TRAVELING in South Africa some months ago, I came across a relic of 19th-century colonial days that was an apt symbol for much that is going on in that troubled country. It was a stone monument in the town of Pietermaritzburg, erected in memory of soldiers who died ``suppressing the rebellion of the Hlubi tribe'' in 1873. Under a flowery inscription were several very British names, and then, at the bottom, ``also Elijah Kambule and Katana, loyal natives.'' The last two words are the key. South Africa's whites have always been only a small minority of the population, a mere 13 percent today. The problem they have always faced is how, with such small numbers, to dominate everybody else. A key strategy has been to use ``loyal natives'' - blacks pressed into service to suppress or outflank black revolts, whether by the Hlubi tribe in 1873 or by the African National Congress and its allies today.
One factor behind South Africa's present crisis is that two of the government's most recent attempts to create ``loyal natives,'' have been embarrassing failures. In the early 1980s, South Africa set up special houses of parliament for Indians and Coloreds (people of mixed race), to try to split these communities off from the country's African majority. It didn't work: Fewer than 20 percent of Coloreds and Indians now bother to vote. Their parliamentarians are so despised as collaborators that many have to live in special compounds protected by barbed wire.
Another disastrous experiment has been the Bantustans or ``homelands'' - desolate, overcrowded rural slums into which roughly half the country's African population has been crammed, sometimes by force. These unhappy pseudo-states have failed to win the allegiance of most people who live in them, except for a caste of well-paid governing officials often living behind more of those barbed-wire fences. In the last year or two, a number of these rulers have been ousted by popular revolts, and eight of the 10 homelands now have leaders sympathetic to the ANC.
Today, Pretoria needs ``loyal natives'' more urgently than ever. If the government can persuade the United States and Europe that blacks are supporting it, it can get economic sanctions lifted or lightened. What better way to do this than by installing a few black faces in prominent positions? Two months ago, Pretoria offered the post of South African ambassador to the US to Oscar Dhlomo, a prominent conservative Zulu politician. He turned the job down, but the government gained public-relations credit by leaking news of the offer. For similar reasons, it has already appointed several Colored and Indian ambassadors.
Another motive, as well, lies behind Pretoria's urgent search for black allies. Now that the government has promised negotiations over South Africa's future, it is desperate to have somebody beside the ANC to negotiate with. But with the ANC holding a commanding lead in popularity ratings, finding a credible ``third force'' is not easy.
The only two remaining homeland leaders who are not pro-ANC are Lucas Mangope of Bophuthatswana and Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi of KwaZulu. The aging Mangope is a little shaky these days: When a coup toppled him in 1988, Pretoria quickly helicoptered in several dozen white commandos who restored him to power.
This leaves Buthelezi, a hereditary chief who is chief minister of KwaZulu, the homeland of the Zulu people. Over the years, Pretoria has spared no effort to build up Buthelezi and his Inkatha movement, which holds all the seats in KwaZulu's rubber-stamp legislature. For several years, Inkatha has been waging a bloody war against the ANC and its supporters, a war that has cost some 4,000 deaths so far. At every step of the way, Pretoria has encouraged Inkatha; photographs even show South African police armored cars escorting Inkatha vigilantes into battle. According to a recent report in the Zulu-language newspaper UmAfrika, some 200 Inkatha members have been to Israel, with Pretoria's blessing, for military training. South Africa and Israel both deny the charge, although the report quotes Inkatha recruits describing their training in the desert.
In other parts of the country, too, authorities have armed black forces that promise to uphold the status quo. A longtime Soweto gang called Kabasa has acquired tear gas and automatic weapons, almost certainly from police arsenals. Government-backed black vigilantes in Cape Town drove 70,000 squatters out of their homes a few years ago, and formed an honor guard for the minister of police when he visited the area. In the KwaNdebele homeland, I have seen the deep, ridged crisscross scars on the back of a young man whipped by the dreaded Mbokhoto vigilantes, another such force.
In the months ahead, as right-wingers in South Africa's military and police maneuver for position in the bargaining over the country's future, we can expect to see them mobilize a good many more ``loyal natives'' against the ANC and other forces demanding democracy. It is, after all, the most ancient of techniques for staying in power: Divide and rule.