President Pieter W. Botha, just back from southern Angola where South African troops have been fighting a Soviet-commanded, Cuban-supported Angolan task force, said Saturday that South Africa will increasingly use its military and diplomatic power to prevent the growth of Communist influence in the region.
Defending South Africa's controversial intervention in the Angolan civil war, Botha said that his government had sent troops to aid the pro-Western National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) not only to save the rightist guerrillas from possible defeat but to protect his own country from what he called a growing Soviet threat to all of southern Africa.
"We do not want to act recklessly," Botha told a meeting of his ruling National Party in Pretoria, but if his government had not intervened, "dark forces bent on South Africa's downfall" would have made major gains in the region.
Botha again asserted, as did Gen. Magnus Malan, the defense minister, that southern Africa is a strategically important region because of its geopolitical position and its mineral wealth and thus is a principal target for the Soviet Union.
With its intervention in Angola, South Africa had "clearly shown that it would under no circumstances tolerate the destabilization of the (region) by Marxists," Malan said, reiterating an apparent government decision to risk confrontation with the Soviet Union in order to assert its status as the "paramount power" in southern Africa.
South Africa now appears determined to project its power as far through the region as it can and to no longer remain content simply to protect itself and Namibia, the neighboring mineral-rich territory it administers.
Angola, and other neighboring countries, read these and other recent South African statements as preparation for increased military intervention.
"This confession only confirms denunciations by Angolan authorities that Angola is the victim of an undeclared war carried out by the racist regime and that it is not a civil war," the official Angolan news agency Angop said in a commentary from Luanda, the capital.
The news agency said that the high number of South African casualties--Angola claims to have killed 230 South African soldiers in recent fighting--had forced Pretoria "to drop the pretense and admit its direct involvement in aid of its proxies."
"By doing this, the racist South Africans are preparing their public for a bigger military intervention in Angola," it said.
Balance of Power
Malan told the Nationalists' annual Transvaal province conference that, if South Africa had not intervened 10 days ago in the battle between the Angolan government task force and the guerri1819042163as a whole would have shifted with UNITA's probable defeat. "The price of freedom is high," Malan told the party conference, referring to South Africa's acknowledged casualties of 23 dead in the past two weeks, "but it is being paid now to prevent us having to pay an even higher price later."
Gen. Jannie Geldenhuys, the chief of the South African defense force, claimed last week that his troops had fought and defeated an Angolan government task force, supported by Cuban tank, anti-aircraft and missile units and commanded by Soviet officers, as it regrouped and prepared for what might have been a decisive defeat for UNITA.
Jonas Savimbi, the UNITA leader, denied that his guerrillas, who have fought a 12-year war against the Marxist government in Luanda, had received anything more than material support from South Africa. They, not the South Africans, had defeated the government's recent offensive, Savimbi said, accusing Malan and Geldenhuys of trying to steal some of the glory of what was UNITA's biggest victory.
But Malan, again contradicting his ally, said that Pretoria had only two options--intervening on behalf of UNITA or accepting a shift in the balance of power that would come with Savimbi's defeat. "The reality is that if the Cubans and Russians should destroy UNITA," he said, "there is no guarantee for us they would stop in the southeast of Angola. With the type of weaponry available to them, the road is open through the Caprivi strip to Botswana, to Zimbabwe, Zambia and, naturally, South-West Africa-Namibia."
Ready to Take Risks
South Africa is now prepared, he implied, to use all its military might and take considerable risks to ensure a favorable balance of power, and where it is necessary and possible, to reshape the strategic situation in the region. "We cannot afford a continuously unstable situation in the (southern African) subcontinent until the year 2000," Malan said.
Malan gave no details of Botha's previously unannounced trip to the war zone, but he did say that Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha, Education Minister F. W. de Klerk, Finance Minister Barend du Plessis and himself also had visited southern Angola in recent days, as had a number of members of Parliament.
"The point is that the government is acting as a team, as a unit," Malan said. Under growing criticism by the opposition Progressive Federal Party, the liberal press and anti-apartheid groups for the Angolan operation, Malan was attempting to dispel widespread speculation that Pik Botha and other liberals within the Cabinet had opposed the military action, that the army was acting virtually on its own and that the country was slipping into an unwinnable war, not only with neighboring Angola but also with the Soviet Union.
But the government, Malan and Botha both made clear, is not prepared to allow any debate of its actions.
"Nowhere in the world are operations of this nature broadcast from the clock tower," Malan said. "We cannot throw the implications of these two options (of intervention and nonintervention) open to public debate, because this would show the Russians and others our hands," he continued. "It could jeopardize our whole operation and result in the loss of many lives. . . . But I want to make it clear that the government decided on this, not the army. The army acts as an instrument for our security and protection."
Botha also sought to reassure South Africans, nervous about a high-cost war they have been told almost nothing about, by saying that the country's security is "in the best hands imaginable."
"They are responsible men and not warmongers," Botha said of Malan and his other generals.