'Moscow Is No Longer the Bogyman' : S. Africa Quells Its Fears, Welcomes Soviet Officials

Times Staff Writer

For years, South African leaders have justified their adventurism in black Africa and repression at home with a single vision of the future: the day the Soviets arrive in battle fatigues and on tanks to run up the red flag over Pretoria.

But when the Soviets did arrive this week, in their first visit since Pretoria broke diplomatic ties with Moscow more than three decades ago, they wore pinstriped suits, carried briefcases and stepped down from a British Airways 747.

And the leader of this invasion, Vyacheslav Ustinov, a roving Soviet ambassador, was squired around town by grinning government officials and fawned over by local reporters like a Hollywood star.

Ustinov and his five-member delegation did not come to restore diplomatic relations or even participate in formal talks with South Africa. They were here, along with representatives of Cuba, Angola and the United States, for the fifth meeting of a commission formed to help guide the Angolan peace accords.

But the Soviets' presence, and the way it has been heralded here, marks a swift change in the South African government's public attitude toward the East Bloc. And it has provided scenes, some on state-run television, that many white South Africans never thought they'd live to see: a Soviet official making a courtesy call on President Pieter W. Botha at the executive mansion, Soviet officials at a South African wine estate, Soviet officials at a barbecue in the South African foreign minister's back yard.

"The South African government's rhetoric has changed just in the last six months. Moscow is no longer the bogyman," said Willie Esterhuyse, a professor of political philosophy at Stellenbosch University.

No detail about the Soviet visitors was too small for the local newspapers. The Argus reported that Ustinov was dressed "in shirt sleeves and slippers" during an interview in his "five-star" hotel room. "He apologized for his casual appearance," the paper added.

Ustinov's thoughts on Cape Town, the seaside home of South Africa's Parliament, played well. "It looks like 'Frisco,' " he said, adding that "the streets are clean and the beaches are beautiful."

Labeled 'Total Onslaught'

Since the late 1950s, South Africa has warned the white electorate that its way of life was imperiled by a communist-inspired conspiracy to one day rule South Africa, which Pretoria labeled the "total onslaught." The government over the years has cited the "total onslaught" as justification for sending South African soldiers to topple neighboring Marxist countries and to quell what it believed were Soviet-backed black uprisings inside the country.

But today the old catch phrase is falling into disuse.

"If anything, the Americans--and especially the Democrats in Congress who support sanctions--are being regarded as the main instigators of the 'total onslaught' these days," Esterhuyse said.

The apparent thaw in Soviet-South African relations results primarily from increasing informal contacts between the two countries arising from the U.S.-brokered Angolan peace agreement. Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's search for political rather than military solutions to regional conflicts also has made the South Africans less suspicious about ulterior Soviet motives.

But the budding relationship also indicates just how far South Africa will go to break out of its international isolation, political analysts say.

"They're desperate for acceptance from any quarter," a Western diplomat here says. "And they're showing America and the West that there's more than one big power in the world."

Although the government risks some criticism from conservative whites for talking openly with the Soviets, it will gain points among whites who are tired of being, in the words of one analyst, "the polecat of the world."

"It shows that there are still some important people who recognize us as a regional power," Esterhuyse said. "And all white South Africans, liberals as well as conservatives, want to be recognized as a regional power."

South Africa closed the Soviet Embassy here in 1956, accusing the Soviet Union of supporting the black liberation movement, particularly the African National Congress (ANC). For more than 20 years after that, the government repeatedly used the "total onslaught" image to mobilize support among the country's white minority.

To counter the onslaught, it devised the "total strategy." It cracked down on black opponents at home with ever more restrictive laws and, in the late 1970s, funneled support to Rhodesia's white-minority government and the rebel movements trying to overthrow the new, Soviet-backed governments in Angola and Mozambique.

In the 1980s, as Pretoria's diplomatic isolation in the West grew, the first signs of conciliation with the East appeared.

A little over a year ago, when Radio Moscow began broadcasting to South Africa in Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch-descended Afrikaners, white South Africans seemed more flattered than fearful.

Gorbachev Book Sold Out

Gorbachev's book, "Perestroika," was an instant sellout in 1987. And, quietly, the Foreign Affairs Ministry resurrected a desk designed to explore relations with East Bloc countries.

In recent months, contacts between the Soviets and South Africans have increased. Most of the meetings have been, like the one in Cape Town this week, to discuss the progress of the Angolan peace accord and Namibia's steps toward independence.

But Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha and Anatoly L. Adamishin, the Soviet deputy foreign minister for African affairs, met in Mozambique earlier this month. Then, a few days later, Adamishin was taken on a 90-minute helicopter tour of the Johannesburg area. Western diplomats said it was the first time a senior Soviet diplomat had laid eyes on the country in 33 years. He was said by South African officials to have been surprised by the modern road network.

While neither side thinks diplomatic relations will be restored any time soon, South African officials hope they can persuade the Soviet Union to put pressure on its friend, the ANC, to end the guerrilla war against Pretoria.

Although the Soviets recently said they favor a political settlement in South Africa, they have been reluctant to get too close to the South African government for fear it would alienate the ANC and their other friends in Africa.

Ustinov told reporters this week that the Soviet Union would not even consider renewing formal ties with Pretoria until apartheid is dismantled. But, he added, the Soviet Union would be happy to help South Africa end its system of racial segregation "if you ask us to."

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