The African National Congress early today suspended its 30-year-old armed struggle against the white minority-led government of South Africa in an agreement that both sides described as "a milestone on the road to true peace and prosperity in our country."
The historic declaration by the government and the country's primary guerrilla movement, coming at the end of a 14-hour meeting in Pretoria, cleared the ANC's remaining obstacles to formal negotiations.
"The way is now open to proceed towards negotiations on a new constitution," the two sides said in a joint statement. They added that "exploratory talks" on ways of launching those negotiations will be held soon.
The ANC-government accord set in motion a plan for the phased release of political prisoners and indemnity for returning exiles. Under that plan, the first prisoner releases will begin on Sept. 1 and indemnity declarations will begin on Oct. 1. The entire process will be completed by April 30, 1991.
The government also agreed to give "immediate consideration" to repealing all provisions of the Internal Security Act that make it a crime to further the aims of a Communist organization as well as those provisions that create a category of "listed" people and prohibit the publication of their statements or writings.
It also said it will continue reviewing legislation "to ensure free political activity" and will introduce amendments to security legislation at the next session of Parliament in February, 1991.
The agreement, revealed early this morning at a joint news conference by President Frederik W. de Klerk and ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela, brought to an end a guerrilla war, launched in 1960 by Mandela, that has claimed hundreds of lives, injured thousands and caused millions of dollars in property damage.
"There will be no infiltrations of men and arms into South Africa, and any activity related to military action will be suspended," Mandela said. "And we hope to be able to communicate with our people and inform them of what we've decided."
Mandela called the ANC's move "a significant concession."
Under the agreement, a working group of ANC and government representatives will be established to deal with any disagreements over the guerrilla war suspension.
The ANC's armed struggle has been mostly dormant in recent months, but the government has maintained that the ANC's continuing commitment to its military strategy has caused an increase in violence in South Africa's black townships.
The two five-man teams from the ANC and the government expressed "serious concern about the general level of violence, intimidation and unrest in the country, especially in Natal (province)," their joint statement said. And both sides agreed to take steps to stabilize the situation "in line with the spirit of mutual trust . . . among the leaders involved."
One of the most violent regions is Natal, in eastern South Africa, where supporters of the ANC have been battling followers of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi. Three years of factional fighting there have claimed some 3,000 lives.
The government agreed today to consider lifting the state of emergency in Natal province "as early as possible."
"We feel there will hopefully be a fundamental change in the situation on the ground" as a result of the agreement, De Klerk said. Although the ANC says the fighting in Natal is not being directed by its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), some analysts believe the ANC's previous refusal to suspend the armed struggle has fueled the fighting, especially among young radicals in the ANC.
"We think what has happened today forms an important turning point, which will in all probability result in a much more peaceful situation in South Africa," De Klerk said.
The ANC and the government disagreed strongly, however, on the activities of the South African police in quelling anti-apartheid protest in the country. More than 125 activists have been killed in police action, much of it aimed at halting protest marches, since the ANC and other organizations were unbanned in February.
De Klerk said the "police should at all times deal with violence in an evenhanded manner," and he added that the government would investigate ANC allegations of police brutality.
"We are not satisfied with the reply of the state president," Mandela countered at the news conference. "The actions of the police indicate to us that the government has not succeeded in curtailing police action. We feel quite dissatisfied with the way the state is dealing with peaceful protest.
"There is something wrong. The government has either lost control over the police or the police are doing what the government wants," Mandela said. He added, however, that "the ANC accepts the government's assurances" that it will investigate instances of police misbehavior.
Many of those police clashes with demonstrators have followed ANC-organized protests. Mandela said the ANC is not abandoning its strategy of mass protest actions, which have included consumer boycotts and marches.
But, he said, the new accord provides channels of communication between the ANC and the government "that can be used to defuse any situation that calls for mass action."
Although they hailed their agreement as the first real step toward peace in South Africa, the government-ANC statement alluded to the fact that other parties, including Buthelezi's Inkatha movement, left-wing black organizations and right-wing whites, must now become involved in the process to keep it moving ahead.
"We do not pretend to be the only parties involved in the process of shaping the new South Africa," their statement said. "All of us can henceforth walk that road in consultation and cooperation with each other. We call upon all those who have not yet committed themselves to peaceful negotiations to do so now."
The most important ANC precondition for constitutional negotiations was the freedom of political prisoners and the return of exiles without fear of prosecution.
Human rights organizations estimate that there are 2,500 to 3,000 people in South African prisons on convictions for politically motivated crimes, and more than 1,600 people currently are on trial for political offenses. The government has estimated that there are fewer than 400 political prisoners.
Among the estimated 35,000 political exiles living outside South Africa, at least 6,000 are soldiers in the ANC's military wing, and several thousand others are involved in activities that might subject them to prosecution upon their return.
The ANC-government agreement acknowledges De Klerk's power to pardon prisoners and grant indemnity to those activists, including exiles, who may be liable to prosecution or are now undergoing trial. But both sides agree that De Klerk will appoint a panel, by Aug. 31, to identify "political" prisoners on a case-by-case basis.
The accord establishes broad guidelines for that panel's decision-making, suggesting, for example, that the definition of a political crime could range from purely political offenses such as treason to common crimes, including murder. In the case of common crimes, the ANC-government agreement urges the panel to consider several circumstances, including the motive of the offender, the context in which the offense was committed and the nature of the political objective.
The African National Congress has undergone radical changes since it was launched in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress, a small group led by traditional chiefs. It was primarily a pressure group promoting the interests of black Africans by using legal means, such as petitions to the government. It began to resemble a mass liberation movement in the 1940s, when it adopted a constitution calling for universal suffrage. A Youth League was formed in 1943, attracting more radical blacks such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, and the young radicals took control of the ANC in 1949. The shooting of unarmed demonstrators by police at Sharpeville in 1960 and the outlawing of the ANC the following year forced the organization to review its nonviolent strategy.