Outlawed Black S. Africa Group Gains Impetus
Sipho calls himself a “human radio.” Each morning, he gets on the train near his home deep in Soweto, the sprawling black satellite city outside Johannesburg, and begins to repeat the news from the Radio Freedom broadcasts of the African National Congress.
As the crowded train rattles on toward downtown Johannesburg, Sipho, a brokerage clerk in his mid-30s, gives a detailed rundown on the growing unrest around the country; recounts the latest exploits of “our fighters” in the Spear of the Nation, the congress’s military wing, and reports on the activities of the group’s exiled leadership. Then he starts a discussion based on Radio Freedom’s latest commentaries.
“Man, do I have an audience today!” he said. “Two years ago, people weren’t interested, not at all, and I might have been talking to myself most mornings. Today, they want me to shout out the news, and they leave the train not just talking about the ANC but ready to work for it, to fight for it. . . . They know the ANC is going to lead us to freedom.”
Outlawed in 1960
The fortunes of the African National Congress, outlawed here in 1960, have indeed soared in the last two years. Today, the group can probably claim the allegiance of more of South Africa’s 25 million blacks than any other organization, and this makes it a major political force here.
The congress’s black, green and gold flag is now seen at virtually every funeral for those killed in the country’s civil strife. Its leaders, though just names to most blacks after years in exile or prison, are hailed at protest meetings with reverberating shouts of “Viva!” and “Long live!” Songs are sung praising the Spear of the Nation--Umkhonto we Sizwe, in Bantu-- and its guerrillas and calling on the congress to give the people guns to fight the government. And hundreds of black youths, joined by a few whites, have left the country to enroll in the organization’s military wing in recent months.
For an organization long criticized as an exile group out of touch with events inside the country, this recognition is a major achievement--and an index of its strength within South Africa.
‘People Lifted Ban’
“The people have lifted the ban on the ANC themselves,” said Oliver Tambo, the president of the African National Congress since the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela in 1962. “They recognize us as their organization, as the vanguard of their struggle for liberation. According to the government, we are supposed to be illegal and nonexistent, but our support among the people grows daily.”
The congress’s guerrillas have doubled their attacks in the last 18 months so there are now two or three a week, according to both ANC and police sources, and with their AK-47 rifles and hand grenades, they have begun joining some of the fighting in the country’s black townships.
They are also training more local recruits in the use of grenades, mines and various other weapons, these sources say. The huge arms caches found by police in recent months show greatly increased military capability despite the closure over the last three years of the easiest infiltration routes from neighboring countries.
Political cadres, most of whom work separately from the congress’s military wing, are building up the group’s underground organization in black communities and making some inroads among whites as well, according to senior officials at the organization’s headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.
Veteran leaders, who remained inside the country after the African National Congress was banned, often serving 12- and 15-year prison sentences in the notorious Robben Island penal colony, have helped organize the United Democratic Front, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and other new groups opposed to apartheid, the country’s system of racial separation and minority white rule.
At Top Levels
Younger congress members, many of them graduates of the 1970s’ black consciousness movement and trained by Mandela while they were imprisoned on Robben Island, are at top levels of labor unions and working throughout a broad range of anti-apartheid groups.
Underground cells of the congress are now helping to organize the fast-growing networks of street committees taking over the leadership in many black townships.
Propaganda efforts, once confined to radio-listening groups such as Sipho’s and clandestine distribution of smuggled leaflets, are expanding with videotapes on the life of Mandela, the history of the African National Congress and its guerrilla campaign.
“We are there, though the government pretends we are not,” Tambo said in a recent interview on the organization, its current strategy and policies. “Our organizing work has been stepped up with good, loyal cadres, many more units and a network that is very alive now. . . . I can’t tell you how much longer it will take, but we think that, at last, long last, victory is within sight.”
Recognition of the African National Congress as a key player in shaping South Africa’s future has come in recent months from a wide cross-section of the country’s business, labor, student, church and political groups. Despite strenuous objections from the government of President Pieter W. Botha that the ANC is a terrorist group that should be shunned, many South African organizations have sent delegations to Lusaka and elsewhere for in-depth discussions with congress leaders.
