ANC Exiles See Anxiety, Joy in Journey Home

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dr. Ralph Ngijima left South Africa to join the African National Congress on a dark night in 1976, stealing across a remote, mountainous stretch of the border with the police on his trail.

The townships were in flames then, and Ngijima figured he would have just a year or two on the "outside" before his comrades toppled the white government in Pretoria. But before long he began to wonder if he would ever see home again.

Today, Ngijima, his wife and their two children are trying to picture how different South Africa will look after 14 years in exile.

"One of my nightmares, actually, is getting lost in Johannesburg," said Ngijima, now 38 and a physician in the ANC's health department.

Tens of thousands of South African exiles, having spent most of their adult lives in the struggle for national liberation, are looking forward to their imminent return home with excitement and no small measure of anxiety.

"Some of us feel like divers who've been down in the deep," said Albie Sachs, a white lawyer who left South Africa for the ANC 24 years ago. "If you come up too rapidly, it can do all sorts of funny things to your blood."

For three decades, ANC members have been outlaws in the land of their birth. They have moved quietly about this African capital, 650 miles from Johannesburg, plotting guerrilla war in the dingy headquarters of the ANC and pumping journalists and other visitors for the latest news from home.

It has been a difficult life, cut off from friends and family and trying to get by in Zambia, one of Africa's poorest countries, where everything from shoes to soft drinks is in short supply.

Now, for the first time, the end is in sight. South African President Frederik W. de Klerk's decision to lift the ban on the ANC and release jailed nationalist leader Nelson R. Mandela means that Africa's oldest national liberation movement is going home.

The ANC, founded in 1912 and expelled by Pretoria in 1960, is making plans to open offices in South Africa and rebuild itself in the townships that have kept its memory alive. These will be trying times for the anti-apartheid guerrilla organization, and emotional times for its members.

"For many in my generation of exiles, what has always sustained us was the hope and belief that one day we would go back home," said Tom Sebina, 52, who has not set eyes on South Africa since he crawled under a border fence to escape 25 years ago.

"I'm famous for being the worst pessimist in the ANC," said Sebina, a public relations officer for the movement. "Now I accept the fact that it's going to happen. But some of us will be shocked by what we will see."

Among the changes since these exiles left South Africa are the freer movement of blacks, who are no longer required to carry passbooks, integrated movie theaters and restaurants and the absence of whites-only signs on everything from trains to restrooms. The Johannesburg-area township of Soweto, which produced thousands of exiles in the turbulent 1970s, now has luxury suburbs as well as squatter camps, and a population of 2.5 million.

But the most important apartheid laws have not changed. Neighborhoods, schools and hospitals remain segregated, with those for blacks still vastly inferior to those for whites, and no black person has a vote in the country's affairs.

The only two Lusaka-based exiles to return so far, Jack Simons and his wife, Ray Alexander, were surprised on their arrival last week by the amount of development since they left in 1965.

"It's a very rich society, with a great amount of traffic on the roads," observed Simons, 83, a white member of the ANC and the South African Communist Party. "We are used to the standards of a somewhat depressed country. This is a very rich one. Even the living standards in the townships have improved since we left."

The rest of the exiles in Zambia are awaiting traveling orders from the ANC's 35-member national executive committee, which is seeking assurances from the government that returning exiles will not be arrested or charged. But ANC leaders say many of the more than 10,000 members will be back in time for the next ANC general meeting, scheduled for December in South Africa.

"We are looking forward to an atmosphere where people can exchange ideas and debate ideas openly, without feeling threatened," Sebina said. "We are going back to continue the struggle."

Rebuilding the ANC in South Africa will be a major task. As the primary revolutionary group operating against Pretoria, the ANC has enjoyed widespread popularity in South Africa's townships. But now, political analysts say, it will have to offer a strong political program to maintain that support.

The ANC already has dozens of researchers at work on the future, conjuring up models for a new South African constitution, studying which languages should be used in schools and, in general, trying to "put meat on the bones of the Freedom Charter," according to a member of the ANC executive committee. The Freedom Charter, which calls for a government without regard to race, is the ANC's blueprint for a future South Africa.

Most worries about the future of the ANC are drowned out in Lusaka these days by daydreams of reunions with families and neighbors in South Africa. Few in the ANC harbor any bitterness for their long years away. But some of the simplest pleasures of day-to-day life have been amplified by years of self-denial in Zambia.

Joe Slovo, ANC executive committee member and chairman of the South African Communist Party, said he misses most "the smell of the earth."

When Cecilia Makondo followed her husband and children into exile in 1977, she remembers her escort warning her: "The outside is not like South Africa. You won't get what you get every day in South Africa."

What Makondo misses most is a regular cup of hot cocoa; cocoa is a rarity in Zambian stores.

"I wish I had been in South Africa for these past 13 years," said Makondo, ANC President Oliver R. Tambo's administrative secretary. "But I can't be angry. I came here on a mission. I was sent by the nation to be here."

Sachs, the white lawyer who is studying constitutional questions, has big plans for his return to Cape Town. He wants to go to a City Hall symphony concert, where he was once a regular.

Then, he says, he will climb Table Mountain, where he frequently found solitude before leaving South Africa.

"I don't know if I can still climb it, but that'll be the challenge," said Sachs, who is 55 and lost his right arm in a car-bomb blast in Mozambique in 1988. "To me, that will be the symbol of a joyous return."

Sachs asked his 84-year-old mother in Cape Town to put a chicken in the freezer for him back in 1984, when it appeared that the white minority-led government might be on the verge of handing over power to the black majority. Two years later, though, Sachs' homecoming looked a long way off, and she took it out of the freezer.

"The other day I asked her to put a chicken in the freezer again," Sachs said.

ANC members in Lusaka once spoke only in hushed tones about their pre-exile days. Now the secrecy is beginning to disappear.

Sebina talks openly about his South African past, remembering how he helped Ruth First edit the left-wing newspaper New Age. First, the wife of Joe Slovo and subject of the film "A World Apart," was killed by a letter-bomb in Mozambique in 1982.

Ngijima was deeply involved in campus anti-apartheid work in 1976, when violence broke out in Soweto and the police began detaining student leaders. Just three months shy of his medical degree, he left the country.

He will get his first glimpse of home next month, when he accepts an invitation to attend a medical conference. An early stop on that trip will be the village of Matatiele, in the lush hills of eastern South Africa where he grew up.

"It's one of the first places I just want to have a look at," he said. "It doesn't matter what happens after that."

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