From Angola on the stormy Atlantic to the warm Indian Ocean waters of Mozambique, the entire region of southern Africa is caught up in a dangerous game of political extremism.
The art of political persuasion - apparent in the recent independence of Zimbabwe and earlier hopes for a Namibian settlement - is giving way to the expedient of violence and counterviolence.
Guerrilla attacks in South Africa are becoming more frequent, more sophisticated, and significantly more dangerous. In a significant departure from the past, the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) is now prepared to accept heavy civilian casualties when striking at government targets.
The latest guerrilla attack in central Pretoria represents something of a political watershed in the South African resistance struggle. The car bomb which exploded outside Air Force headquarters May 20, killing 17 people and injuring more than 200 others, was the worst incident of sabotage in South African history. And it marked the first time that the ANC has taken direct responsibility for a terrorist attack in which civilians died.
The attack followed a series of explosions in South Africa. It suggests that the country is entering an intensified urban struggle between a white minority government spending more and more on defense and an increasingly aggressive ANC. The ANC leadership seems to be turning its back on the ideals of nonviolence propounded by its late leader, Chief Albert Luthuli, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960.
In an interview with this paper last month, David Ndaba, New York spokesman of the ANC, said that while sabotage had been directed against symbols of apartheid, his organization would soon be able to raise its level of activity to ''direct armed clashes'' with the South African authorities.
South Africa's swift retribution for the May 20 attack, reminiscent of Israeli raids on Palestinian guerrilla encampments, was to pound what the South Africans claim was a Mozambique missile site and ANC bases in a suburb of Maputo , the Mozambique capital. The Mozambicans charged that the South Africans bombed and strafed civilian targets May 23, killing at least five people and wounding more than 20. Reporters in Maputo said they saw no evidence of any military targets.
A pattern is now emerging in which black guerrillas are resorting to ever more drastic measures to overthrow the government, while South Africa responds with increasingly harsh acts of retaliation.
Such a vortex of violence is of concern to such front-line states as Zambia, Lesotho, and Mozambique, which Pretoria says shelter South African political refugees, but which are too weak either to absorb repeated military attacks from South Africa or to hit back militarily.
South Africans have responded to acts of sabotage within their country with such ferocity against suspected guerrilla camps in neighboring countries that the governments in the region complain the South African military actions destabilize their fragile economies.
Angola, Lesotho, and Mozambique have all borne the brunt of South African military action. And it is mounting in intensity. Zambia, headquarters of the ANC, is known to be nervous that South Africa might find occasion to punish it, also - if it aids South African dissidents or applies too little restraint to them.
The escalation on both sides reflects an increasing frustration with the sense of political drift in southern Africa.
South Africa is adamant that it will not tolerate any Lebanon-like situations that would permit terrorist actions to be staged from border states. The fact that South Africa feels compelled to act militarily is evidence of its frustration that its neighbors have broken a tacit understanding not to allow their territories to be used as launching pads for attacking South Africa.
The attack and counterattack comes at a turbulent moment in South African internal politics. For the first time since it came into power in 1948, the ruling Nationalist Party has lost its first poll (a recent by-election) to defectors on its political right.
This defection was prompted by right-wing opposition to the government's decision to give Indians and Coloreds (people of mixed race) a qualified role in power sharing. But the government plan excludes black Africans. Hence, it has galvanized the latter into political protest precisely because it is seen as driving a wedge between the various nonwhite groups in the country.
Frustrated at their inability to force any change in the South African political system, the antigovernment guerrillas, in a significant shift of tactics, are no longer concentrating exclusively on isolated government installations. They have now extended their range of sabotage activity to targets within crowded civilian areas. They also show no signs of being intimidated by South African military raids.
Every South African attack - or ''retaliation'' - seems to precipitate a counterattack by the guerrillas in which their methods show increasing daring and sophistication. And so the vicious cycle goes on. For instance, a South African retaliatory raid on Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, triggered the bombing last February of a South African government office in Bloemfontein that handles African work permits. That blast was the 30th reported incident of terrorism in South Africa since the beginning of 1982.
Now, the willingness of the ANC to publicly proclaim its participation in an attack which took civilians' lives is received with some consternation by liberals and church groups in South Africa. Many of these groups, since the outlawing of the ANC back in the 1960s, have been sympathetic to the ANC struggles. They have found the ANC's more moderate tactics in the past understandable in light of the government's severe restrictions of black political activity.