S. African Blacks See Israel Training as Aid for Future

Times Staff Writer

Three black South African activists here for a unique and politically sensitive leadership training seminar expressed the hope Monday that what they learn in Israel will help them fight apartheid and develop a strategy for a future of black rule in their country.

The three arrived here last week along with 17 other South African blacks for a monthlong workshop conducted by the Afro-Asian Institute of Histadrut, Israel’s powerful trade union federation. While individual South African blacks have participated in previous Histadrut training programs, this is the first seminar designed specifically for them.

The program is sensitive because while Israel publicly condemns apartheid it maintains normal relations with the minority white government in Pretoria and sells weapons to the regime. Organizers of the seminar, meanwhile, see it as a way to open a dialogue with black South African leaders committed to overthrowing the current system.


Both the black leaders and the seminar organizers stressed repeatedly during a press conference here that the program is non-governmental, and both groups criticized Israeli as well as South African policies.

Union’s Special Status

Although Histadrut’s program is unofficial, it grew out of the efforts of an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, among others. And although the giant union federation itself is not affiliated with the government, it is closely identified with the Labor Alignment political bloc headed by Peres.

Legau Mathabathe, a co-founder of the “Committee of Ten” in Soweto, the sprawling black township outside Johannesburg, and a leader among black educators who resigned en masse after the 1976 Soweto uprising, said the South African blacks’ perception of Israel is very negative.

“The South African government continuously tells the people that Israel is their friend,” he noted. “And no black man can believe that anyone who is a friend of the government can be a friend of the black man.”

Hard to Spot Friends

It is hard to say who is a friend to South Africa’s blacks and who isn’t, added Sally Motlana, national president of South Africa’s Black Housewives League and a vice president of the South African Council of Churches.

It is unfair to single out Israel for criticism, Motlana said. Because of their economic support of the Pretoria regime, the United States, Britain and Israel “are all involved in the oppression of the black people of South Africa,” she said.


Motlana stressed that her presence is in no way an endorsement of the Israeli government’s policies toward her country.

“Going to America doesn’t mean I support the ‘constructive (engagement)’ policy of the Reagan Administration” toward South Africa, she noted. “I don’t.”

She said the seminar participants “are here to represent the majority of the black people in South Africa who want to have their chains cut.”

And Deborah Mabiletsa, executive director of South Africa’s private Urban Foundation and president of the United States-South Africa Leadership Exchange Program, said she sees the workshop as a chance to study nation-building strategies “that other people have used.”

The Histadrut workshop, planned as the first in a series for South African black leaders, grew out of conversations in late 1984 between California Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) and Bishop Desmond Tutu, the black South African leader.

Those conversations led to a trip to South Africa in June, 1985, by Shimshon Zelniker, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Peres, and later to the Histadrut-sponsored program.


A Los Angeles Jewish think tank, the Center for Policy Options, is helping to organize and finance the program.

3 Appear Before Press

The Afro-Asian Institute’s director, Yehuda Paz, would not disclose the names of all the other South African participants, saying that some did not want their involvement publicized. However, he described them as prominent members of “a variety of civic organizations” who are “leaders in the struggle against apartheid.” Mathabathe, Mabiletsa and Motlana, who were selected by the group to represent it before the press, refused to characterize their politics. But their comments appeared to align them with South Africa’s black moderates.

While Tutu reportedly has no continuing involvement in the program, Motlana stressed that “I told him personally that I am going to Israel.” Mathabathe said their message to the white South African government is: “This is our land. We want to run it. If you want to join us in running it--please, on our terms.” He said black “radicals” demand that the whites hand over power.

Both Mathabathe and Motlana have been imprisoned by the white regime, and both were forbidden to travel outside South Africa for several years during which the government confiscated their passports.

Query Called Unfair

Mathabathe declined to answer a question regarding their standing with the outlawed African National Congress, saying the query was “unfair.”

“It’s a banned organization in South Africa. For you to say you support the ANC is just inviting trouble.”


While Mathabathe said “one or two” seminar participants were criticized privately by their colleagues for coming to Israel, there was “never” any pressure from more radical black groups to prevent the trip.

While the South African government did not interfere with their participation, the black leaders rejected any suggestion that this represented an endorsement.

“The South African government didn’t give me permission,” Mathabathe said. “I came because I had a passport. If they don’t like what I say here, they can take it--and they’re welcome to it.”