Rivalries Hamper Anti-Apartheid Campaign : Splits Grow Among South Africa Blacks

Times Staff Writer

The divisions among South African blacks that have for years undercut their struggle against the country’s system of racial separation are growing deeper and angrier.

So great is the bitterness among rival anti-apartheid groups now that they disrupt each other’s meetings, sabotage each other’s activities and even fight openly.

Members of the Azanian People’s Organization clashed last month with youths from the Congress of South African Students demonstrating outside one of their meetings in Tembisa, a black township 20 miles northeast of Johannesburg. Knives, clubs and other weapons were used, five people were seriously injured and police had to halt the fighting.


The Azanian People’s Organization and its affiliates mounted most of the demonstrations that met the South African visit, sponsored by the rival United Democratic Front, of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) last month. The prospect of a violent clash between the groups prevented Kennedy from delivering his final speech here, and the open black feuding delighted South Africa’s white government.

The United Democratic Front and Inkatha, a black political group whose members come mostly from the Zulu tribe, fought running battles in Natal province much of last year, with at least 15 people killed and scores injured. A war of words continues between the groups, often with sharper criticism of each other than of the minority white regime.

Other clashes have occurred at the huge Crossroads black squatter camp outside Cape Town, where 13 persons have died in recent fighting, as well as in some black townships east and south of Johannesburg and around the coastal industrial center of Port Elizabeth.

No Unity on Strategy

The factions are numerous, the issues diverse, but the growing divisions among South Africa’s 24 million blacks mean there is no unity on a strategy for ending apartheid, no agreed interim goal, not even a common vision of a future South Africa.

“I cannot say that we are more divided than ever, but certainly the divisions have become sharper and the infighting is constant,” said Dr. Nthato Motlana, chairman of the influential Soweto Committee of Ten in Johannesburg’s sprawling black twin city.

“Black unity is not even accepted universally as a goal or ideal. . . . We may not need total political agreement among ourselves to bring an end to apartheid, but these divisions are doing terrible damage to our struggle.”


The feuding is so great that those leaders who might be able to unify the black community hesitate to try for fear of being caught in the cross-fire.

Although he has worked for black unity in the past, Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace laureate, for instance, disclaims any role now but that of a pastor. He wants no constituency of his own so that he will not be limited by its demands--or targeted by its rivals.

Many leaders, Motlana among them, have been harshly criticized and often rejected by their own supporters when they have tried to form ad hoc alliances with other groups to develop a common strategy or to talk with the government about popular mandates.

A major result is that, despite the black unrest of the past six months, blacks themselves are able to put only limited and largely indirect pressure on the government for attainable reforms.

2 Main Schools

“It’s disgusting that nothing was achieved,” a Port Elizabeth man wrote to the black newspaper City Press recently, complaining that last year’s protests brought little progress. “We are either too soft, or we do not know what we want or how to get it.” Another man wrote from Soweto: “By now, every black person in the country knows apartheid is evil. The big question facing us now is: What do we do about it?”

The fundamental split is between “progressive democrats,” most of whom belong to the multiracial United Democratic Front, an umbrella grouping of 645 organizations with 2 million members, and those in the “black consciousness” movement, which includes the Azanian People’s Organization and its affiliates in the National Forum.


There are further differences with the Zulus’ Inkatha, which both black consciousness and progressive democrat groups believe cooperates far too closely with the government on many questions.

Finally, there are differences among all these groups, on the one hand, and officials of the black townships, who often have been elected by only 8% or 10% of the voters, and the leaders of the tribal homelands, who are largely reviled in their own community as traitors for collaborating with the regime.

Whites’ Role Key

The conflict between progressive democrats and black consciousness, however, is the most important, according to black political observers, for it shapes the struggle against apartheid. Their basic dispute revolves around the role of whites in the present struggle against apartheid and, implicitly, in the democratic political, economic and social system they hope will replace it.

Progressive democrats, who trace their political heritage back to the outlawed African National Congress and its 1955 “freedom charter,” believe that whites have an important role both now and in the future, and many of their organizations are multiracial, or “nonracial,” as they prefer to describe them.

Those in black consciousness groups, however, oppose white participation in the anti-apartheid struggle, except within the white community, and insist that blacks must repossess the land as the basis for a future political and economic system in a country they call Azania.

The black consciousness movement, whose influence is considerably wider than its active supporters, takes its philosophy from the late Steve Biko, who saw a need to develop black pride and self-assertion if the struggle against apartheid were to succeed. It also goes back to the earlier African nationalism of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania, which broke from the African National Congress in 1959, saying the group was controlled by whites, Indians and Communists.


Issue Is ‘Unjust Policy’

“The question is how to oppose apartheid, and that means we must first answer how we understand the nature of the problem,” said Patrick Lekota, a one-time black consciousness adherent who is now publicity secretary of the United Democratic Front. “Is the problem white people, or is it the policy of this minority regime, which is largely made up of white-skinned people? We in the United Democratic Front see the problem not as white people but as unjust policy. For AZAPO (Azanian People’s Organization), the problem is white people, and the solution is black people.”

Saths Cooper, organizer of the black consciousness coalition, National Forum, and former deputy president of the Azanian People’s Organization, said those groups are “not anti-white, but pro-black.”

“We need to build an authentic black leadership and black political system,” he explained. “We don’t want to be patronized with a few top posts while whites make all the decisions. . . .”

