S. Africa faces regional tension in wake of Machel's death

The crash of Mozambique's presidential airliner on South African soil has unleashed a flood of black-African resentment against the Pretoria government. There is no evidence yet of what caused the accident, in which Mozambican leader Samora Machel and more than two dozen others lost their lives Sunday night. Nor is there any visible evidence so far that the South Africans, or Mozambican rebels friendly with South Africa, were involved in the disaster.

Mozambique itself has refrained from charging that South Africa was involved. In a nationwide radio address, the top surviving member of Mr. Machel's ruling party said only that the President's death had come ``in circumstances not yet clarified.''

South African Airways was allowed to resume scheduled flights to Maputo's reopened airport yesterday. This reporter and two other US newspaper correspondents were politely turned back by immigration officials at Maputo airport, but the handful of other Johannesburg passengers were allowed to go through.

Yet in Zimbabwe, bordering on both Mozambique and South Africa, mobs yesterday torched the office of South African Airways and hurled stones at the South African trade mission. Black youths also randomly turned on white residents and vandalized their cars, some reports said.

A state-owned newspaper in the Zimbabwean capital said that ``despite all the denials -- and Pretoria would hardly admit its guilt -- the most likely cause of the crash remains a direct South African attack on the presidential plane.''

Amid similar suggestions, direct or indirect, from anti-apartheid groups, Johannesburg's largest newspaper expressed concern that ``automatic worldwide accusations of a sinister South African involvement'' would gather force.

The plane crash seems less a cause, than a catalyst, for the innuendo and allegations against Pretoria. Mr. Machel's death came at a time of rising tension and mutual suspicion between South Africa and her neighbors.

Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, and other African countries have been in the forefront of moves to impose trade sanctions on South Africa. The South Africans have responded by hinting at retaliation, a powerful threat given the fact that nearby African states are dependent on South Africa for jobs, commercial transhipment, even electricty.

Shortly before Machel's death, Pretoria announced a future ban on renewing the work permits of thousands of Mozambican migrant laborers employed in South African mines or on farms. This could deal a hard blow to Mozambique's already limping economy. And each side has charged the other with violating a 1984 accord which committed each nation not to aid armed unrest against the other.

The South Africans have moved quickly to dissipate suspicions of involvement in the air crash. The plane's pilot reportedly alleged the craft was ``shot down.'' But the South Africans say the airliner's ``black box'' was recovered, sealed in the presence of Mozambican officials, and sent for analysis. Pretoria has suggested a joint investigation of the crash with the Mozambicans, and other foreign aviation experts.

South African Foreign Minister Roelof Botha, one of several senior officials to rush to the site, pointed out that the crash had occurred in stormy weather. He said the plane seems to have attempted a landing at Maputo, then circled back to the nearby South African frontier. When he saw the corpse of Machel, Mr. Botha said, ``I just thought to myself that the time has come for all of us in southern Africa to really seek peace; because he was a man of peace.''

This reporter's brief turn-around visit to Maputo yesterday suggested the Mozambicans are intent on ensuring a stable changeover to post-Machel government.

At the airport, officials went about their business as usual. An immigration official volunteered -- in Portuguese, the linguistic heritage of Mozambique's century of colonial rule -- that the decision to turn us back ``is nothing against you, personally, as Americans. It is just that we have standing orders not to let foreign journalists enter unless they arrive with visas. . . .''

This report was filed under South Africa's emergency regulations, which prohibit reporters from being ``within sight'' of any unrest, any ``restricted gathering,'' or any ``police actions''; from reporting on arrests made under the emergency regulations; and from relaying information deemed subversive.

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