“The ANC is undoubtedly the most popular organization among the oppressed masses of this country,” Jan van Eck, a member of the Cape province council from the liberal white opposition Progressive Federal Party, told fellow legislators in Cape Town last month as he called for legalization of the congress. “It is the height of stupidity to ban an organization that commands the sort of mass support the ANC enjoys.”
The African National Congress, once lumped by many Western diplomats with other exile groups still fighting for lost causes, has won increasing international acceptance as well.
As the South African government’s international isolation grows, the group’s leaders are warmly received on visits around the world. Tambo testified before a British parliamentary committee in London, held discussions with the West German foreign minister and is now planning a trip to the United States, his second in two years.
A special Commonwealth commission made up of “eminent persons” from Britain and six other countries last month urged negotiations between the Pretoria government and the congress, effectively recognizing the organization as the spokesman for South Africa’s black majority.
And in Washington, the State Department, rejecting South African assertions that the African National Congress is primarily a terrorist organization, said last month that the United States believes the group must participate in determining the country’s future.
To Tambo, all this affirms “the centrality of the ANC’s role in resolving South Africa’s problems, a centrality that we believe has always been there but which has been considerably enhanced and is now being recognized.”
“There is a growing realization, a conviction even, that the ANC has everything to do with the solution of South Africa’s problems, and without the ANC there can be no solution,” Tambo, 69, a former Johannesburg lawyer, said while on his visit to Bonn. “This is what our people are saying, and the world and many white South Africans now see the truth of it, though not yet the Botha government.”
Much of this recognition has come, Tambo and other congress leaders readily acknowledge, from the spreading anti-apartheid protests of the last two years here--protests whose origins were largely spontaneous and that still do not appear orchestrated by the group’s underground network of guerrillas and political cadres here.
“We don’t claim responsibility for every protest, every development, but the felt presence of the ANC in South Africa is a powerful force that propels people into action,” Tambo said.
“We gave the people a strategic objective in 1984--simply to make the apartheid system unworkable, to make the whole country incapable of government--and that is what they are doing. We have now set another strategic task--preparing and launching a people’s war--and that is what we are moving toward.”
The group’s critics, such as Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, the Zulu leader, contend that it is trying to profit from a situation it did not create and cannot control.
Its own efforts at armed struggle over the last 25 years have failed, the critics say, and the congress, as a result, had become almost irrelevant before the anti-apartheid violence began nearly two years ago.
“What is happening on the streets, it’s true, is largely due to the people’s anger over the (ruling) National Party’s refusal to meet their demands,” said Steve Tshwete, a graduate of Mandela’s so-called “Robben Island University” and a regional president of the United Democratic Front.
“People do not need the ANC to tell them they are hungry, that they are homeless, that they are unemployed, that they are oppressed,” he added.
“What the ANC does tell them is what they can do about it,” he said. “Without a vanguard on the ground, it is not likely that our people would have risen to their present level of militancy. People needed to develop their political consciousness; they needed to know how to organize, how to draw up action programs. They also needed to know there was a big brother (the congress’ military wing) to protect them.
“For years, the ANC has been the only organization on the ground; as a result, we suffered huge losses in casualties, but these did show people the ANC’s commitment. If we have the people’s allegiance today, we earned it.”
Sipho--who uses that nom de guerre to protect himself from the security police and their informers-- explained from his work as a “human radio” doing propaganda that blacks here see two qualities that they admire in the organization, now into its 75th year.
“The ANC has never sold us out like many black leaders have, compromised on its principles or given up the fight when it was toughest,” he said. “If we are to have talks with the government, we want the ANC to represent us, not some sellout picked by the government.
“ANC policies are realistic and pragmatic and reflect the people’s true aspirations for the country,” he said. “The ANC is not dogmatic or ideological; it has Christians and Communists as members and there is even room for whites in it.”
