Britain is to forge Mandela's new army: Officers called in to oversee merger of regulars and ANC's armed wing

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BRITAIN has been chosen ahead of France, the United States and other countries to advise and assist in the integration of the new South African defence force that will come into being after this month's all- race elections.

The South African government, the African National Congress and other parties had agreed earlier in the year on the need to request international assistance over one of the most sensitive and difficult challenges the country will face in the coming months under its new president, the ANC's Nelson Mandela. A joint foreign force had been contemplated but it was unanimously decided to call on Britain.

British officers will arrive shortly after the elections and stay at least six months to help to forge the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe ('Spear of the Nation') and its traditional enemy the South African Defence Force into a united and, as an ANC official put it, 'colour-blind' entity.

The British contingent will also have to take account of the four black homeland armies and the Azanian People's Liberation Army, military wing of the radical Pan-

Africanist Congress.

A senior ANC source confirmed yesterday that the scheme to bring the British Military Assistance Training Team (Bmatt) to South Africa had been approved by the Transitional Executive Council, the multi-party body charged with paving the way towards the new democratic order.

The Ministry of Defence in London said the Government was 'considering' the request. However, there is no doubt that Britain will respond with gusto and alacrity. As an ANC official said: 'It's a bit of a feather in the cap for the good old Union Jack.'

The French had been particularly keen to land the contract. Among the other contenders who had indicated willingness to offer their services were the United States, Egypt and Malaysia. The choice of Britain was due in large measure to the success of similar recent operations in southern Africa. Bmatt oversaw the integration of the Zimbabwean and Namibian armies after independence and has been involved in bringing together the factions in the Mozambique war, Frelimo and Renamo. South African leaders, black and white, also feel a sentimental bond with Britain, based on the colonial past.

But another more immediate reason Britain was favoured was the respect British officers have earned for the role they have played in the past two months in training South Africa's National Peace-keeping Force (NPKF), a body of some 10,000 men charged with maintaining public order during the elections. The NPKF is the new South African National Defence Force - as it will officially be called - in embryo, comprising Umkhonto and SADF soldiers.

The specific task of Bmatt, who may arrive in South Africa next month, will be to help to give the new force a common ethic, a new esprit de corps and high military standards. The British will be asked to assess progress and, in the end, give their stamp of approval.

Until 18 months ago the SADF, 500,000 strong, including reservists, and ultimately the pillar on which South African stability rests, was reluctant to envisage integration with what it saw as the Communist rag-tag army of the ANC, only 16,000 strong. Talks, mostly secret, last year between the SADF high command and senior Umkhonto officials broke the ice.

A key demand of the white generals was that Umkhonto should not dilute the SADF's professionalism. It was for that reason that the SADF readily agreed to bring in a foreign military contingent. The generals, most of whom are Afrikaners, are known to be confident that British army officers will impose rigorous tests on the capacity of the Umkhonto soldiers to adapt to the demands of modern warfare.

The ANC leadership is happy, too, because it feared that without an international presence the far bigger and more sophisticated SADF would set the agenda and swamp the Umkhonto contingent.