this very successful attack that precipitated Zimbabwe's severe fuel crisis, since the feeder pipes running from the tanks to the Beira-Mutare oil pipeline were destroyed.

The anti-Frelimo Mozambique Resistance Movement (MRM) has claimed responsibility for the sabotage, which it says was deliberately aimed against Zimbabwe because the Mugabe government had sent its troops into Mozambique to protect not just the pipeline but also the two railway lines to the ports of Maputo and Beira.

The fuel crisis has served to underline, yet again, Zimbabwe's heavy dependence on Pretoria. Vital oil supplies are now being brought into Zimbabwe from the port of Maputo via the South African railway system, because the direct railway to Zimbabwe is unreliable due both to the poor state of the track and the frequent sabotage carried out by the MRM.

There have been persistent, but unconfirmed, reports in Harare that Zimbabwe and South Africa have signed a secret fuel-supply deal, which would once again make Zimbabwe dependent, to some degree, on South African oil. If this were to be confirmed, it would strike a serious blow at the whole political and economic strategy of reduced dependence on Pretoria being implemented by southern African states.

Whether or not there is a formal oil deal, recent events suggest that Harare's attempts to rely exclusively on the Beira pipeline for its oil imports must now be discontinued.

The pipeline has proved to be too unreliable as a sole source of supply and must be bolstered by other supply sources - by rail from Mozambique direct, by rail from Mozambique via South Africa or from South Africa itself.

Up to a point then, Pretoria can claim to have once again demonstrated its ''superpower'' status in southern Africa, raising new doubts about the viability of the embryonic Southern Africa Development Coordination Committee, which seeks to reduce South Africa's stranglehold over the economies of its small and economically weaker neighbors.

But if economic dependence is ensured only by carrying out subversive acts in neighboring territories, South Africa is playing a dangerous game - one that could easily backfire.

For Mr. Mugabe, there can be little doubt that renewed security problems could hardly have come at a worse time. What he and his colleagues need, observers say, is a period of stability both at home and in relationships with South Africa, while they administer the unpalatable economic medicine that the country must swallow if it is to realize its economic potential.

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