JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Foreign Minister Roelof F. "Pik" Botha admitted yesterday that the South African government secretly paid more than $35 million to political rivals of a Namibian rebel organization in that country's pre-independence elections in 1989.
Mr. Botha said his government gave the money to seven political parties opposed to the Southwest Africa People's Organization in the hope of defeating the rebel group, which had waged war for years against South African rule of the territory.
"We were against SWAPO. At the time we were at war with SWAPO," Mr. Botha said. But he added that his government accepted SWAPO's victory in the United Nations-monitored elections. "SWAPO won the election, and we went out of our way to help get Namibia on the road to recovery."
South Africa had ruled Namibia in defiance of the United Nations. It relinquished its hold on the country as part of a regional peace agreement brokered by the United States.
Mr. Botha said the Cabinet had approved the payments, which were aimed at education and training in democracy.
The revelation of funding for SWAPO's enemies deepens the controversy over South Africa's covert operations. It came as Mr. Botha defended the South African government against charges that it secretly funded political enemies of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.
Mr. Botha, who authorized the covert funds for the Zulu-based Inkatha movement, insisted there was nothing wrong with the government's action, which has caused the biggest scandal in South Africa since President Frederik W. de Klerk began his political reform program last year.
"I am not feeling sorry for it, and I am not apologizing for it," Mr. Botha said at a news conference. "We did it, and under similar circumstances, I would do exactly the same."
Mr. Botha maintained that $90,000 was paid to the Inkatha movement to support anti-sanctions rallies in November 1989 and March 1990.
"I refuse to admit I funded Inkatha for political purposes," he said, denying the charge that the money was used to bolster Inkatha (( as an alternative to Mr. Mandela's African National Congress.
But he also said Inkatha felt left out and believed it also had something to contribute to the political situation in South Africa.
Mr. Botha also said the money was given to Inkatha at a time when the ANC was getting "hundreds of millions of dollars" from international sources and using the money "to burn people with tires."
The government has come under intense criticism for its funding of Inkatha during a period when Mr. de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC, announced a new era of open political activity and began negotiations aimed at ending the racially repressive system of apartheid.
Mr. de Klerk's credibility has been damaged at home and abroad, and the Inkatha organization has suffered a severe blow from the scandal, which the newspapers here have dubbed "Inkathagate."
Mr. Botha conceded that the government's image has been "dented" but said its commitment to political reform and negotiations is unchanged.
He also said Mr. de Klerk was not aware of the government's covert funding of Inkatha, which was approved by the foreign minister and delivered in cash by a police official.
"President de Klerk was not aware, but the system did not require him to be aware," said Mr. Botha, who said the money came from the Foreign Ministry budget because it was supposed to be used to combat international sanctions against South Africa.
The most serious impact of the scandal may be its effect on the political negotiations in which the ANC and the government have been the major players.
For over a year, the ANC has accused the government of colluding with enemies of the ANC to weaken the anti-apartheid organization's hand at the negotiating table. Mr. de Klerk and his top aides have steadfastly maintained their impartiality.