After two years of planning, the black states of southern Africa have formally launched their program for reducing economic ties with South Africa.
But prospects for success are more clouded now than when the concept took shape in 1980, according to knowledgeable analysts. At that time the region was on an upbeat note economically, and the major military conflict of the area had been settled with Zimbabwe's independence.
Now, the economy is worsening and the security situation deteriorating in some critical areas, thanks to what these black governments see as Pretoria's ongoing efforts to blunt their drive for economic independence.
Representatives of Mozambique, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe met July 20 to 22 in Botswana to open a permanent secretariat for the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC). The conference's objectives are regional development and ''economic liberation'' from South Africa.
The worsening security situation in Mozambique is the biggest threat to the progress of the SADCC, say analysts who have followed the conference's development closely. Reports from the Mozambican capital indicate the government of President Samora Machelis increasingly on the defensive against attacks from the National Resistance Movement (MNR), although his government is not yet considered vulnerable to an overthrow.
The MNR is widely believed to have the backing of South Africa, although Pretoria denies it. Still, its targets of sabotage could not be better suited to undermining SADCC, which runs counter to Pretoria's plans of increasing black economic dependence through closer cooperation in a ''constellation of states.'' The MNR attacks are centered on transport facilities vital to SADCC's success.
According to the SADCC blueprint, the first step toward gaining regional economic independence is to build an alternate system of transport. At present, South Africa, with 75 percent of the subcontinent's rail network and the most efficient ports, acts as the funnel point for commerce in the region.
SADCC planners have identified Mozambique as the logical hub of a new transport network because it is on the coast and has some of the best natural harbors on the African continent. Although Angola has some logistic advantage in being closer to European and American markets, it was avoided in the transport sphere because of security problems stemming from the war in Namibia (South-West Africa).
In the past month saboteurs in Mozambique have hit two familiar targets: a railroad, and the oil pipeline from Beira to Zimbabwe.
Although these targets no doubt weaken Mozambique's central government, they also have clear regional impact. The pipeline had just reopened and had allowed Zimbabwe for the first time since independence to stop relying on South Africa for fuel delivery.
The other recent act of sabotage blew up one of two main railway lines that gives Malawi access to the sea through Mozambique. ''That did nothing for the MNR. All it did was push Malawi toward more reliance on South Africa,'' a diplomatic source notes.
''As long as the Mozambique resistance is operating, that country is going to find it very difficult to provide the rail and port facilities they are meant to ,'' says economic development specialist Gavin Maasdorp of the University of Natal.
Still, Professor Maasdorp says Mozambique has plenty of problems of its own making. At independence in 1975 there was a mass, and sudden, exodus of skilled workers. The Marxist government has not succeeded in rebuilding a skilled workforce or maintaining the nation's industrial infrastructure. In the area of transport, Maasdorp says, ''administrative efficiency must improve, but if anything it is deteriorating.''
An improved and expanded rail and port network in Mozambique would directly aid Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi.
The SADCC has approved major investments in Mozambique. Funds have been dedicated to building container terminals at Beira, Nacala, and Maputo, and to upgrading and rehabilitating rail lines to Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland.
Development specialists generally give SADCC high marks for its pragmatic allocation of funds and careful long-term strategy.
The one ray of hope for SADCC at the moment is progress toward a settlement in Namibia. Peace in that territory could open new routes to the west coast.