South Africa's relations with black neighboring states - only cool even in the best of times - once again have soured. In recent weeks, Pretoria has raised the rhetoric level with Mozambique, issued an ultimatum to Zimbabwe about cross-border guerrilla raids, and attacked by air Namibian guerrilla bases in Angola in retaliation for a terrorist bombing.
Political scientists here say there are a couple of reasons for South Africa's saber rattling, which could put Pretoria into direct confrontation with its few remaining Western trading partners.
For one, President Pieter Botha and his National Party face fierce competition from the ultra-right-wing Conservative Party, which has hammered it for being too conciliatory. The conservative threat was clear in two by-elections last week, in which the NP was soundly defeated.
In addition, analysts view Pretoria's moves as a measure of its self-confidence. The government has pretty much stabilized internal black unrest against its segregationist policy, known as apartheid. Now it can turn its attention to containing cross-border attacks by the outlawed African National Congress (ANC), the most prominent anti-apartheid group.
``The South African government increasingly is acting like a regional desperado,'' says Deon Geldenhuys, a Rand Afrikaans University political scientist. ``They know how the West will respond after each incursion or crackdown, but they don't care. Security is more important than world opinion.''
Government backers view Pretoria's actions as defensive. They say the ANC - and its host countries - are the region's most destabilizing factors, and South Africa is acting to protect its frontiers. The latest embroilment with a neighbor began when a farm was attacked about 100 miles from Zimbabwe's border. South Africa says insurgents launched the raid, in which no one was hurt, from Zimbabwe.
``Zimbabwe stands warned that South Africa will not tolerate continued off-handedness on matters which profoundly affect its security,'' said Foreign Minister Roelof Botha while visiting the raid site.
Zimbabwe denied that insurgents operate from its soil. Then it accused Pretoria of a direct role in a January bombing of a house occupied by the ANC, and of running a sabotage network, a number of whose alleged white agents were later arrested.
In another move, Pretoria issued a rebuke to Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano in February when he would not consider joining a regional conference proposed by South Africa until Pretoria changes its apartheid policies. (Mozambique insists South Africa backs its internal insurgency, a charge Pretoria denies.)
Shortly thereafter, the South Africans responded to the bombing of a bank in Namibia (South-West Africa), reportedly by the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO), by striking two alleged SWAPO targets in Angola. South Africa rules Namibia in defiance of UN resolutions calling for its withdrawal. It also openly backs the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola which is fighting to overthrow that nation's Soviet and Cuban backed regime.
In some ways, South Africa simply is continuing an eight-year old policy of what Mr. Geldenhuys calls ``pursuit, punishment, and preemption.'' The idea, says Andre du Pisani, director of research at the South Africa Institute of International Affairs, is to make the region hostile to the ANC, to keep it on the move.
``The ANC essentially is revolutionary, so the South African government thinks its response must be counterrevolutionary,'' says Mr. du Pisani.
Many political analysts believe previous and pending elections contribute to the intensity of Pretoria's response.
Geldenhuys notes that security issues go down well with white voters. According to a 1986 poll he conducted, more than 81 percent of whites said that South Africa should attack terrorist bases in neighboring states.
But Pretoria's success in putting down widespread unrest by blacks at home also figures, says Peter Vale, a Rhodes University political scientist. A 20-month-old state of emergency and the recent ban on 17 anti-apartheid groups seriously hamper internal black opposition. The government thus can focus on what Mr. Vale calls ``apartheid's second front.''
An official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, says it is a matter of self-defense. ``We have a right to defend ourselves. We have made it quite clear that we will pursue terrorists. If people harbor such individuals, they must bear the consequences.''
The official adds that the continuous harping against South Africa in international forums does not help matters. For example, he said he found the Mozambican President's refusal to join in the conference ``unnecessary,'' considering that South Africa is host to thousands of that nation's workers and funds a number of projects inside Mozambique.
All of which leads Mr. du Pisani to say the area is headed for a lot more conflict. ``If the pressure continues in the region, it is bound to lead to a greater response from Western countries to help lessen the dependency on South Africa,'' he says. ``And that could have serious implications for South Africa's relations with its remaining trading partners.''