Pretoria's bid for `hearts and minds'. South Africa's military is running a semi-secret counterinsurgency campaign. The strategy is to neutralize black activists through bannings and detentions while winning the allegiance of moderates by improving life in black townships. But few blacks seem likely to be wooed into government-defined `power sharing'

In the last couple of months, the South African government effectively gagged 17 anti-apartheid organizations, banned 18 prominent black leaders, and temporarily shut down the opposition New Nation and South newspapers. It also built roads in tumbledown black townships, spent big bucks on much-needed housing there, and offered to give disenfranchised blacks a bit more political power.

Confusing? Yes. But only on the face of it. For this is all part of a larger plan designed to combat what the government sees as a communist-inspired revolutionary onslaught by the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) and its sympathizers. (The ANC emphatically denies it is a communist front.)

Drawn up by the South African military, the plan is patterned after classic counterinsurgency strategies. The idea is that years of neglect in black townships have created fertile ground for ANC activists. Remove the activists and begin improving black people's lives, so the thinking goes, and you remove the impetus for revolution. (One Western diplomat wryly summarized this as: ``Crush, create, negotiate.'')

``We have studied counterrevolutionary tactics in Malaya, Chile, El Salvador,'' says a ranking member of the State Security Council, a Cabinet-level body that advises President Pieter Botha. ``We're using the same hearts-and-minds techniques here. First we neutralize the enemy, then we win over the people so they will reject the ANC.''

To that end, hundreds of small military/civilian governmental groups, called Joint Management Centers (JMCs,) have been deployed throughout the country. They coordinate the ``neutralizing'' tactics with the remodeling of squatter camps and townships, into which Pretoria is pumping millions of dollars. The JMCs hope to build an image of ``good'' government among blacks to persuade them to join - not fight - the system.

But many political analysts question whether this will work. And after years of sluggish economic growth, South Africa simply does not have the funds for them - something economists and government officials alike admit.

Perhaps more important, critics contend, Pretoria is trying to deflect issues that even conservative black leaders see as vital: lifting bans on all political organizations, freeing political prisoners, scrapping discriminatory laws. These demands cut right across the black political spectrum and are unlikely to disappear - no matter how snazzy squatter camps become.

``The military thinks it can win this war,'' says Mark Swilling, a University of Witwatersrand political scientist. ``At best, their strategy will buy the government time. It will achieve acquiescence and control, but not cooperation.''

Not that some blacks do not welcome what the government is doing. Tired of turmoil and unrest, many just want to get on with their lives, regardless of who makes it possible.

That unrest, which convulsed black areas from 1984 to '86, is what sold politicians on a comprehensive counterinsurgency plan, the Security Council member recalls. The idea had been kicking around for a while, he says, but was not really accepted by the civilian administration until the townships blew. The first step: imposing the 1986 state of emergency, under which thousands of activists have been detained without trial.

Crackdowns on antigovernment groups and opposition press were inevitable next moves. More are sure to follow. ``You must take out revolutionaries if they are controlling the people,'' says the Security Council member. ``That's why the arrests and bannings. You can't concentrate on uplifting the townships if you constantly have to defend yourself.''

A 74-page pamphlet entitled ``The Art of Counter-Revolutionary War'' was distributed to government officials and Parliament members last year. According to this pamphlet: ``The destruction of the revolutionary organization must be followed by civic action to establish counter-organization of the population, which is the main objective of counterinsurgency operations.'' The pamphlet includes sections on ``Protect Yourself and Destroy the Enemy'' and ``Steps to Mobilize Population.''

Initially, 34 areas - the scenes of the worst violence - were targeted for serious renovations, says Roelf Meyer, deputy minister of constitutional development and planning. (The pamphlet calls this ``oil spot strategy - the establishment of strategic bases and their expansion until the whole area is recovered.'') Currently, about 200 of the country's 320 townships are slated for some sort of ``uplifting'' over the next several years.

Last year alone, Pretoria and an alphabet-soup array of recently created government agencies spent $400 million - twice the largest amount ever lavished on black areas in one year. Much of this money has come from taxing white-owned companies, the first time ever this tax money is going to townships.

That additional funds are being funneled to local authorities, as black municipalities are called, represents a dramatic shift in thinking. When Pretoria established these town councils in 1982, it required that they be self-sustaining. Since the tax base in black areas is low, revenues were minuscule - and the councils hamstrung and discredited. (Under apartheid, blacks were not allowed, until the early 1980s to own or have businesses in townships.) When councilors tried to raise rents and service charges, anti-apartheid activists cashed in on local anger by organizing boycotts. A rent increase, in fact, sparked the 1984 unrest.

