WASHINGTON — Hints of compromise and conciliation were briefly in the air of Southern Africa last week. Then the South African government, ever eager to demonstrate power at home and in the region, invaded three neighboring countries--Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe--once again making optimists in the U.S. State Department look like fools.
It is possible to offer all sorts of explanations for the latest, and most spectacular, South African military adventure:
Perhaps President P.W. Botha, having only recently announced his intention to reform the "pass laws" that control the movements of the Black majority, wanted to demonstrate to the growing right-wing white opposition that he can still be tough in defense of the nation.
Perhaps the South African Defense Force, with enormous influence over Pretoria's regional foreign policy, made its own decision to launch the raids and, as many people suspect has been true in other cases, Botha could not do much to stop them if he wanted to.
Or perhaps the South African white minority regime really believes what it says--that it was striking out against military and political operatives of the African National Congress, an organization banned for nearly a quarter of a century, and that the attacks will help "break the ANC."
But whatever the true motives or intentions of these raids, the effects are entirely clear:
The South African attackers, in killing two civilians (a Botswana soccer player and a Namibian refugee), in wounding about 15 others, including residents of a United Nations refugee camp in Zambia, achieved no serious military objectives. Indeed, not only have they probably failed to curtail ANC activity inside and outside South Africa, they have also undoubtedly brought about another escalation of protests and violence in the seething Black townships on the outskirts of South Africa's cities.
Moreover, by humiliating the Black governments of Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, South Africa's white rulers have increased the likelihood that those countries will turn to the Eastern Bloc for support and will, in the long run, join the armed struggle against apartheid rather than promoting a peaceful settlement.
The South African regime has also scared off well-intentioned intermediaries like the "Eminent Person's Group" sent by the British Commonwealth to search for solutions to the problems of racial oppression and conflict in South Africa. The group, led by former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and former Nigerian head-of-state Olusegun Obasanjo, having met again with exiled ANC representatives in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, had just returned to Cape Town for further talks with South African officials when the raids were announced.
Rumors had circulated in South Africa that the Commonwealth group, having also held discussions with ANC leader Nelson Mandela in his South African prison cell, was pushing for a cessation of attacks in exchange for the release of Mandela and the legalization of the ANC, as a prelude to negotiations over the country's future. Despite its fear of losing support among the young black militants in the townships, the ANC was apparently preparing to take the risk of compromise; now ANC hard-liners are bound to prevail.
But particularly significant, from the American point of view, is the fact that the South African regime has demonstrated once again how little it cares about embarrassing or annoying the United States--in other words, how ineffective the Reagan Administration's five-and-a-half-year-old policy of "constructive engagement" has been.
The premise of that policy was that if Washington engaged in quiet diplomacy with Pretoria and offered incentives for change, the National Party government in South Africa would make meaningful progress at home and, with American sponsorship, become a stabilizing force in the region.
Yet despite a certain amount of showmanship from Botha and his colleagues surrounding his program of piecemeal reform, the situation inside South Africa has deteriorated gravely and steadily in recent years. At least 1,500 people have now died in the racial violence that began 21 months ago, and few blacks seem to feel that there is any prospect for improvement of their lives through cooperation with the government.
And despite a certain amount of American showmanship surrounding regional negotiations, Southern Africa has become even more of a caldron. South African-controlled Namibia is no closer to independence. The Nkomati Accord, signed by South Africa and its eastern neighbor, Mozambique, under U.S. prodding, is a dead letter. And the recent decision by the Reagan Administration to send some $10 million in military aid, including high-tech Stinger missiles to the rebels of Jonas Savimbi in Angola, has made the presence of Cuban troops in that country an even more permanent and important factor in the Southern African equation.