WASHINGTON — The meeting last week between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Oliver Tambo, exiled leader of South Africa's largest black opposition movement, the African National Congress, broke important ground.
After more than six years of "constructive engagement" with South Africa's white-minority government, the Reagan Administration finally talked directly--and openly--with a major representative of the other side.
It is not as if U.S. policy toward South Africa has fundamentally changed. On the contrary, current and former policy-makers are still complaining that economic sanctions against South Africa, approved by Congress over the President's veto last year, were a mistake. And Shultz, intimidated by conservatives who faulted him for receiving a man they consider a "terrorist," spent much of his time with Tambo complaining about communist influence in the ANC and deploring its turn toward violence in recent years.
Still, Tambo's high-level audience signaled that the Administration at last recognizes the need to appear more evenhanded in South Africa--or at least preserve its options--and guaranteed Tambo greater credibility.
Pretoria will, of course, portray the Tambo-Shultz meeting as the final evidence that the United States cannot be trusted to help South Africa solve its severe problems. But in fact, this session with a top-ranking ANC official enhances U.S. prospects for a role in negotiating an end to apartheid before South Africa is engulfed in civil war. It gives the United States greater influence with a black majority that intends, one way or another, to play a role in its country's future.
The next step is for Congress and the American public to develop a more subtle understanding of the various key players in mainstream black South African politics and their relationship to each other.
Tambo, for example, at 69 an elder statesman of anti-apartheid protest, has broad international respect, but is regarded by most South Africans as a stand-in for Nelson Mandela, the ANC leader in prison for nearly a quarter century.
Ironically, by keeping Mandela locked up, the white regime has enhanced his stature, preventing him from making the mistakes of any politician who must test his words and actions before the public.
While Mandela remains a largely unseen martyr, Tambo is subjected to minute scrutiny. Just as South African whites attack him for visiting the Soviet Union, Cuba and other communist countries, militant blacks will bitterly criticize him for selling out to the capitalist Establishment by going to America.
Founded as a multiracial organization in 1912, two years before the all-white National Party that now runs the country, the ANC has great standing in South Africa, despite the fact that it is banned and vilified inside South Africa and labeled pro-communist by conservative detractors outside. Yet some of the country's most influential black leaders operate outside the ANC framework.
The Rev. Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and now Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, for example, has used his pulpit to fight apartheid. Tutu does not have an obvious political constituency within South Africa (his following could be larger overseas), but his moral endorsement may be necessary to sustain any compromise negotiated as a transition toward majority rule.
Tutu has frequently paid his political respects to the ANC and he has been particularly adept at stepping in between blacks and whites or black factions that are about to have violent confrontations; but he may nonetheless be resented by young militants for having gone so far without having fought in the trenches.
Another key figure with a base in the religious community is Allan Boesak, a so-called "Colored" of mixed race, who is president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. A leading force behind the formation of the United Democratic Front, a four-year-old multiracial political coalition of community-based groups, Boesak has helped to radicalize Coloreds who traditionally kept their distance from the various African ethnic groups. Increasingly, Coloreds now regard themselves as "blacks" with the same problems as other nonwhite groups; Boesak is partly responsible.
Because his first language is Afrikaans, the language of the ruling elite, Boesak is sometimes better able to get his message across to white audiences than other black opposition leaders. But some traditionalists now regard him as too radical.
The most formidable rival to ANC figures like Mandela and Tambo is Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, who is both hereditary chief of the Zulu people and an elected leader of the self-governing KwaZulu homeland, which has refused to accept South African-style "independence."