JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Oliver Tambo, leader of the African National Congress of South Africa, may find he has played into President Pieter W. Botha's hands by declaring an intensified "people's war" to mark the ANC'S 74th birthday. Though the threat of increased terrorism is hardly welcomed by South Africa's white leaders, it is the one they have long been preparing for.
Tambo's message confirmed the new tough policy, launched by land mine explosions that killed white civilians near the Zimbabwe border before Christmas. The ANC has decided that since there is no chance of a negotiated settlement with Botha's government in 1986, a softening-up campaign is needed.
Its leaders point out that hundreds of black civilians have been killed by South African police during township unrest, which is undeniable. Yet the policy switch has damaged ANC's previous image of moderation and has lifted a heavy burden of doubt from Botha's back.
At the end of 1985, he was being written off by his political enemies--and some of his friends--as apparently unable to carry out his reform program and struggling to contain black riots by methods harming South Africa's image.
White industrialists, opposition politicians and clergymen were demanding that he lift the ban on the ANC, release its imprisoned leader Nelson Mandela and invite the organization to peace talks. When he refused, he was accused of intransigence and urged to resign.
But, after the land mines, the mood of the white community changed dramatically. Liberals who had been wooing ANC leaders denounced the attacks as indiscriminate terrorism. The majority of whites are now lining up behind Botha and demanding retaliatory action.
Botha is in a stronger position to strike against the ANC in neighboring states, keep up repressive measures against township rebels and, paradoxically, revive his plans for limited constitutional reform.
The United States and European nations are exerting pressure on Pretoria not to strike at Zimbabwe or Botswana, countries accused of harboring the infiltrators. But if there are more civilian deaths from ANC bombs, it will be difficult for the U.S. government to condemn counterraids in the light of President Reagan's stand against terrorism.
Most of the black states, though they support the ANC emotionally, have curbed the activities of ANC guerrillas and denied them bases, especially since the Nkomati Accord between Mozambique and South Africa in 1984. But South Africa accuses them of failing to deny access to armed infiltrators and demands that they seal their borders--a virtually impossible task.
Botha, who is 70 today and expects to retire in a year or two, wants to be remembered as a reformer who averted racial war in South Africa, not as the iron-fisted leader whose use of armed force caused 1,000 deaths in black townships. He is believed to be considering a snap election this year to gain a mandate for further reforms.
Botha feels bitter because his reform initiatives have not been given recognition. He has plans, still not fully spelled out, to extend the two-year-old tricameral constitution by offering blacks participation up to Cabinet level, though without offering them a house in the Parliament, as he did to the Indians and Coloreds.
Beyond this he envisages a multiracial confederation of states with internal autonomy, but with the center of power remaining in Pretoria.
No attempt to bring black leaders into government would work without the participation of Chief Mangosuthu Gastsha Buthelezi, who claims the allegiance of most of South Africa's 6 million Zulus. Though he is regarded as having sold out by township radicals, Buthelezi is the only black "moderate" leader with a solid political power base. He also has important friends in Washington and London.
The Zulu chief is playing for high stakes. Buthelezi wants Botha to reconsider the government's rejection of his plan to merge the fragmented Kwazulu homeland and the white province of Natal into a multiracial autonomous state, as a pilot scheme for federation. He also wants Mandela released unconditionally, to give him the option of joining in constitutional talks.
Mandela would almost certainly refuse the offer, since the ANC and the United Democratic Front, spearheading the internal fight against apartheid, see Botha's plans as an attempt to perpetuate white rule. The government could, of course, free him against his will, as it did Herman Toivo ja Toivo, former South-West Africa People's Organization leader.
As South Africa's biggest national group, the Zulus are bound to play a major rule in the nation's future. There are signs that 1986 may be the year of Buthelezi. He is being courted by businessmen and white politicians and has been named man of the year by a leading magazine. South African Television last week introduced a "learn to speak Zulu" course, and the accompanying textbook was sold out in two days.