The element in South Africa’s deadlocked racial conflict that may turn out to be the most important is the very one that Washington has chosen to ignore—the guerrillas of the exiled African National Congress (ANC). While the Reagan administration has repeatedly urged close US involvement with the white regime as the best way to promote change in South African racial policies, it has refused any sort of contact with the ANC. Yet by ignoring the ANC’s growing power and position, and the unprecedented support it now enjoys from South Africa’s increasingly militant black majority, the United States risks finding itself stranded on one edge of that country’s widening racial chasm, tied to the wrong allies for the wrong reasons against the wrong odds.
In South Africa, it is virtually impossible to ignore the ANC. The government in Pretoria relentlessly denounces the group and its leaders. Large demonstrations erupt at the funerals of ANC guerrillas. ANC attacks against government power plants and police stations—and, most recently, the country’s air force headquarters in Pretoria—have grown rapidly in both scale and effect, and security precautions have become increasingly visible throughout the country. Although it is illegal for South Africans to possess ANC publications, the group’s colors and anthem have become emblems of black resistance and solidarity within the country, and have been adopted in various forms by groups attempting to gain political legitimacy among blacks. The ANC slogan “Amandla!” (Zulu for “Power!”) has become a widespread expression of defiance against the current regime. And many whites as well as blacks admit that if free multiracial elections were held today, Nelson Mandela, the jailed ANC leader, would easily defeat any other potential presidential candidate, white or black.
Mandela, now sixty-five, has been in prison since 1963, when he was captured by police after leading the ANC in its first attempts at armed resistance to white rule. A former Johannesburg lawyer and gifted orator, he enjoyed broad personal popularity as ANC president before his arrest, and during his long confinement has become a virtual legend throughout black Africa as a symbol of the fight against apartheid. From Pollsmoor Prison outside Cape Town, where he shares a cell with other leading ANC figures, Mandela retains important influence over broad ANC policy. But the group’s activities and its tactics are decided at its exile headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, by a collective leadership chaired by Mandela’s former law partner, Oliver Tambo.
Recently, I traveled to southern Africa to meet with Tambo and other ANC officials in Zambia, and to discuss the ANC with a range of other leaders, both black and white, in South Africa itself. The group’s headquarters in Lusaka had recently been enlarged and the visitor has to make his way through the construction debris around it. When I asked Tambo about his organization’s growing visibility, he said, “The regime is on the offensive, we’re on the offensive. The regime has tried to divide us tribally, tried to divide us into communists and noncommunists, projected us as terrorists. But it hasn’t succeeded. It hasn’t succeeded because the people hate the regime so much that if the regime calls us terrorists, the people call us heroes. If the regime attacks us, in the eyes of our people this is only because we are being very effective.”
The ANC’s reputation for effectiveness clearly owes much to the increasing violence of its guerrilla attacks, but, particularly for South Africa’s older blacks, the group’s image has much deeper foundations, built over more than seventy years of principled anti-apartheid activism—most of it nonviolent. Founded in 1912, following Gandhi’s nonviolent campaign for Indian rights in South Africa’s Natal region, the ANC won a broad following as the champion of peaceful opposition to government racism. A diverse coalition, it attracted multiracial support for its platform of equal rights and nondiscrimination.
The ANC has had a series of impressive leaders, including Mandela, Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Chief Albert Luthuli, who won the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize for his ANC work. Its nonviolent protests against apartheid reached a peak in the 1950s, when its program of civil disobedience won mass support from South African blacks. Strikes and demonstrations sponsored by the ANC repeatedly brought tens of thousands of protesters into city streets throughout South Africa. ANC meetings attracted overflow crowds, and British press reports of one ANC rally near Durban in 1958 estimated that it represented the largest public gathering ever held in a Commonwealth nation. Shaken by such successes, the government struck back with a campaign of official intimidation and police violence which set the stage for the military confrontation emerging today.
“When I started with the ANC in the 1940s,” Tambo told me, “we didn’t think we would ever have to go for violence as opposed to nonviolence. Our obvious preference was for demonstrations, strikes. We called so many strikes! And the response was tremendous. Our people were very militant—but they were nonviolent.
“But at the climax of this period the situation just got out of hand for the government—they lost their nerve. We were unarmed, we were nonviolent, and they just slaughtered our people.” At Sharpeville, in March 1960, police killed sixty-seven unarmed demonstrators. This, in Tambo’s view, “was just the climax of a process that had been going on all the time. They were shooting at crowds and there was nothing we could do about it. When they began to call out the army to stamp out peaceful strikes, that marked the turning point, because after that, when we were confronted with the South African Defense Force, we knew that nonviolence had become meaningless. We couldn’t take it any further. So we can’t, if we have had the experience of the 1950s, we can’t possibly see a solution which does not involve military struggle.”
