Whites in South Africa seem to be starting to think about the unthinkable: talking to the outlawed African National Congress guerrilla move-ment. But the South African government says it will not countenance such talks while the ANC remains committed to using violence against the Pretoria regime. And a skirmish last week between government forces and the ANC indicates that conflict rather than dialogue between the two is likely to be the order of the day for the foreseeable future.
Yet political observers here see significance in an apparent softening of white attitudes about talking to the ANC. An opinion survey by the Human Sciences Research Council, a government-affiliated think tank, found whites evenly divided on the question of government contact with the ANC. About 44 percent opposed the move and about 43 percent were in favor.
The idea of dialogue also gained some credibility among white Afrikaners when South Africa's influential Afrikaans newspaper, the Beeld, recently sent a reporter to Zambia for interviews with the ANC. The paper later encouraged the government seriously to consider opening a dialogue with the ANC.
These apparent signs of a shifting white sentiment are not to be construed as support for the ANC but rather as a creeping willingness to talk with the group. Still, the government has remained firmly opposed to the notion. President Pieter Botha said neither the government nor his own National Party would be allowed to engage in dialogue with the ANC.
One reason the notion of talks with the ANC has gained some ground is that the ANC is seen here to be in a particularly weak position at the moment. The nonaggression accord signed between South Africa and Mozambique in March appears to have begun to hurt the ANC by denying it forward bases for strikes into South Africa.
For six months following the signing of the so-called Accord of Nkomati, there was no major decline in ANC activity in South Africa. But since then there has been a noticeable falloff.
One group that monitors guerrilla activity, the Institute for Strategic Studies at the University of Pretoria, says up to December there had been 39 acts of sabotage and terrorism in South Africa. The tally for the same period in 1983 was 48.
While the ANC is regarded as having widespread support among blacks in South Africa, it does not have an established military presence in the country. That is why external bases are so vital.
The difficulty the ANC faces in establishing a military foothold in South Africa was illustrated on the day before Christmas when the South African police and Air Force swooped into an ANC hideout and captured what officials called a major arms cache of land mines, rocket launchers, hand grenades, rifles, and ammunition.
The operation was apparently an extensive one, having begun on Dec. 6. The South African police said two ANC members were killed and 10 others arrested over the course of the operation. The exact location of the ANC hideout was not disclosed. But the police said it was in the eastern part of the country, near the borders of Swaziland and Mozambique.
In addition to its accord with Mozambique, South Africa also has an agreement with Swaziland that precludes the ANC from operating militarily in that country.
There is some evidence that the ANC is searching for new routes into South Africa from the major military training bases that Pretoria says exist in Tanzania and Angola. Earlier this year there were clashes that suggested the ANC might be trying to come through Botswana or Zimbabwe. But both those countries have refused to sanction any ANC military activity, making the establishment of any new infiltration routes there doubly difficult.