South Africa: A New Optimism Fueled by Dire Economic Necessity

Charlene Smith is a South African journalist

Six years ago Matthews Ntshiwa, went to jail for engraving pro-African National Congress slogans on his coffee mug. Today black communities are ablaze with slogans, flags and posters extolling the still-illegal liberation movement. Children run with green, gold and black streamers and a freedom song echoes in every township.

While excitement is high, anti-apartheid activists are still cautious, careful to point out that the October release of eight long-term political prisoners does not make a free South Africa.

"What we have now is hope," said Cassim Saloojee, a longtime leader of the Mass Democratic Movement. "It is a hope and a new mood, a deepening of the leadership and a strengthening of the resistance movement, although we are still confident the government is committed to white political domination."

Saloojee and others believe the South African government is trying to buy time. But it is unlikely that the time-buying ploys of the 1960s and '70s, after two major crises, will work now. The mood among black people has changed; they are far more politicized and less likely to accept half-measures.

The 40-month-old State of Emergency designed to crush resistance has instead spread politicization and created strong underground structures despite potentially harsh consequences.

The Defiance Campaign launched in August has inspired widespread civil disobedience--in itself an offense in South Africa. Initially, government moved to stop disobedience; now, government has bowed to huge protest marches and various municipalities, including Johannesburg, have been scrapping apartheid regulations.

Jailed African National Congress leader Nelson R. Mandela now seems less a prisoner of the South African leaders than they prisoners of his incarceration. He lives in a pleasant prison bungalow and regularly receives guests, whether fellow prisoners--sometimes brought long distances from other prisons at his behest--or leading anti-apartheid activists.

Saloojee was one of the handful of activists meeting with Mandela in his prison house when the unrestricted releases of seven of Mandela's comrades, including Walter Sisulu, was announced, plus release of Jafta Masemula of the rival Pan Africanist Congress.

Although the government has said it will watch the movements of the eight men, to "test the water" for further releases, there is a universal belief that Mandela himself will be home within six months--if not by Christmas.

Reform is propelled by economic necessity.

Economist Ronnie Bethlehem said President Frederik W. de Klerk had no option but to move fast. Bethlehem wrote not long after the September elections: "Time is of the essence. He cannot wait for long. Evidence of government's seriousness to move must materialize before the Commonwealth prime minister's conference in the second half of October, even if government has not yet been able to bring itself to release Mandela."

Future sanctions against South Africa are on the agenda for the Commonwealth conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Bethlehem, one of the many white South Africans who have journeyed to Lusaka to meet with the ANC in recent times, noted that gold and foreign reserves are critically low. An account surplus of $5 billion would have to be earned during this year and next merely to deal with repayment of the foreign debt. But current net reserves are nearly $500 million in the red.

History, fueled by economic necessity, moves rapidly right now, but experts wonder whether the liberation train will remain on track or be heading for a wall.

Last weekend ultra-right whites in rural communities watched aghast as thousands of black workers marched the streets in nationwide marches organized by the powerful Congress of Trade Unions, to protect labor legislation and to welcome home "the leaders."

At some marches members of the militarist Afrikaans Liberation Movement stood by with live bullets and the group later warned the president that if he continued to allow marches against apartheid, Afrikaner militarists would forcibly stop them. No one paid attention.

Right after the seven ANC leaders were released, Sisulu said that he was co-hosting the first ANC press conference inside the country in almost three decades. He announced what was becoming reality: The ANC is de facto unbanned.

Only a decade ago did the ANC begin reasserting its presence in South Africa. During the first two decades of its forced exile--under the leadership of Mandela's former legal partner, Oliver Tambo--the organization adopted an almost invisible profile within the country.

Not until 1980 was the Freedom Charter, a document spelling out much of the ANC philosophy for the future, frequently quoted in South Africa. Then, at the 1983 funeral of 15-year-old Emma Sathekge--killed in police action at her school in Pretoria--the ANC flag was first publicly displayed.

Strong resistance efforts emerged in townships by 1986, with attempts at self-government. The ruling Nationalist government appeared to be losing its grip; the country was under a state of emergency, the townships no-go areas for government forces, and the ANC was confidentially saying liberation would happen in six years.

But in 1987 and 1988 thousands were detained, organizations were banned or bullied and liberation seemed unlikely during the rest of the century.

Now hope rules again. Once-dormant organizations have declared themselves unbanned; release of the political prisoners has revitalized activists exhausted by years of repression and resistance committees pop up like spring flowers.

Cape Town has a huge rally scheduled this weekend. Another will be held in Johannesburg next weekend. Then the released ANC leaders will travel the country to regional rallies. The events will be the first ANC political conventions held in this country in three decades; organizers may not call them that but the mood is such that political meetings is what they will be.

The state and the political dissidents now dance intricate patterns around each other, each waiting for the other to make a wrong move, each testing the limit of the other's resolve.

Senior officials of the MDM predict that the State and the African National Congress will be sitting at the negotiating table discussing a transfer of power by 1992; they predict that a liberal European Parliament will by then assist the transfer process.

The current government does not foresee this timetable at all, but it has lost white support to the left and to the right. It may not win another election. White politics may be doomed to irrelevance, playing only a supportive or disruptive role in a political future that will proceed with or without white help.

The Mass Democratic Movement believes international sanctions and internal resistance are the keys to the current mood of optimism.

The African National Congress has almost ceased guerrilla warfare, indicating that it will curtail military operations if government continues moving toward the release of all political prisoners, toward real negotiations and lifting the state of emergency.

There is hope in South Africa, but behind that hope, because it is South Africa, there is caution and fear. Sisulu, 77 years old, said last week, "I believe we will see freedom in my lifetime." Now many people think he could be right.

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