There are strong signals that white-owned farms along South Africa's borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe will be key targets of attack this year in South Africa's intensifying guerrilla war. The emergence of border farms as another area of regular conflict would mark a new phase in the guerrilla insurgency being carried out by the outlawed African National Congress.
So far, ANC attacks have been largely concentrated in black townships and close-by white cities and towns.
Increased attacks on border farms were presaged by a series of land mine explosions which claimed the lives of nine South Africans in the past two months. In addition, acting ANC president Oliver Tambo, speaking recently at the 74th anniversary of the ANC in Lusaka, Zambia, seemed to hint at more such attacks.
The ANC's exiled leader justified the planting of mines on white farms on grounds that white farmers had been integrated into the border security system. Their farms lay in areas now designated by the government as ``military zones,'' making the farmers part of South Africa's military machine, he said.
Tambo referred to them as ``blood-sucking white soldier-farmers.''
The ANC, which was banned in 1960, is the main rebel organization fighting to overthrow the Pretoria government. Although it poses no serious military threat to South Africa at this stage, the ANC's attacks receive wide publicity in South Africa, causing alarm among whites and serving as a source of inspiration for many blacks.
It is conceivable that ANC strategists have applied a variation of the strategy used by Zimbabwean guerrillas in the late '70s during the civil war leading to that country's independence. Driving the whites out of the border areas, to make it easier for insurgents to move inward to the heartland, was a key strategy. In South Africa's heartland, there are four or five main cities densely populated by whites, and surrounded by black-populated satellite townships.
An authority on the ANC's armed rebellion against the white-controlled government, Dr. Tom Lodge of the University of the Witwatersrand, contends that the objective behind the land mine campaign is more than merely to terrorize and demoralize white farmers. ``The ANC could be attempting to wrest control of crucial geographical locations from the South African authorities,'' he said.
The farmers and the South African military are taking Mr. Tambo's threat seriously. On the day that Tambo made his speech in Lusaka, farmers from areas bordering Botswana and Zimbabwe met with military and police commanders to determine their response to guerrilla incursions. They resolved to stand fast and fight. They also issued a public statement statement giving notice that they would oppose any move by the government to open negotiations with the ANC.
The South African Defense Force, which last year took over responsibility for patroling borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe from the police, has publicly stated that defense of these regions has been given the highest priority. The minister of defense, Gen. Magnus Malan, recently expressed the emphasis placed on these regions when he said: ``The farmers and the SADF [military] belong to the same family.''
South Africa has a short 20-km electrified fence along the border with Zimbawbwe. Its main purpose is to keep illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe out of South Africa. Reports say Pretoria is considering erection of a new fence. The projected security fence will be much longer, carry a much higher charge -- 20,000 volts instead of 4,000 -- and be erected with the purpose of impeding the infiltration of guerrillas. Zimbawbwe has repeatedly denied that it allows ANC guerrillas to operate from territory along its borders.
The South African Defense Force faces another problem: the drift of white farmers away from border farms toward the cities.
Two factors promote the farmers' shift to the towns:
Drought and the associated difficulties of making a living from the land.
The concentration of more and more farms in the hands of fewer and fewer owners, leading to the expulsion of dispossesed farmers and to absentee landlords who own, but do not farm, the land.
Research has shown that more than 40 percent of the farms along Botswana's border have been vacated by their white owners, leaving black laborers and tenants in possession of the land. The figure for the Zimbabwean border is just under 40 percent.
The strategic significance of the exodus of white farmers was summed up in 1979 by then Minister of Agriculture Hendrik Schoeman: ``A terrorist can walk from the Limpopo River right through to Pietersburg without having to set foot on a farm owned by whites.''
To check the drift away from the rural hinterland, the authorities placed a law on the statute book to encourage whites to farm in the border regions. It provided for the granting of financial incentives to white farmers to settle there, as well as for penalties if they failed to live there for 300 days a year once they had accepted assistance.
The effectiveness of the law is a matter of debate. But, if the security situation gets worse, the move to the towns by white farmers is likely to accelerate.
Furthermore, the ANC's anticipated attacks along rural borders may well serve a dual purpose.
Not only will it challenge border area farmers but, according to Dr. Lodge, it may also draw enough South African soldiers away from the white-populated towns, thus making the towns more vulnerable to ANC attacks.