South Africa bungles its raid on Lesotho Adventurism: Clumsy military incursion was overreaction prompted by bad judgment.

September 26, 1998

UNDER WHITE supremacy, South Africa was a military bully. It conducted overt and covert operations throughout the region, from A(ngola) to Z(ambia), raiding strongholds of Nelson Mandela's outlawed African National Congress and killing exiled leaders.

Meanwhile, South African white mercenaries -- with or without official Pretoria's blessings -- staged coup attempts. Their favorite targets were such distant Indian Ocean island paradises as the Seychelles and the Comoros.

The ANC put an end to this kind of adventurism when it came to power four years ago. But this week, South Africa dispatched hundreds of troops, backed by artillery and airpower, to neighboring Lesotho to prop up the kingdom's embattled prime minister against a minor mutiny.

The raid backfired. At least 10 South African soldiers were killed, along with 40 rebels. Sections of the capital were heavily damaged. Also damaged was the reputation for prudence the ANC government had earned in its conduct of foreign affairs, even though the operation was conducted in the name of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community.

Considering the intrigue-filled political history of Lesotho -- and how inconsequential such feuding tends to be -- it is worrisome that SADC would get involved in an internal squabble. Yet this is becoming a trend. Earlier in the summer, SADC countries sent troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo, when President Laurent Kabila was in danger of being deposed by rebels. South Africa hesitantly and belatedly joined that intervention.

Congo, however, was one thing; Lesotho is quite another. While the former is big, populous and potentially important, the latter is small, isolated and doomed to poverty. A bungled military raid may now unleash a protracted, low-level guerrilla war, destabilizing that mountainous kingdom further.

The fiasco in Lesotho is important because it comes at a crucial time in South Africa. President Nelson Mandela has increasingly assumed a ceremonial role, leaving day-to-day operation of government to younger leadership. The wisdom of that leadership is now being tested. In this case, it did not do well.

Pub Date: 9/26/98

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