A third and increasingly important factor in its popular support, however, is the organization’s armed struggle against the Pretoria government.
Once limited to bombings of government buildings and economic targets such as power substations, the group’s offensive has been broadened in the last three years to include rocket attacks on oil-from-coal plants, land mines planted on farm roads, assassinations of black policemen and politicians seen as collaborating with the government and wider use of bombs and limpet mines in urban areas.
Despite government charges that these attacks, particularly those that have killed nearly 20 white civilians in recent months, have “confirmed the terrorist character” of the congress, its leaders argue that their use of violence remains selective, quite limited and “a response to the violence of apartheid.”
“The armed struggle is very popular among the oppressed, who see it as a reply to the violence they suffer under apartheid and as a way to hasten their liberation,” Tambo said. “And we, in fact, are expected to do more.”
At a policy conference last June in the Zambian mining town of Kabwe, the African National Congress decided to expand and intensify its guerrilla efforts as a prelude to what it calls “people’s war” and the eventual toppling of the white-minority government.
Ronnie Kasrils, one of the first members of the Spear of the Nation, explained in an interview in Lusaka that “the seizure of state power is our goal, and we must not stop short of that; otherwise, we won’t be able to bring about fundamental changes in South Africa.”
“With the transformation of the situation at home, our base is once more inside our country, among our people,” Kasrils, who is also a South African Communist Party theoretician, said in the current issue of the congress’s magazine Sechaba. “What has been a low-intensity war over 25 years is now taking off into fully fledged armed struggle and people’s war involving our people in their hundreds of thousands.”
Kasrils explained that guerrillas can now operate more freely than ever in the many black townships that have become virtual no-go areas for the police. In addition, he said, the government’s informer network has been reduced considerably by the murders of many of those suspected of cooperating with authorities.
The “central task” of the Spear of the Nation now, Kasrils said, is to begin arming the congress’s supporters in large numbers. “That army of stone-throwers (in the townships) has to be transformed into an army with weapons,” he said. “Our people have the mood and spirit: Every stone-thrower wants a gun. We have to put guns in their hands.”
The need for the full “armed insurrection” that Kasrils envisions is still debated within the African National Congress. But even those who hope for a negotiated “transfer of power” by the present government to minimize the loss of life argue for increased guerrilla efforts as essential pressure to break the white resistance to majority rule.
But the congress’ current military capability is sharply disputed.
Police here say that ANC guerrillas, lacking bases inside South Africa, are stretched almost to the limit of their operational capacity. The congress resorts to terrorist attacks, such as the bomb that killed five Christmas shoppers south of Durban last year, out of its inability to attack the security forces.
“When their men come back into South Africa for a mission, we know very quickly, often before they start to operate, sometimes even within 15 minutes,” a senior police officer said recently. “We have a sophisticated intelligence system that alerts us to any movement of their men and that ensures we find at least three-quarters of their weapons, explosives and other materials before they are used.
“The African National Congress is a terrorist threat, a very dangerous one, but not a true guerrilla or military threat to the state,” added the police official, who asked not to be identified. “They are competent at hit-and-run tactics, but pose no credible threat to our security forces.”
Over the last decade, about 500 guerrillas have been arrested or killed, he added. To limit its losses, the congress rarely has more than 10 to 20 trained military operatives inside the country at a time, he said. Even the increased level of two or three incidents a week represents no real threat to the state, government officials have said.
At its military camps in Angola and Tanzania, the African National Congress has trained between 2,500 and 3,000 guerrillas since 1976, according to Col. Jan Buchner, a police intelligence specialist on the organization, but about half of these are now in other jobs.
When political cadres, administrative personnel, students and other exiles are included, Buchner said, the congress has a total strength of about 10,000 outside the country.
The group’s internal strength is largely a matter of speculation.
“We know that 80% to 90% of their effort goes into political work, but we don’t really know how successful it is,” Buchner said. “We see the flags at funerals, we know their use of front organizations, we are aware of the expansion of their cell network in the townships, but whether this would translate into real support in, say, an armed insurrection if we ever got to that is quite a different matter.”