``The radicals were winning the war because we weren't catering to people's basic needs,'' says Victor Milne of the Transvaal Provincial Administration. ``It's easy to mobilize communities with genuine grievances. That's what Mao Tse-tung did.''

So these days, the councils are busy figuring out how to spruce up their towns - and their image. Local authorities just about collapsed during the 1984-86 unrest, and most still operate behind fortress-like structures for fear of attack.

Take Mamelodi, a hardscrabble black city of about 350,000 people outside of Pretoria. Here, councilors work closely with the JMC. (The JMCs shadow the government at almost all levels. According to Mr. Meyer, there are 10 provincial JMCs; 60 regional, or sub-JMCS; and 260 local, or mini-JMCs.)

Mamelodi's JMC has about 30 members, representing the local authority, various government departments, and security forces. Lt. Peter Gagiano, who sits on the JMC, says it has three committees that operate secretly: The welfare committee monitors the town needs, communications promotes the image of the council, defense forces, and security gathers intelligence.

The idea is to strike a careful balance between repression and reform, and to help the local authority put the measures in place. James Selfe, senior research assistant with the opposition Progressive Federal Party, says its mandate is ``to kick the behinds of bureaucrats.'' Mr. Selfe says the security imperative gives the JMCs - especially military personnel - great latitude to cut through the country's voluminous red tape.

Consider what it is doing in Mamelodi. Veleleni Mashumi, the authorities' spokesman, proudly drives a visitor to a huge barren field where the council plans to build 6,000 low-income dwellings. Then on to Mamelodi Gardens, a middle-class development of about 2,000 houses that looks like suburban Dallas. And Moretele Park, which will someday sport five swimming pools, one amphitheater, and a cable car.

Lieutenant Gagiano stops the car to let pass a bulldozer that is chewing up the street. (One hundred miles of Mamelodi's roads are being repaved.) ``I can't stomach the squalor most people live in,'' Mr. Mashumi muses, staring out the window. ``They must be given a chance to own a house, to have something to live for. Then their anger will be relieved.''

Ultimately, the hearts-and-minds campaign is aimed at getting people to take part in forthcoming elections for local authorities. The government is billing the vote, set for October, as a vital step to negotiating a new political dispensation. Get lots of blacks into the system at the bottom, the thinking goes, to start pushing them toward participating at the top.

In fact, Pretoria's near-obsession with making local government work stems, in part, from its failure to woo black leaders at the national level. President Botha had been promoting a multiracial council to rewrite the country's Constitution and to work out a system of ``power sharing'' with the nearly 28 million blacks - who have no vote in national affairs - without relinquishing full white power.

He received no offers, however, and officials now say it was a mistake to make the council the centerpiece of the government's political reform plan. (Despite this, Botha recently unveiled a somewhat convoluted and expanded version that envisions bringing selected blacks into executive-level bodies.) Thus, the switch to a ``bottom up'' approach.

This is why the October vote is crucial. And it explains why Pretoria feels it is so urgent to win over blacks. Anti-apartheid activists have organized broadboycotts of past elections, and indications are that they hope to do the same this time.

``We had to take out the enemy because it was going to put everything into disrupting the elections,'' says Mr. Milne. ``And if we fail in October, there is no future for political reform. We must get people to stand up to these radicals.''

Anti-apartheid leaders concede the government's strategy is working - to an extent. The mass detentions and quashing of dissent have forced anti-apartheid leaders underground and rendered them far less effective. People are allowing themselves to be co-opted, ``because we can't educate them otherwise,'' a Mamelodi activist says.

But many here question the strategy's long-term efficacy. For starters, there is a problem paying for it. The economy has grown about 1.8 percent annually since 1984, while the black population is increasing 2.4 percent each year. Botha has called for greater economic efficiency through deregulation and privatization, but results will take a while.

So after this year, welfare budgets will be slashed and less money allocated to townships. In the meantime, there is a mind-boggling housing backlog. The government's goal to house everyone by 2000 means that 210,000 low-income dwellings must be built every year. Yet the South African Housing Trust Ltd. and the Urban Foundation, the main providers of inexpensive housing, have said they will construct only about 35,000 homes - in the next three years.

Even with unlimited resources, however, it is doubtful whether the government could cajole blacks to partake fully in a system that excludes those people widely perceived as legitimate leaders.

Just listen to Silumko Tom Boya, the longest-serving black mayor and a moderate who is willing to talk with Pretoria.

``I believe in working at the local level to provide for my people's needs,'' says Mr. Boya, who runs Daveyton, a tiny city 30 miles from Johannesburg. ``But if I'm going to work on a national level, the government has to honor our traditional demands, like un-banning the ANC.''

Later, tooling around town in his black Mercedes, Boya expresses reservations. ``It's not that I love the ANC. I just think the government someday is going to have to negotiate with them. And I don't want to be left out.''

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