So deep are the differences on this fundamental issue that virtually every segment of the urban black community in South Africa has been split.

‘A Spent Force’

There are rival groups--representing the split between progressive democrats and black consciousness--of lawyers, businessmen, journalists, theologians, students and women activists, among others. Black consciousness and “non-racial” labor unions compete for members among black workers. The City Press sides with the progressive democrats, and the other black newspaper, the Sowetan, which is also white owned, generally favors black consciousness.

Angry denunciations have become common, deepening the divisions.

Black consciousness is “a spent force,” said Trevor Manuel, a top official of the United Democratic Front. Cooper, one of the leading black consciousness theorists now, replies that the liberalism of the progressive democrats is “a prescription for civil war” because it will bring “only surface reforms that leave whites on top and frustrate blacks all the more until their anger explodes.”


The Kennedy visit, supported by the United Democratic Front and opposed by the Azanian People’s Organization, brought the rivalry into the open and led to subsequent clashes between the groups. Over the past year and a half, there have been at least 16 fights between the groups and their affiliates.

Unity Feeler Spurned

Lekota, the United Democratic Front spokesman, said after the Kennedy visit: “We are not interested in fighting AZAPO. We are not at war with them. That would advance nothing. To AZAPO, we counsel caution and urge that we both use our energy in the struggle against apartheid.”

The United Democratic Front recently renewed its suggestion of discussions with the Azanian People’s Organization and other black consciousness groups to see whether their differences could be narrowed and perhaps a common strategy developed.

Ishmael Mkhabela, the new Azanian People’s Organization president, replies: “Unity with them on their terms would not only be surrender to them but to the (white) oppressor class in the end. Our differences are too fundamental to be reconciled.”

In addition to the dispute over the role of whites in South Africa now and in the future, there are major differences over whether the country should remain capitalist or become socialist.

‘Unashamedly Socialist’

The Azanian People’s Organization, which describes apartheid as “racist capitalism,” is “unashamedly socialist,” as one AZAPO official put it.


The United Democratic Front believes, however, that this question should be left to the future. “Those who put class struggle first tend to ignore the national struggle, which is more important,” said the Rev. Frank Ghikane, a regional vice president of the United Democratic Front. “Blacks are oppressed first as blacks, and economic liberation depends on national liberation.”

Finally, there are major differences between black consciousness and the progressive democrats over tactics.

The United Democratic Front, now 18 months old, has worked to establish itself as the leading opposition group, mounting campaigns against the new South African constitution and tricameral Parliament, which continue to exclude blacks from power, and conducting such protests as the two-day general strike in November.

The Azanian People’s Organization, founded in 1978 after other black consciousness groups were outlawed by the government, has tried to develop deep community roots with service programs in the black townships, hoping for converts to its black nationalist, socialist ideology. For similar reasons, it has also formed alliances with the growing black trade union movement.

Protest Value Questioned

The United Democratic Front and its affiliates have won most of the recent tests of strength. But many blacks have come to share the view of the Azanian People’s Organization that protests, such as the November general strike and last year’s school boycott, have been overused and have brought them few gains at high costs.

“Public meetings do not prepare us for self-government,” said Cooper of the Azanian People’s Organization, criticizing the United Democratic Front. “They feed the people’s need for slogans, but they don’t bring change. Sure, you can move people, but to where?”


In an effort to meet such criticism and strengthen its support within the black community, the United Democratic Front leadership is reportedly planning to draw up a manifesto with specific goals and demands on the government and to circulate it as a petition, particularly in the urban black townships.

This move would not only provide it with a basis for an action program--protests could then be aimed at achieving these goals--but would demonstrate that the front has broad support and is not just “a headquarters organization,” as its critics charge.

Blacks’ Economic Power

The tactics and overall strategy of both the United Democratic Front and the Azanian People’s Organization draw criticism, however, from Inkatha, which is by far the largest black political organization in the country, with 1 million members in more than 2,000 branches.

The blacks’ most effective weapon against apartheid, as Inkatha’s president, Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, points out, is the economy’s dependence on their labor and, increasingly, on their consumer spending.

“If there were unity, it would be an easy thing for us to use our worker power and our consumer power to bring white people to the conference table,” said Buthelezi, the chief minister of the Zulu tribal homeland, Kwazulu.

However, Buthelezi, who wants a national convention to write a new constitution, argues that to use either tactic prematurely would bring a white counterattack that would set the blacks’ cause back as much as a generation.


The blacks’ strategy must thus be based on what Buthelezi calls “correct patience” and on careful organizational efforts to develop unity.

Resigned to Disunity

Disunity is gradually being accepted by many blacks who have concluded that little, in fact, can be done about it.

“Unfortunate it is, but we have to accept the reality of our divisions because they reflect our historical circumstances,” said Chikane, one of the many adherents of black consciousness who has joined the progressive democrats. “The reason we do not all see things the same way is that different groups emerged from different communities, confronting different problems in different circumstances.”

Mokgethi Motlabi, a historian of the anti-apartheid struggle here, goes further to describe black unity as “a myth.” “Black ideological unity, while desirable in the black resistance to apartheid, is not the main issue,” Motlabi said, “nor is it even possible.”

What Motlabi believes is necessary is a careful thinking through of the blacks’ current situation to develop a strategy that is pragmatically based on what will succeed in the struggle against apartheid, rather than trying to fit tactics to an ideology.