In pressing its military campaign, the congress, other analysts say, may also be underestimating the white-led government’s determination to retain power, whether through gradual and limited political reforms, sheer military might or the present combination of the two.
Tom Lodge, a political scientist at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, who has studied the African National Congress closely for many years, predicts that a full-scale ANC offensive would bring an all-out government effort to destroy the organization, both within the country and abroad.
“We are not in a revolutionary situation here yet, and in terms of revolutionary theory itself, that makes any armed insurrection premature,” Lodge said. “The ANC could also lose the support it is now cultivating among whites if it increased the level of violence considerably or launched attacks indiscriminately.”
But the congress’s leadership is under strong pressure from younger militants in the organization and from its supporters inside the country to “hit the government a lot harder and accept that many more white casualties will be necessary if we are to win,” as one senior ANC official in Lusaka put it recently.
A younger ANC cadreman, Pappie Kubu, who left South Africa after the Soweto uprising 10 years ago, explained: “Youth, especially in the townships but also in our (military training) camps, want to do more. They want to rush in and destroy the whole apartheid system.
“The leadership has to hold them back and say, ‘Not so fast, because destroying the system that way may destroy . . . the economy, many people’s homes, the whole country even,’ ” Kubu said.
Another ANC cadre member who joined after Soweto, Susan Mnumzana, recalled that “we in the Soweto generation thought we were the revolution and would just push ahead and return home as great liberators in a couple of years.
“We were more angry than politically conscious, and . . . the ANC’s contacts with the country were not very dynamic,” Mnumzana said. “Today, the young people who come to join us understand what the struggle is, and they identify with the ANC because they know what it stands for. . . . But that does not reduce the impatience of youth or the anger and bitterness of those who experience apartheid every day.”
Under these pressures, the organization’s conference at Kabwe last June decided to step up its military attacks, expanding the range of targets to those that might also mean civilian as well as military casualties.
“How hard to hit is one of the major policy issues within the ANC,” Lodge said, “and there is a continuing debate over the merits of ruthlessness versus restraint. . . . It does not divide them, but it does preoccupy them.”
Despite the Kabwe decision and the popularity of military actions among many blacks, the African National Congress remains notably cautious, more concerned at present with strengthening its underground organization than launching major offensives.
“We have always needed a compound strategy, not a simple, one-dimensional one,” Pallo Jordan, the group’s director of research and a member of its executive committee, said in an interview in Lusaka.
Jordan, an American- and British-trained historian, sees three likely scenarios for an ANC victory: a “protracted war” that shifts increasingly to the offensive until the government is defeated; “partial insurrections” combined with general strikes in key areas of the country, and a negotiated “transfer of power” by a weakened, isolated government “when it realizes that it has exhausted all possibilities except this--and fighting to the death.”
“We are more interested than anyone else in a peaceful transfer of power, in reducing the violence,” Jordan continued. “We know that our people will suffer the most casualties. We do not want to destroy the country--it is our country, too. And we do not want the bitter aftermath of a war.
“Yet even a negotiated outcome will be the result of a successful compound strategy. The element of armed struggle, of people’s war, might not be of such a high profile, but it is essential, even decisive. The Botha government is not, quite obviously, going to give up power willingly and accept majority rule. It has to be forced to do so.”
Despite the congress’s hope for what Jordan called “a negotiated transfer of power” and its extensive talks over the last nine months with a wide range of South African groups and individuals to promote this, among blacks as well as the nation’s 5 million whites, the organization does not feel the time has yet come for such negotiations.
“If the regime seriously, genuinely wanted to resolve the South African situation by negotiations, talks could begin very quickly, tomorrow, even while hostilities are in progress,” Tambo said. “But the truth is that there is no readiness, no seriousness about ending apartheid. That is why we feel we must intensify our struggle, even if it means stepping up our armed attacks with the tragic loss of life that this may involve, tragic because it is unnecessary.”
The main barrier to such negotiations, Tambo said, is Pretoria’s insistence that the congress renounce violence as a precondition for negotiations.
