South Africa's unprecedented military raids into three nearby black countries are a slap at reformists abroad and a sop to right-wing rivals at home. Yesterday's attacks suggest that President Pieter W. Botha is more worried about the second item -- despite the risk of provoking renewed calls from Western nations for economic sanctions against South Africa.
The strikes, which were against alleged outposts of South Africa's banned African National Congress, consisted of coordinated actions by the South African Army and Air Force near Botswana's capital, Gaborone, and for the first time near the capitals of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Hours after the strikes were announced, Johannesburg's main afternoon newspaper predicted ``international repercussions.''
The attacks in the three countries -- all Commonwealth states -- came even while a Commonwealth fact-finding team was in the region to investigate a compromise alternative to economic sanctions against the South Africans. International pressure on South Africa to end its policy of forced racial segregation -- apartheid -- has increased during the last two years.
It is the domestic political calendar, however, that seems to preoccupy the government most -- notably, an expected public showdown with right-wing critics scheduled for Thursday in the town of Pietersburg.
Yesterday's military raids also reflected government concern over unflagging black political violence here. Officials have blamed much of it on the African National Congress (ANC), charging that the organization is bringing arms into the country from neighboring black states. There has also been a series of land-mine explosions in rural areas near South Africa's northern border. The ANC has claimed responsibility for the explosions.
During the last 20 months, an estimated 1,600 people, almost all black, have lost their lives because of political unrest in South Africa. Most of the violence has been related to anti-apartheid activity.
Over the weekend, police announced the discovery of the largest arms cache in South African history. They said it included a Soviet-made grenade launcher, as well as demolition charges, land mines, plastic explosives, hand grenades, and rifles.
Officials in the countries targeted in yesterday's raids have denied allowing the ANC to launch military activity from their territory. The ANC is, however, based in Lusaka, Zambia, and has offices in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Beyond any military role it plays in the South African conflict, the ANC is the most important political grouping of anti-apartheid blacks. Founding ANC activist Nelson Mandela, who has been in a South African jail for more than 20 years, is the unrivaled symbol of opposition to government policies among an increasingly divided black population.
The Commonwealth's mediation mission -- which has included separate talks with Botha and Mr. Mandela -- is understood to focus on the aim of facilitating an eventual dialogue between the government and the ANC.
Botha's gradual retreat from apartheid has already provoked a right-wing backlash in his party's longtime rural strongholds in the Transvaal Province. Last month raucous supporters of the extreme-right Conservative Party, a breakaway group from the ruling party, and an even more militant pro-white-rule movement, called the AWB, prevented a Botha prot'eg'e from holding a rally in the Transvaal town of Brits.
This Thursday, the leader of the AWB, Eugene Terre Blanche, has vowed to disrupt a rally by Foreign Minister Roelof Botha (no relation to the President) in the city of Pietersburg. A government source says the foreign minister's planned appearance amounts to a move to face down the extremists on their purported home ground. But Mr. Terre Blanche has declared: ``Mr. Botha will not talk in Pietersburg. I will.''
A Johannesburg newspaper has predicted ``the biggest white political brawl'' in South Africa since World War II, when right-wingers opposed the government's backing of the anti-German allies.
Even before Monday's military sorties, President Botha and his party had been signaling growing concern over the extremist challenge. An editorial in the party newspaper denounced vigilante violence against blacks by ultraconservative whites -- singling out the Conservative Party and the AWB for criticism.
Last week, President Botha went on television with a statement that seemed a prelude to Monday's foray. He took a tough line on black violence, rejected outside ``meddling'' in the pace of South African reform, and told white constituents there was ``no need to panic'' over the government's strategy of gradual change.