HARARE, Zimbabwe — As Oliver Tambo, president of the African National Congress, entered the hall where an international anti-apartheid conference was taking place here, the South African delegation of nearly 200 erupted in singing and dancing and then enthusiastic shouts of "Viva Tambo, viva!"
For Tambo, the moment was equally emotional--a demonstration, he felt, of the broad support that the ANC has among South Africa's black majority even though the group has been outlawed since 1960.
"These are our people, and they serve as a great inspiration to us," Thabo Mbeki, the ANC's information director, said later. "They are under tremendous pressure, but they are still full of beans."
While the four-day conference focused on children under apartheid, particularly their detention, torture and other maltreatment, the South Africans--those from inside the country and those in exile--held an extraordinary series of behind-the-scenes meetings to discuss strategy and tactics to end apartheid, the system of racial separation and minority white rule.
"This is by far one of the most important meetings we have held with people from home," said James Stuart, another member of the African National Congress' national executive committee. "The discussions have been terrific, simply terrific, in their scope and depth."
Lawyers from South Africa met with lawyers from the ANC's legal department, doctors met with doctors, teachers with teachers. There were also meetings bringing together social workers, churchmen, union organizers and youth leaders with their counterparts in the ANC's biggest exercise yet in what one delegate--a white lawyer from Johannesburg--described as "anti-apartheid networking."
Delegates from the different regions in the country met with ANC members either from those regions or responsible for ANC activities in them.
"They listened, they really listened," said a young activist from Durban. "We expected them to tell us what they thought we should do, but before they said anything, they asked us what we thought they should be doing."
Top ANC officials, including Tambo and nine other members of the organization's 27-man national executive committee, spent hours in meetings not only with leaders of South African anti-apartheid groups but also with many grass-roots members, few of whom had met these men who have become almost legends in the black community during their long years in exile.
While the international delegates to the conference discussed the treatment of children under apartheid, the South Africans from within the country and those in exile considered recent developments, along with ways to bring apartheid to an end.
"When they hold their report-back meetings when they return home," Stuart said, "the impact of these discussions will be felt throughout the country in terms of the encouragement it gives our people and then in terms of the action they take."
While the Harare meeting recalled the meeting that the African National Congress held in July with 50 liberal South African whites in Dakar, Senegal, ANC officials said that it should prove to be much more important in terms of galvanizing the anti-apartheid movement.
Passports From Pretoria
They also said they were surprised at the large number of conference participants who succeeded in getting passports from the South African government, which recently has prevented a number of anti-apartheid activists from traveling abroad.
"How long the regime will permit us to meet this way, I don't know," a senior ANC official remarked, "but we are going to make the maximum use of these opportunities. . . . And maybe, just maybe, the regime realizes that if the country's problems are going to be solved, the ANC will have to be involved, and that will mean operating openly again."
Tambo, respectfully referred to as "comrade president" even by white delegates, addressed the whole delegation for more than an hour over the weekend, dealing with some of the toughest questions--including prospects for negotiations with the government in Pretoria--that the ANC was asked by its supporters.
"Some said quite frankly that they are worried about negotiations, worried that we will sell out the revolution, exclude them from talks with the regime and go for some quick gains," a member of the national executive committee said. "We wanted to reassure them, first of all, that they would be included, but we also wanted to get their views on when we should talk with the regime and under what circumstances."
Tambo also used the opportunity to urge supporters of the African National Congress to stop the summary execution of suspected police informers and government collaborators in the black community. The use of a gasoline-soaked tire, now known in South Africa as "the necklace," to burn even a known police agent to death is wrong, Tambo said, and activists should make greater use of moral persuasion and community pressure to win over such a person.