“This is really laughable, for it is the violence of apartheid that gave rise to our violence, our very limited violence,” he continued. “But we are prepared to renounce violence if this were a reciprocal action. . . . But they really can’t, as violence is inherent in the apartheid system. They would have to end apartheid, abandon it entirely, dismantle it. Then there would be no further violence against our people, and we would have no cause to continue our armed struggle.”
A second obstacle to negotiations, ANC officials acknowledge, is their insistence that they concern the “transfer of power,” not further reforms of the present system or the government’s offer of power sharing.
“Political power, not simply ending racial discrimination, is the central issue, and anything short of that will be greeted with suspicion and probably rejection,” Mac Maharaj, another member of the executive committee, commented during an interview in Lusaka.
“The government, we believe, is now in a crisis of such dimensions that there is no way out for it. However, like a cornered beast, it will use all its cunning to try and escape and, if it can’t, to strike out madly. These are times to be cautious. . . .
“Many of the reforms Pretoria has undertaken are just shifts to maintain the system of minority rule, and we are talking about fundamental changes that can only come with a transfer of power,” Maharaj said.
Although many whites interpret this as “discussing terms for our surrender and nothing less,” as one National Party politician put it, the African National Congress has explained to the many South African delegations that have visited its Lusaka headquarters that transfer of power need not mean simply white capitulation but, rather, the establishment through negotiation of a new constitutional system for the country.
Majority rule, they similarly explain, should not be equated with black rule, but with a democratic political system in which all would have a voice.
“We are committed, and have been for decades, to a multiparty democracy with a constitution ensuring human rights and civil liberties for everyone,” Jordan said. “The only thing we intend to declare illegal is the advocacy of racism and other forms of discrimination. There are many other aspects to our program in terms of the country’s development, a new educational system, health care and the present monopolistic concentration of economic power, but these are all matters for discussion and democratic decisions.”
For many whites and some blacks as well, the prominence of so many South African Communist Party members in the top ANC leadership--and their apparently much tougher line on military action, on negotiations, on the country’s future--diminishes the value of such pledges.
Tambo, regarded as an African nationalist by even the Pretoria government, for many years fought what he himself saw as a Communist takeover of the African National Congress but eventually changed his mind.
“I have been in the ANC leadership since 1949, and I have found that the members of the South African Communist Party behave exactly as any other ANC person would behave,” he said. “I know that Communist parties are normally credited with being able to influence everything and anything they come in contact with, but with us the experience has been that the Communists are very loyal, very committed members of the ANC. We are happy to have them on that basis.”
Tony Bloom, a leading South African businessman, who was in one of the first groups to go from here to meet the ANC leadership, said later, “It is difficult to view the group as hard-line Marxists or bloodthirsty terrorists who are interested in reducing South Africa to anarchy. . . .
“They are people with whom serious negotiations can be undertaken,” Bloom said, “and with whom a certain amount of common ground can be found.”
In fact, the congress, founded in 1912, has become an omnibus liberation movement that seems to have room for a broad range of political persuasions, ranging from Christian activists to Communist Party members who still praise the leadership qualities of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. “We do not want a one-party, everyone-think-alike state, and so it seemed wrong to turn this organization into that sort of thing,” Jordan said. “So people will have to accept we do have Communists as members of our ranks and our leadership along with devout Christians who say grace before meals.”
The previous height of ANC influence in South Africa came during the 1950s, when it led protests against the Nationalist government’s new apartheid laws, which instituted the system of strict racial separation.
But the organization was decimated by a police crackdown on its activities and members after it was outlawed in 1960 along with the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, an ANC offshoot opposed to white involvement in the liberation movement and any subsequent government.
“We went through very, very rough years,” Tambo recalled, “with the government tracking down hundreds and hundreds of our people, killing them, putting them into prison, driving them into exile. We struggled just to stay alive. If we are strong now, we developed much of that strength through those hard years.”
Majority rule, the ANC says, should not be equated with black rule but a democratic system.