Venturing into powerful orbit of South Africa

Leaving East Africa behind, and heading south, one quickly becomes aware of a new dimension: the pull of South Africa. The more pronounced South Africa's influence over the region visited, the greater the dilemma over how to deal with it.

The nearly 400-mile highway running from the Malawian border at Mchinji to the Zambian capital of Lusaka is asphalt. For a main axis route, it is also in reasonably good condition. In fact, as well-traveled residents will tell you, you can drive on the ``tar'' all the way down to Cape Town in South Africa.

On this road, convoys of fuel trucks bearing Zimbabwe registration plates roar toward Malawi spewing out clouds of black exhaust. Unable to pass through war-torn Mozambique, they are Malawi's sole source of gasoline, a supply that originates from the South African port of Durban.

In Lusaka, transport vehicles from ``down south'' can be seen everywhere. Some firms have not even bothered to appease Zambia's opposition to apartheid, South Africa's policy of strict racial separation: They ply continental routes, their vehicles marked with Johannesburg company names and telephone numbers. Spare parts, machines, and consumer goods (paid for in precious hard currency) that have come through South Africa or are produced there end up as far north as Zaire and beyond.

The visitor to central and southern Africa finds it hard to believe the extent of Pretoria's stranglehold over these regions. Despite efforts by the ``front-line states'' -- seven nations that are geographically and economically close to South Africa -- to diminish their economic dependence on South Africa, its grip is as strong as ever.

Economically, their precariousness is brought home by South Africa's ability to sever road and rail links as part of any retaliatory measures. Last month's raids in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia on alleged bases of Pretoria's rebel foe -- the outlawed African National Congress -- served as a reminder of the military vulnerability of some of these nations. As political rhetoric for sanctions against the Pretoria regime steps up, the dangerous position of these nations has become a major concern in some government and business circles.

``How can we resist?'' asked a representative of Manica Freight Services, a leading African transport company. ``We're cutting [off] our noses to spite our faces.'' At least half of Zambia's trade comes through South Africa, as does nearly a quarter of Zaire's, roughly 90 percent of Malawi's, and more than 90 percent of Zimbabwe's.

Of all the front-line states, Tanzania is in the best position to thumb its nose at Pretoria. With its own outlet to the sea, it does not have to worry about being cut off. It has sought to eliminate all links with the ``racist apartheid regime,'' also referred to in casual conversation as the ``unmentionable.''

Tanzania's fellow front-liners, on the other hand, a couple of which are landlocked, must pursue a more cautious approach.

Malawi criticizes apartheid, but considers official diplomacy with Pretoria vital for survival. It is the only independent African nation to have formal diplomatic links with South Africa.

Zimbabwe pushes hard for its own self-sufficiency and regularly chastises South Africa for its racial policies. But it still maintains quasi-diplomatic relations in the form of a trade mission. Zambia, which serves as exile headquarters for the African National Congress, quietly counts on South African commercial ties to help keep itself above water.

Enthusiasm for Zambia's 1964 socialist revolution has long since faded among the people. At a gas station in Petauke, a provincial town about halfway from the Malawi border to Lusaka, my companion and I fell into conversation with a Zambian sign painter. With no prompting, he asked: ``What do you think of our leadership?'' I hemmed and hawed. In Malawi, Tanzania, and even Kenya, people normally shy away from discussing their political leaders with strangers.

But this did not deter the young man. ``Well, I'll tell you. We are tired of this government. There are no jobs and our money buys less and less. We need a change.''

Later, at a nearby bank, several more local residents expressed similar sentiments. ``Our leaders are out of touch,'' said one. ``People don't care about socialism or the party. They just want things to work.'' The reactions were much the same farther down the road.

The southern part of Zambia is largely fertile. But the road takes you through miles of sparsely inhabited bush, only occasionally interrupted by a town or village. It is unusual to see so much good, uncultivated land in Africa.

Since independence, the majority of Zambians have abandoned the rural areas in search of jobs in the mines or the capital. But with falling copper prices and dwindling copper reserves, poor development advice, and inappropriate state policies, the economy is in disarray. As unemployment rises, the government is trying to encourage people back onto the land.

It is also working, at the encouragement of donors abroad and the United States Agency for International Development, to move its economy toward a more market-oriented approach. And, like other southern African nations, it is trying to wrest itself from excessive dependence on South Africa.

Late last year, the Zambian government launched a weekly auctioning of the Zambian currency, the kwacha, allowing residents to bid for a limited pool of foreign exchange. This has substantially reduced the country's rampant black market and has resulted in replenishing shops with consumer goods and spare parts.

Gasoline, too, is back in regular supply. By comparison, Tanzania, which refuses to devalue its highly overpriced currency, is constantly suffering from fuel shortages because it lacks the hard cash for imports. The situation has become so bad, one Tanzanian noted, that earlier this year fuel trucks along the main roads from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's capital, were being hijacked.

Zambia's currency experiment, which is being studied by certain other countries in similar economic predicaments, has given the kwacha a more realistic value. But it has made life extremely expensive for the ordinary man, who can hardly even afford the clothes on his back.

As a means of generating new jobs and bringing in desperately needed revenue, the government is seeking to entice private investment back into the country. One industry it is trying to develop is tourism, particularly in the Kafue and Zambezi river valleys.

Another sign of the times: The Lusaka authorities are offering incentives to attract commercial farmers back to the country. Many of them left after independence in 1964. Zambia is considered to have far more agricultural potential than neighboring Zimbabwe, and the government claims it would like to turn the country into a major food producer.

To achieve this, however, observers say, Zambia will need more than just political promises. It will need to take even greater steps toward a more free-enterprise-oriented economy.

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