South Africa's military raids into three nearby black countries almost certainly destroy the prospects for a peace initiative spearheaded by the British Commonwealth. And, although British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rejected such calls yesterday, the attacks also make it virtually certain that she will come under intense international pressure to join an economic boycott of South Africa.
These were the somber assessments of London-based diplomats as members of the Eminent Persons Group -- a Commonwealth fact-finding team seeking a negotiated settlement in South Africa -- left Cape Town earlier than planned.
The raids occurred inside Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, all members of the Commonwealth, which groups Britain and its present and former colonies. An emergency meeting of the Commonwealth's 50 members is expected to be held in London in September. Then, Mrs. Thatcher is likely to be asked to support mandatory economic sanctions against South Africa.
In the House of Commons, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe attacked South Africa's ``deplorable acts'' but stopped short of endorsing an economic boycott, calling such a move ``counterproductive.'' The Commonwealth's secretary-general, Sir Shridath Ramphal, called the raids a ``declaration of war'' and said the only policy open to the Commonwealth now was economic sanctions.
For Thatcher, the probability of having to face angry Commonwealth leaders in the aftermath of the raids is an acute embarrassment. Last November, at a Commonwealth summit meeting in the Bahamas, Thatcher was urged to support a boycott. She avoided doing so by endorsing the creation of the Eminent Persons Group, which was given six months to find a negotiated settlement in South Africa.
If Thatcher continues to reject sanctions, she is unlikely to be supported by others in the Commonwealth. In a bitterly worded statement, Sir Shridath emphasized Thatcher's isolation and said: ``What more do Western countries need to disengage from South Africa and ostracize it from human society in both political and economic terms?''
The Eminent Persons Group must still compile a report on their attempts to open negotiations with South African leaders.
Thatcher's political opponents in Britain solidly favor an economic boycott, and it is certain that the future of South Africa will become a major theme in Britain's domestic politics in coming months.
Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock and the leaders of the Liberal-Social Democratic alliance favor a complete economic boycott against South Africa. The leader of the Social Democrats, David Owen, declared: ``The South Africans have deliberately undermined the Commonwealth peace initiative. They must now be met with sanctions.''