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…
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