Banned after the Sharpeville incident, the ANC went underground and started preparing for an armed struggle. In 1963, its leaders—except Tambo, who had been sent to London to start the ANC’s exile wing—were betrayed by an informant and captured in the Transvaal town of Rivonia, and through the late 1960s the group’s visibility within South Africa waned considerably. Harsh police repression, aided by information from captured ANC membership lists, resulted in the arrest and indefinite detention of hundreds of ANC organizers. The ANC members who fled to join the exile group, moreover, found refugee life unexpectedly harsh. “We plainly underestimated the staying power of the regime, as well as the problems of operating in exile,” one veteran of that period told me. “We had a lot of organizational work to do.”
As the ANC concentrated on establishing itself outside the country, the focus of black opposition within South Africa shifted away from the mechanics of confrontation, and toward the radical ideas of the groups in the Black Consciousness movement. In contrast to the ANC’s multiracial approach, the Black Consciousness philosophy centered on an assertive black pride which rejected the paternalism of white liberals, and the movement’s popular slogan—“Black man, you’re on your own”—set the tone for a new wave of black defiance which bordered on open racial hatred. Black Consciousness leaders, who included such figures as Steve Biko and Barney Pityana, were generally too young to have developed strong contacts with the ANC before it was banned. Their harsh rejection of collaboration with whites brought their movement into sharp conflict with traditional ANC policies. The potential significance of this conflict was not lost on the white authorities in Pretoria, who at first allowed Black Consciousness activities an exceptional degree of freedom, both to counter ANC influence and to encourage an ideological counterpart to the government’s own policies of racial separatism.
By the late 1970s, however, events both in and around South Africa worked to reestablish the ANC as the vanguard of black South African opposition. Encouraged by the 1974 Portuguese withdrawal from Mozambique and Angola, and by the international attention focused on the growing Rhodesian conflict, the ANC was able to consolidate its strength and begin rebuilding its underground network. More important, the racial tensions within South Africa which had been heightened by Black Consciousness teachings erupted in the bloody Soweto uprisings of 1976 and 1977—provoking a far-reaching police crackdown that decimated that movement and its leadership.
The Soweto disturbances, which left seven hundred dead in some sixteen months of rioting and unrest, caused an unprecedented exodus of young black refugees, angry and impatient to fight back. Black Consciousness groups—never organized for practical resistance, and now incapacitated by police repression—offered no real alternative to the ANC as a channel for effective action. ANC offices in Botswana, Mozambique, and Zambia were consequently flooded with militant new recruits, many of them former followers of the Black Consciousness movement.
Those recruits, together with a growing number of former ANC activists who have completed long sentences in South African prisons and are returning to the movement, have been largely responsible for the ANC’s new military assertiveness. “Our problem,” one ANC official told me, “is not recruiting new fighters. The regime’s policies take care of that for us. The problem is convincing those who are arriving from South Africa that there is more to this than simply grabbing a gun and going back to kill the people who have been stepping on them.”
Since 1976, the scope of ANC military operations has grown substantially, and an estimated six thousand ANC fighters are now undergoing training at bases in Angola and Tanzania as well as in a number of Eastern-bloc nations. ANC guerrillas have carried out frequent and increasingly sophisticated attacks against South African government installations, including the bombing of the country’s central oil-from-coal processing complex in 1980, and the new Koeberg nuclear power facility in late 1982. The most dramatic and violent ANC attack to date took place in May 1983, when a car bomb planted by ANC members exploded outside South African Air Force headquarters in Pretoria, killing nineteen people, including eight blacks. The Pretoria bombing was the first ANC attack to produce serious civilian casualties, and it fulfilled growing expectations among analysts both within South Africa and abroad that a major escalation in ANC violence was imminent. In our talks less than a month before the attack, Tambo warned me that such an escalation should surprise no one.
“We have avoided civilian casualties because we don’t think that individual people are to blame for apartheid. We’re not fighting civilians—we’re not even fighting whites. We’re fighting a system. But it’s an armed struggle—it’s bound to develop into quite a war, and the civilian population will be affected.
“In any event, I think one really ought to be careful about the use of the word ‘civilian’ in relation to what the African National Congress is doing, because that risks committing the error of treating [black] Africans as if they are not civilians—as if they are not civilians because they are being killed all the time. [Black] civilians have always been the targets of armed violence by the regime. The regime has been killing us anyway, but somehow the question of civilians only seems to be important when those civilians are likely to be hurt by the ANC.