Mozambican President Samora Machel says of the rebel force in his country: ''The South Africans must destroy the monster they created.'' The comment, made in a recent interview with this writer, suggests that Mr. Machel might accept South Africa's offer to station troops in Mozambique. Such troops would monitor a cease-fire agreement between Mozambique and the rebels who have been fighting to unseat the Marxist President.
Such a move would be noteworthy for several reasons:
* South Africa has long been Mozambique's arch-enemy. A peace-keeping relationship would be a sharp departure from two decades of animosity between the ruling parties of the two countries.
* If troops are sent in, South Africa would face the awkward prospect of disarming rebels it has long supported. Knowledgeable sources assert that Pretoria has in fact been the driving force behind the rebel movement, known as the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR).
* The task of keeping the peace would be daunting because the rebel force is large - with 18,000 to 20,000 members, the MNR almost matches Mozambique's Army in strength - and it has troop presence in every province. At least some MNR members are expected to be reluctant to abide by the Mozambique-MNR agreement. That discussions between Mozambique and South Africa are under way indicates that both governments not only want, but need, peace. And they have different reasons for working toward this shared goal.
Long-time enemies, with antagonistic racial and social philosophies, Frelimo, Mozambique's ruling party, and South Africa have been in conflict since 1964 when Frelimo nationalists began their fight for independence. Tensions escalated in 1979 when, according to the British military team supervising Zimbabwe's transition to independence, South African Military Intelligence transferred MNR headquarters and bases to South Africa's Transvaal Province, which abuts Mozambique.
For its part Pretoria has complained that Mozambique has harbored members of the African National Congress (ANC), a movement committed to overthrowing the South African regime, and that the ANC has used Mozambique as its main staging post for raids into South Africa.
But in 1982 Mozambique sent out peace feelers and the Frelimo Central Committee concluded that Mozambican forces were unable to contain the offensive begun two years earlier. A South African air attack on the outskirts of Maputo, Mozambique's capital, and Pretoria's use of frogmen to sabotage oil deposits stored at the port of Beira heightened Mozambican anxiety. The deteriorating military situation also forced Mozambique's leadership to acknowledge that the Soviet Union and its allies were either unwilling or unable to provide its army with the military equipment and training needed to defend the country.
Moreover, South Africa's undeclared campaign of economic pressure of Mozambique, begun in 1977, had cost the young nation almost $3 billion in wage remittances from more than 80,000 Mozambicans barred from working in the South African gold mines. Together with the MNR attacks, a prolonged drought, and serious state mismanagement of the agricultural and marketing sectors, Pretoria's economic campaign had left Mozambique's economy in a shambles.
In December 1982, says Mozambican Information Minister Jose Luis Cabaco, his country proposed to South Africa that it consider a nonaggression pact with Mozambique. South Africa countered with an offer to revitalize the Mozambican economy in return for Frelimo's expulsion of the ANC. A year later, after Mozambique had convinced South Africa's Western allies that it was not in their interest to allow Pretoria to turn the region into a cold war battleground, Pretoria reversed its position. And under pressure from the United States and Britain, according to US officials, South Africa signed the nonaggression pact last March, which became known as the Accord of Nkomati.
Each side formally promised ''not to allow its territory to be used for acts of war, aggression, or violence against the other.''
Despite the agreement and the removal of reportedly all but 10 ANC political officials from Mozambique, hawks within the South African military and security community resolved to keep the pressure on President Machel's Marxist government. According to Western analysts in Maputo, just before the agreement was signed, the MNR was resupplied with two-years' worth of war materiel and approximately 1,500 troops left bases in South Africa to move into areas surrounding the Mozambican capital.
A senior Mozambican official also told this writer that South African agents operate freely from Malawi, continuing to provide MNR forces in central and northern Mozambique with supplies. His claims might appear to be borne out by the fact that, after the Nkomati Accord, fighting has been heaviest in those areas adjacent to the Malawian border.
The continuation of hostilities, however, poses serious problems for both countries. Although the military situation has improved in central Mozambique, government officials acknowledge that the MNR offensive has intensified in the strategic Maputo Province and, for the first time, insurgents have been operating in the far north. The fighting has also exacerbated Mozambique's food crisis, which last year claimed 100,000 lives.
Powerful figures in South Africa's business community, who view trade and investment possibilities with Mozambique as a way for South Africa to reverse its deteriorating economic situation, have said the policy of destabilization is counterproductive. They increased their pressure on the government after Mozambique informed several large corporations, including Anglo-American ones, that agreements which they had negotiated with Mozambique would not be formalized until the problem of the MNR was resolved.
South African import-export houses, eager again to see the large savings gained by shipping through Maputo instead of Durban, also demanded that their government enforce the agreement. And South African industrialists and government leaders realize recent discovery of large deposits of gas in southern Mozambique could, together with the flow of electricity from Cabora Bassa Dam, ease South Africa's energy crunch. Indeed, immediately after the Nkomati nonaggression accord, South Africa and Mozambique began discussing the possibility of constructing a gas pipeline from Inhambane Province to South Africa.
NATO countries, eager to see Mozambique foreign policy become independent from the USSR also put pressure on Pretoria to make the pact work, diplomats in Maputo say. But Western sources became increasingly concerned, according to the leader of the Mozambican negotiating team, Jacinto Velso, when in late September , Mozambique warned that continued MNR attacks ''could seriously endanger the Nkomati accord.'' The South Africans may have sensed that this was not just an idle threat, because the following week negotiations began in earnest.
If carried out, however, the cease-fire agreement signed in October could benefit both countries. Mozambique can take comfort that South Africa in effect took responsibility for the MNR and agreed to take steps to end rebel attacks. And it can be pleased that South Africa acknowledged that President Machel is the legitimate leader of his country. South Africa also seems to have dropped the MNR demand for several ministerial posts in a Mozambique government of national unity.