MINORITY-ruled South Africa still operates by smashing with the mailed fist of suppression and extending the velvet glove of reason. At home, the state celebrated Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday by banning and disrupting celebrations and ringing his prison with police. Abroad, the Foreign Ministry is talking sweetly with Cuba, Angola, and the United States about a withdrawal of South African forces from Angola and, conceivably, Namibia.
The twin impulses of the government are less disconnected than they might seem. Both represent responses by President P.W. Botha's regime to the realities of internal and external politics. Both reflect close attention by Mr. Botha and his National Party colleagues to keeping power in troubled and dangerous times.
Cracking down on a peaceful birthday event at the University of Cape Town, prohibiting a songfest for Mr. Mandela, and even stopping a private party in a white suburb of Johannesburg may appear extreme. Botha's continued authority, however, is threatened by an upsurge of white, Afrikaans-speaking sentiment from the right-wing Conservative Party. Municipal elections will be held in late October. Informal polls predict a Conservative sweep of the Transvaal, South Africa's largest and most Afrikaans-dominated province.
To the Conservatives even more than to the National Party, Mandela is the devil incarnate. Imprisoned for 26 years, he was the leader of the African National Congress when he was tried and jailed for seeking to overthrow the state. After the state banned the ANC in 1960, Mandela and others went underground and began a campaign of violence against white rule. That campaign ended when Mandela and others were captured. It was resumed from exile by Mandela's associates in the 1970s, and continues with increased success in 1988.
Mandela was the ``Scarlet Pimpernel'' when he was on the run from the police in the early 1960s. Since he is the symbolic affirmation of the quest for black power that has swept black South Africa since 1984, he and what he represents constitute a red flag to the Conservative Party and its supporters.
Opposition to the Conservative Party's appeal to Afrikaners might also (and may still) dominate the government's approach to Angola and Namibia. But for the moment, the Foreign Ministry has attended four negotiating sessions. That part of the government always wants to reduce South Africa's isolation and, particularly on the eve of a US presidential election, to appear reasonable and friendly. This summer, too, the Foreign Ministry thinks it can blunt the impact of Draconian sanctions legislation now working its way through the House of Representatives. It knows that the Reagan administration will urge Republicans, and possibly some Democrats, to stay the hand of sanctions so long as the South Africans appear to be talking in good faith.
Remarkably, so far the South Africans are talking. At the highest point on the table is a pullback of South African troops from Angola itself. Next on the agenda of the Cubans and Angolans (with the Soviet Union playing a meaningful role behind its two clients), and the US, is the honoring by South Africa of UN Security Council Resolution 435. That measure, 10 years old in September, calls for the staged withdrawal of South Africa from Namibia, which, in UN and American eyes, South Africa continues to occupy and rule illegally.
The Conservative Party will not want South Africa to give up control of Namibia. But the powerful Dutch Reformed Church has said that it would be morally right for South African troops to withdraw totally from Angola. Militarily, South Africa has no continuing need to occupy southern Angola anyway. So it may well agree to pull back its troops and thus establish better ties with the Reagan administration.
The multiparty negotiations are for bigger stakes. Assistant US Secretary of State Chester Crocker wants to leave office in January with a settlement of the key regional conflicts in southern Africa. He and South Africa want the Cubans to leave Angola. So, now, does Angola. But the key to a Cuban exodus is resolution of the bitter conflict between the government of Angola, supported by the USSR and Cuba, and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), backed by the US and South Africa.
South Africa continues to say that it will leave Namibia only when the Cubans leave Angola. The Cubans say they will leave Angola when South Africa begins leaving Namibia. Neither side can move very far so long as UNITA is a threat to the continued existence of the government of Angola. The Cubans have said that South Africa must stop supporting UNITA.
Mr. Crocker and the negotiators in New York have been much more optimistic than their governments at home. In South Africa, reaction to the fourth session was especially muted, probably because of the October elections and the Conservative Party threat.
The good news is that there will be a fifth and probably a sixth session. South Africa will not yet scuttle the US-sponsored talks. But the bad news is that South Africa will not cease keeping a tight lid on African protest and that the government will keep a close eye on the municipal elections as it watches the battle between Gov. Michael Dukakis and Vice-President George Bush. White South Africa is trying very hard to survive.
Robert I. Rotberg is academic vice-president for arts, sciences, and technology at Tufts University.