The battle for southern Africa

SOUTH AFRICA's invasion of Angola defies common sense and affronts both the United Nations and the United States. But it serves the national and regional geopolitical objectives of a minority-ruled state increasingly influenced by the thinking of generals. Inside South Africa, white politicians and security officials follow a two-track policy. They are attempting to defuse black protest by dangling morsels of social and political reform and by a reactive, all-out attempt at repression.

The iron fist arrests, detains, censors. The velvet glove extends the possibility of talks between whites and blacks, frees aged nationalists, and creates forums for cooperation and co-optation.

Outside South Africa there are also two tracks, but the military one is decisive. South Africa's Foreign Ministry officials preach conciliation and stability and transport authorities help reconstruct Mozambique's main port. But Pretoria's military strategists support potent proxy armies in both Mozambique and Angola, and may even assist the remaining insurgents in Zimbabwe.

A stable, developing southern African region makes sense to Americans. White South Africans surely want a peaceful, contented neighborhood, one focused more on growth than discord. Such countries would purchase goods from South Africa and use its rail lines and ports.

Such a situation fits well with the ideas of many white South African politicians and officials, even some closely linked with the ruling National Party of President P.W. Botha. But South Africa's military men have more-Draconian priorities. Since one of their own sits in Mr. Botha's inner Cabinet, and since the State Security Council is directed by a senior military officer, the ideas of military men receive a full hearing.

Military strategists decided in 1978 to provide covert support for Jonas Savimbi's Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Angola is a long way from South Africa, but Pretoria controls Namibia; it is a lapsed League of Nations mandatory territory over which the UN has long claimed jurisdiction, a point South Africa disputes. An anti-South African insurgent group, the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), operates from Angolan bases into Namibia.

Ten years ago defending Namibia from SWAPO was South Africa's prime objective. Now with SWAPO weak, the Marxist government of Angola also weak, and UNITA comparatively strong, South Africa can achieve a variety of geostrategic goals by rushing (as it did last month) to UNITA's aid against an arrayed attack of Angolans and Cubans, backed by the Soviet Union.

South Africa can bolster its own reputation as the strongest and most dedicated military power in Africa. Doing so helps at home as well as regionally.

It can maintain the division in Angola, hoping that someday the Soviets will relax their support for the government or that the 35,000 Cubans who now stand between UNITA and victory will go or be sent home. When and if that happens, UNITA will play a significant part in running Angola with South African support and advice.

Keeping Angola embroiled in civil war also limits worldwide focus on Namibia and perpetuates South Africa's hegemony in a territory that keeps the external war for South Africa at a distance.

Warring in Angola gives South Africa a proving ground for weapons and theory. It trains conscripts and toughens the entire military apparatus. The war is costly, but duplicating at home everything that South Africa's military has constructed and arranged in northern Namibia would prove much more costly.

Also, deploying UNITA as a black proxy force against Cubans, Angolans, and even Soviets is inherently cost effective.

The dominant South African military strategy is to keep African states weak and in turmoil. This plan is working well in Angola. The recent invasion on behalf of UNITA has contributed effectively to Angola's economic decay.

South Africa has been following the same policy in Mozambique since about 1980, when its military intelligence operations assumed control over the Mozambique National Resistance Movement (Renamo). In recent years South Africa's military men have helped Renamo create unceasing terror and chaos throughout much of already desperately poor, famine-prone, mismanaged Mozambique.

While South Africa's Foreign Ministry assures Mozambique's leaders that the white-run country wants to be a good neighbor, its military supplies Renamo with the funds and equipment that destabilize the once-Marxist, now Western-leaning country.

These actions defy American common sense, but those who are helping to rule South Africa prefer a poverty and strife-ridden neighborhood. They believe that it assists their own struggle to sustain white domination inside South Africa, where blacks are overwhelmingly numerous and increasingly agitated.

American sanctions, world pressure, and energetic diplomacy were intended to halt South Africa's destabilization of its neighbors and its raids into Angola, Mozambique, Botswana, and Lesotho, and to encourage negotiations between the black majority and the white minority. The massive invasion of Angola demonstrates that those who care about the long-term peaceful development of the region must seek an entirely new approach to the question of South Africa's future.

Robert I. Rotberg is academic vice-president for arts, sciences, and technology at Tufts University. 30-{et

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