THE revelation that the South African government made payments to Inkatha, the Zulu-based movement opposing the African National Congress, is part of a pattern familiar to those who have followed the recent history of Africa. Governments, whether colonial or minority, have believed that opposition forces more prepared to support the status quo could be bolstered through financial support to individuals and groups opposing popular liberation movements. But examples of the success of such efforts are hard to find. In Algeria, before that country's independence, the French supported rivals to the National Liberation Front. The Rhodesian intelligence service under Ian Smith supported opponents of the forces of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo; and in neighboring Mozambique the Smith regime, together with South Africa, created Renamo to challenge the nationalist movement Frelimo. Recent disclosures revealed that South Africa paid substantial sums to rivals of SWAPO in Namibia. Western powers, primarily the United State s, have supported UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi, in its fight against the MPLA in Angola. Only in the latter case has such an alternative movement been able to effect at least a stalemate with the primary nationalist movement. The risks of such subventions both to the interests of those supported and the supporters are many. As has been demonstrated in the case of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the Inkatha movement, disclosures of such support can undermine what genuine support may exist. Buthelezi's role in future South African negotiations is now in doubt. Similarly, Savimbi's movement in Angola might have gained wider African favor but for the early revelations of South African support for his cause. Those who originally create and encourage alternative opposition forces may lose control of them. The South African government has not been able to curb the excesses of the Renamo movement in Mozambique. Curbing such organizations becomes difficult because those who enlist gain a self-interest in their continuance and a genuine fear of reprisals if their effort is defeated. The continued support of alternative groups may thus keep a conflict alive that might otherwise have been settled by negotiation. To those who finance such groups, however, the arguments are compelling. The fear and suspicion of liberation movements dedicated to the overthrow of the established order is great. The alternative leaders - such as Buthelezi and Savimbi - speak in terms that appeal to those in power. To those favoring the status quo their policies seem more likely to assure a transition to a regime that will protect the interests and privileges of those in power. During the cold war the question was frequently asked, "If the Soviet Union and China can assist 'national liberation movements' with arms and money, why cannot the West and African governments support political groups friendly to the status quo?" The answer lay in the success of the communists in identifying with the deep antipathy to colonial regimes and to South Africa. The opponents of liberation movements like SWAPO, Frelimo, the ANC, or the MPLA could never overcome their being seen as sympathetic to the existing structures. Those who supported alternative movements in the past will argue today that the existence of such groups forced the liberation movements into negotiation and into more moderate stances - in Mozambique, in Zimbabwe, and Angola. Yet it is equally possible that opponents may well have misjudged the radicalism of liberation movements. Such movements, faced with the real problems of governing, might have evolved in more moderate ways without the struggle created by the alternative movements. The temptation of those who are opposed by mass political movements to find and assist alternatives will not cease - either in Africa or elsewhere. They will be motivated by a fear of relinquishing power and a belief that money, judiciously used, can blunt the force of a seemingly popular movement. No doubt the Israelis are searching for alternatives to the PLO. But if the recent history of Africa is any guide, money alone cannot slow the momentum of a broadly based action against an unpalatable status q uo.