The specter of the Soviet Union hangs over the current turmoil in South Africa. With increasing frequency and urgency, the crisis in South Africa is being depicted, by South Africans and Americans alike, as a battlefield between East and West. While onlookers and participants of the recent unrest in South Africa have not hesitated to link it in some manner to the U.S.S.R., there is a general ignorance about the actual designs of the Soviet Union in South Africa.

Soviet policy toward South Africa began in earnest in the early 1960s with the founding of Unkonto We Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation), the fighting wing of the African National Congress. Since that time, the U.S.S.R. has provided the lions' share of military training and equipment to the national liberation movement. The ANC, for its part, turned to Eastern Europe only after being denied support in the West. The U.S.S.R. exerts an influence on the strategy and tactics of the insurgency through the South African Communist Party (SACP), a small Stalinist group in exile, which is allied with the ANC.

Soviet military support for the armed struggle, to date, has been modest, and the ANC has fought a low-level guerrilla campaign against the white government without much success. Indeed, while the ANC has been generally successful in winning over the hearts and minds of many black South Africans, it has fared poorly when matched against the power of the government's security apparatus. Most of the senior ANC leadership are currently imprisoned or in exile.

There are Soviet sympathizers within the ANC, but they are most certainly in the minority, given the broad appeal of the predominantly Christian and populist organization. However, with a small supply of guns and money, the U.S.S.R. has been able to gain adherents in the ANC and reap considerable propaganda gains in the international community for its "principled" stand on the issue of apartheid.

Soviet support for the ANC has fostered an unspoken symbiosis between the U.S.S.R. and the ruling regime in South Africa. The white leaders of Afrikanerdom seek to portray the U.S.S.R. as the mastermind behind domestic disturbances, and the Soviet leaders are only too happy to take credit for internal unrest. In reality, most South Africa watchers contend that the recent uprising, like the Soweto riots of 1976, occurred spontaneously as a result of an absolutely inhuman system of racial separation and not according to some "grand design." The ANC leadership in exile, along with Soviet Africanists, were caught off-guard by the suddenness of these events and have had to struggle to keep abreast of the situation.

In contrast with the perception of the U.S.S.R. as South Africa's destabilizer is the discreet and fabulously profitable relationship between South Africa and the Soviet Union for the marketing of gold, diamonds and other precious minerals. Through an accident of politics and geology, these two enemies possess much of the world's supply of many strategic minerals. Yet despite official animosity, the Soviet Union and South Africa manage to conduct a secretive and mutually beneficial partnership in international mineral markets. For instance, DeBeers Corporation of South Africa pays the Soviet Union just under a billion dollars a year for its supply of gem-quality diamonds.

This lucrative pact to keep mineral prices and profits high has not stopped the Soviet Union from criticizing South Africa's Western trading partners. This has allowed the Soviet Union to have its cake, by maintaining a covert marketing relationship with South Africa, and eat it too with its propaganda attacks on the United States for doing business with apartheid.

For now, Soviet policy exacerbate gingerly existing tensions, while cautiously avoiding a major stake in South Africa's turmoil. Soviet attention and efforts seem to be channeled more toward bolstering its regional allies in southern Africa, Mozambique and Angola, which also face serious domestic challenges. Thus, in the current situation, the U.S.S.R. apparently seeks to consolidate, rather than add to, its position in southern Africa.

This has not stopped observers and activists from exaggerating Soviet influence in South Africa, and both conservative Americans and radical South Africans are guilty of this. On the right, Richard Viguerie has stated that unless dramatic measures are taken to bolster the current white minority regime, South Africa will be lost to the Soviets. Viguerie even went so far as to claim that "if South Africa falls, freedom is not likely to prevail in the rest of the world much longer." Even President Reagan has accused the Soviet Union of "stirring up the pot" in South Africa.

Those on the left are no less willing to invoke the Soviet Union, but they are more likely to applaud than condemn the U.S.S.R. At a recent funeral in South Africa, a Soviet flag was unfurled to the cheers of onlookers. One black activist noted "we were very happy to see our people walking under that flag, which has never been associated with oppression of blacks in South Africa." At another funeral for slain South Africans, one speaker said to applause: "I shall cross to Moscow and I shall return with a bazooka."

The current rhetoric in the United States about the Soviet threat is designed primarily to draw fire away from the Reagan administration's policy of constructive engagement. In South Africa, oppressed blacks invoke the Soviet Union as an expression of defiance against the white authorities. Yet, whatever the reasons, all this rhetoric about Soviet involvement in South Africa has served to obscure the realities of Soviet involvement in that beleaguered country. This is not only dangerous for an already explosive racial situation in South Africa, but it also portends a potential crisis in the already uneasy relations between the superpowers. Those genuinely concerned over South Africa's future should be mindful not to exaggerate Soviet actions or influence. The situation is inflammatory enough without attributing the growing unrest there solely to Soviet adventurism.