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ANC, Expert in Ambiguity, Must Begin to Define Itself : South Africa: Moving from a revolutionary movement to a political party, the ANC must now say what it stands for, politically and economically.

August 05, 1990|Jeffery Herbst | Jeffery Herbst is an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University

PRINCETON, N.J. — Nelson Mandela's recent visit to the United States made a profound impression on many Americans. Mandela appeared as the supremely dedicated freedom fighter, suffering decades of imprisonment so that one day he could lead the transition to a non-racial, democratic South Africa. It is only natural, therefore, that many Americans expect the organization Mandela leads, the African National Congress, to share his pronounced goals of a non-racial, democratic South Africa possessing a mixed economy. However, it is far from clear how the ANC will evolve, especially once the 70-year-old Mandela leaves the political scene.

The ANC faces the problem of moving from an outlawed guerrilla army to a domestic political party. At the same time, it must develop a vision of a post-apartheid South Africa instead of simply relying on vague statements that attract the greatest number of supporters. These tasks will be made especially difficult because of the widely divergent opinions within the ANC concerning the stances the organization should adopt.

The African National Congress was founded in 1912 to protest white rule and advance the rights of blacks. It is the oldest political party in South Africa and one of the longest lasting political organizations in sub-Saharan Africa. Correspondingly, the ANC is one of the world's oldest national liberation movements--not a record to be proud of. The ANC's goal, after all, is to take power rather than set a record for being in opposition.

From 1912 until 1961, the ANC fought white domination in South Africa through nonviolent means. Its fortunes waxed and waned but the protests, burning hated passes and other forms of defiance, did little to challenge white rule. After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when 67 blacks were shot dead by police in an anti-pass protest, the white regime banned the ANC and other opposition groups.

In turn, the ANC was forced to reconsider its traditional adherence to nonviolence. In December, 1961, Umkhonto we Sizwe, the organization that became the armed branch of the ANC, began what was to be a sporadic campaign of bombings against government targets. The campaign soon suffered an enormous blow when, in July, 1963, a large part of the ANC leadership, including Mandela, was captured.

The 1960s and 1970s were difficult for the ANC. It was virtually invisible on the international scene for a long time and the guerrilla struggle it led had almost no effect on the white regime. The evolution of Umkhonto into a joint venture between the ANC and the banned South African Communist Party provided the armed movement with some weapons--but also supplied the South African government with endless opportunities to declare the ANC a puppet of the Soviet Union. In particular, it was obvious that the path of resistance the ANC envisioned, whereby an Umkhonto-inspired guerrilla war would lead to the collapse of the white government, was not going to happen.

Indeed, the truly spectacular resistance to the white government was occurring inside South Africa on an unorganized basis. In June, 1976, a large number of students were killed by police in Soweto while protesting the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools. Even more important, in 1984, the black townships erupted into protest not quelled until 1986. These protests, where thousands died, had a profound impact on many Western nations, which imposed sanctions, and on many white South Africans, who came to believe their country could not continue on its current path. While the ANC encouraged the protests and capitalized on them, it did not instigate them. Indeed, the ANC appears to have been as surprised as anyone that the popular explosion began.

The long and torturous history of the ANC will have important implications for Mandela and his colleagues if and when they begin talks with white government leaders about abolishing apartheid. First, the internal political structure of the ANC is weak. The ANC must transform itself from being a rather unsuccessful external army to a broadly based domestic political party. While Mandela appears to have strong support among South African blacks, it is difficult to judge just how much strength the ANC has.

As the errors in forecasting the Nicaraguan and East German elections demonstrate, it is treacherous to predict opinions of populations long denied the ability to organize. The ANC must undertake a great deal of party construction before it can turn the popular support it does have into political strength. The process of negotiating with the white regime, which will inevitably call for public concessions from the ANC, will make the job of party construction that much more difficult--especially when other black groups are refusing to negotiate with the government of President Frederik W. de Klerk.

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