S. Africans wary of role in Angola. Public questions cost, secrecy of intervention

South Africa's heightened intervention in the Angolan civil war has raised fears at home that it could be dragged into a costly and debilitating conflict with Angola and its Soviet and Cuban allies. Liberal newspapers have drawn parallels with the United States' defeat in Vietnam and warned that a major commitment in Angola, coupled with the fight against black guerrillas and domestic political unrest, could overstretch South Africa's resources.

While most whites accept the government view that South Africa is engaged in an anticommunist crusade, a few are beginning to question why soldiers are dying hundreds of miles from home.

Newspapers, educators, and liberal groups have attacked government secrecy and asked where the war is leading South Africa.

Until last week, South Africa consistently denied Angolan reports that its ground forces were backing the rebel forces of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in the 12-year-old civil war. And despite Pretoria's recent unprecedented openness about its heightened intervention on the side of UNITA, which reportedly began in late July, its statements still give only sketchy details of the fighting.

South Africa now says it has lost 23 men in the past three weeks in southern Angola where it is fighting Angola's Soviet- and Cuban-backed government. That figure includes soldiers lost in clashes in Angola with rebels of neighboring Namibia (South-West Africa), which South Africa has ruled, in defiance of UN referenda calling for it to get out, for more than two decades.

South Africa frequently strikes at Namibian guerrilla bases in Angola because it says Angolan troops offer assistance to the Namibians.

But political analysts say the latest incursion is the biggest since South African forces invaded Angola at the outbreak of civil war there in 1975. It is also the first time in a decade that South Africa has acknowledged providing more than just logistical support for UNITA.

The official Angolan news agency, Angop, says the admissions have come because the South Africans ``are preparing their public opinion for a bigger military intervention in Angola.'' It also denied South Africa's claims that Cuban and Soviet forces are directly involved.

Defense Minister Magnus Malan said South Africa intervened to save the US-backed UNITA from defeat by the Marxist government, which is supported by Soviet aid and an estimated 35,000 Cuban military personnel.

Pretoria regards defeat for UNITA as unthinkable. Ministers say that would allow the Soviet Union to spread its influence throughout southern Africa and leave Angolan-based guerrillas free to attack Namibia and South Africa itself.

``The price of freedom is high but it is being paid now to prevent us from having to pay an even higher price later,'' Mr. Malan said on Saturday.

Still, South Africans have begun to questions that price. A recent editorial in the Durban Sunday Tribune said: ``The South African Defense Force is already heavily committed in the precarious battle to maintain law and order and enforce emergency regulations within the country. To add a war in Angola to this commitment is to risk straining economic resources and military hardware and manpower to dangerous limits.''

Pretoria denies hints that Cabinet members are arguing over the nation's role in Angola.

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