LAST week's raid by South African soldiers on Gulf Oil installations in northern Angola, together with events in South Africa itself, shows with what currency South Africa repays the Reagan administration's policy of friendship and generous cooperation. For more than four years the State Department has argued that by engaging South Africa constructively through extending a warm hand to the white rulers of that black-majority country, reform there could be accelerated. The State Department also seeks independence for South African-ruled Namibia as an end to South African attacks on Angola, Mozambique, and other states in the region.
This American policy of constructive engagement has not achieved an internationally validated transfer of power in Namibia in accord with Security Council Resolution 435 of 1978. Indeed, in May South Africa defied the United States and the United Nations by establishing a local interim government of blacks and whites, appointing a Cabinet, and giving many governmental powers to this Multi-Party Conference (MPC) administration, despite the absence of any elections or other means of legitimizing such a transfer. The US, long involved in negotiations with South Africa over Namibia's future, was reduced to a public wringing of hands.
Nor has constructive engagement deterred South Africa from destabilizing the rest of southern Africa. From 1980 to 1984 South Africa backed the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR) against the official government. In 1984, after a humbled Mozambique was forced to sign a peace accord, South Africa promised to cease supporting the MNR. But the war for Mozambique continues. South Africa pledges that none of its agencies, not even covert armed forces, are helping the MNR.
In Angola, constructive engagement in May claimed a victory when South African troops relinquished territory occupied since 1981. The next day the MPC was given an official role in Namibia. Last week two clandestine South African units were intercepted, and two South African soldiers killed, in an assault in Cabinda.
Cabinda is an Angolan enclave north of the Congo River but separated from Angola by Zaire. Angola obtains 85 percent of its hard cash by the export of petroleum from fields off Cabinda's shores. Gulf and Texaco provide the bulk of the oil and earnings.
Yet South Africa attacked. In the immediate aftermath of the interception of the two units by Angolan troops defending the oil plants, South Africa claimed that its men were seeking to destroy African National Congress camps. The ANC, composed of exiled black South Africans, opposes South Africa and is fighting a low-level guerrilla war against South Africa on South African soil. There are no ANC bases in Cabinda, however, and few in the part of northern Angola near the location of the raid.
The South Africans were actually cynically assaulting an American-owned installation. The raid demonstrated that white South Africans engage in long-distance sabotage so that the Angolan insurgent group it backs can take the credit and bolster its own prowess.
Since the mid-1970s South Africa has been assisting the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) against the Marxist-led government of Angola. UNITA controls about 40 percent of Angola and has in recent years demonstrated an ability to raid more than 90 percent of the territory. It has often had South African help. Presumably, if the South African hand had gone undetected and the bombing of Gulf Oil succeeded, UNITA would have taken credit and the government of Angola suffered a reversal in prestige.
The US and South Africa want the 25,000 Cuban troops stationed in Angola to leave. They have been there to prevent UNITA (and South Africa) from ousting Angola's government. But last week's raid hardly increases Angola's confidence in South Africa's intentions or in the integrity of South African promises.
Nor should the US crow about the contribution of constructive engagement to regional peace and security. The South Africans recently agreed, after strenuous American urging, to pull all of their troops out of Angola. They also claim to want peace, an end to Cuban and Soviet support for Angola, and the establishment of a popular black government in Namibia. But their actions in recent weeks and months point to opposite conclusions.
It is possible that the raid itself can be said to show that white South Africa is not misleading the US and rejecting constructive engagement but that it is the South African military, or at least a segment of its special services, that is defying political and Cabinet authority. If so, the South African situation may be even more serious, and the failure of constructive engagement even more severe, than has commonly been asserted.
Whatever, the raid on Cabinda, the failure of white South Africa to seek an end to internal violence through negotiation, and, instead, the trying on charges of treason of the aboveground black political leaders with whom the state could conceivably talk constructively, all should make it difficult for the State Department to continue talking about its influence on South Africa's long-overdue process of reform. It is high time that the State Department began to engage itself constructively with Congress over South Africa.
Robert I. Rotberg is a professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.