Behind the scenes: global pressure on both sides

Considerable pressure on the main actors in the South African conflict to begin talking to each other lies behind the release of Govan Mbeki. Both the government and the African National Congress will be hard pressed to withstand the kind of arm-twisting apparently now being used to persuade them to go through at least the formalities of a verbal ex- change – even if, in the short term the content falls far short of any progress to a negotiated settlement. If such an exchange does take place as a number of usually well – informed diplomats serving in the Frontline states expect it will within the next 10 months or so – it will neither be the end of this world nor the herald of a brave new dawn.

There is a difference between an exchange of signals talks about talks, exploratory talks and actual negotiations. And any or all of them can be spread out over a long period with few or no conclusive results. Given the balance of forces in the country and the region at the moment the release of Mbeki et al – and the strong likelihood that others will follow sooner rather than later- is an ambiguous victory for the ANC. No doubt the outlawed movement is correct in saying it was domestic and international anti-apartheid pressure which made the release necessary.

Notably, it was the kind of pressure that came eventually to include Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. But, equally certainly, the South African government appears to believe the release is one of perhaps a number of tactical retreats it can afford to make. It is not difficult to understand the Pretoria government's reasoning. It clearly believes that over the past 17 months of Emergency rule it has struck quite hard blows against some sections of the ANC's internal underground, seriously debilitated legal mass anti-apartheid organisations, plugged up many of Umkhonto we Sizwe's infiltration routes through neighbouring stales, and made it high impossible, in the short term at least, for any neighbouring state to play a significant support role in the struggle against apartheid.

The more insightful of Pretoria's own analysts and friends in the West have, according to diplomatic sources, been arguing with increasing force over the past five months that this relatively advantageous state of affairs is not something that can be relied upon to last indefinitely. Rather, it must be exploited in the near future — and those in Pretoria unwilling to make the leap of faith into the (perhaps black) future might just have to be shoved into it. If Pretoria does indeed engage in some form of talks with the ANC over the next 10 months, this fact will not rule out attempts to cobble together some sort of "conservative consensus" whose black component would be the National Statutory Council or some more credible version of it.

On the contrary, talks with the ANC would make more compelling the need that the government build up an institution like the NSC. lan Smith needed his Abel Muzorewa and Jeremiah Chimu. And President Botha might be said to have the same need. Among other things, having a reasonably viable NSC would strengthen the government's hand in pushing for a round table design for any future talks or negotiations. The government could introduce to such a conference a number of supposedly autonomous black parties which would owe their presence there almost entirely to government political largesse.

The release of Mbeki – and the likelihood that Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu will follow – also has precisely the effect of clearing away an important obstacle between Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi (together with others like him) and participation in the NSC or some variant of it. For this and related reasons, the release of political prisoners could strengthen the government's hand in going for conservative consensus which includes selected blacks. It could result in the South African version of the Rhodesian "internal settlement".

The ANC and its aIIies face a critical challenge: to take full advantage of the situation that could soon arise. For the ANC and its allies the future is complex and difficult. If not formally, then at least in a factual sense, the ANC could soon find itself unbanned. There is nothing intrinsically dangerous in this for the ANC. Any outlawed revolutionary movement must always fight for an open mass presence. The point is regarded as almost universally applicable in revolutionary theory. But this could place the ANC in some difficulties about whether or not it then gives up its armed struggle. It will require extraordinary political will and organisational sophistication in the ANC and its allies to avoid what they would probably describe as the "horror' of a reformist outcome.

If talks of some kind are indeed on the cards, it is sensible to anticipate that the ANC would seek consultations with a wide range of legal mass organisations it might regard as its allies. This would be logical in that, if the struggle against apartheid can be said to have one strength, then it is the diversity of both the methods and organisational forms this struggle has developed over time. Compared to liberation struggles elsewhere in Africa and most other parts of the underdeveloped world, revolutionary forces in South Africa have had a more distinctly political character and have been less dependent on the reinforcement of their struggle from abroad.

In addition, it is well known that the ANC's vision of negotiations with the government – if they come – is of the ANC heading a broad front of political, trade union and other anti- apartheid forces. This front – the ANC would hope would sit across a "two-sided table" from the government and its allies. The ANC would resist attempts to introduce into the talks a multi- party or round-tabled design which would introduce a plethora of small and supposedly autonomous parties which it would regard as irrelevant to the central conflict. And, of course, the ANC has undertaken on several occasions in the past not to enter into secret talks with the government. So consultations would be a requirement for the ANC.

A realisation of the difficulties which could lie ahead is probably the reason for the ANC's response to Mbeki's release: that the ANC will not in any way restrain itself following this release. On the contrary, it has been sounding off in the Frontline states since Thursday last week that it believes it is necessary to escalate its offensive, primarily inside the country.

Why? Firstly, because it does not believe the South African government has had a change of heart and is yet ready to negotiate seriously over the key issue – the transfer of political power to the majority. Secondly, because the ANC cannot, viewed from its perspective, allow foreign states to define the content or tactical compromises of its struggle. And, thirdly, because inside the country is where it believes its stronger contingent lies.

Quite how acute the ANC's understanding is of the complications developing at this conjuncture is unclear. But the more serious people in its ranks have ditched the unrealistic triumphalism which has lingered elsewhere for far longer than is justified by the really quite limited gains it made in the two years after September 1984. These more serious ANC members appear to realise there is little in the way of immediate or significant ground that is likely to be won at the negotiating table beyond the trenches the ANC and its allies occupy on the political-military battlefield. It is a thought which should sober up anybody in the ranks of the ANC. If it does not the ANC could soon find itself in very serious trouble at a time when, for it, the stakes can never have been said to be higher. – Howard Barrell

For all PW's chiding, there's little about that this is a test run before the big one: Freeing Mandela

The freeing after nearly a quarter of a century of the veteran African National Congress prisoner, Govan Mbeki, has put the release of his world-renowned comrade, Nelson Mandela, firmly back on the agenda. The question now is not so much whether but when the charismatic Mandela will be freed. Only one factor can delay the emergence from jail of Mandela in the next few months: an upsurge in the now quiescent revolt in South Africa's black townships, triggered by the return to political life of Mbeki.

So far, however, there is every evidence that Mbeki, 77, and the black leaders shepherding him into life outside prison, will not do anything to jeopardise the freedom of Mandela and the five ANC prisoners who were jailed for life with him at the Rivonia trial of 1964. President PW Botha has chided the press for speculating on when the next wave of political prisoners will follow Mbeki, charging that premature conjecture is irresponsible.

But his own cabinet ministers have confirmed, with a proviso or two, that the release of Mbeki is both a trial run for the release of further political prisoners and the first move in a wider game plan the first and immediate aim is to reinitiate the stalled move to establish a national council. Devised as a forum where leaders of all races can draft a new constitution for all South Africans, the council has so far failed to win endorsement from a single credible black leader.

Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the 15-million strong Zulu-based Inkatha movement has set the liberation of Mandela and the leader of the rival Pan Africanist Congress, Zeph Mothopeng, as a pre-condition for his participation. Anxious to persuade Buthelezi to serve on the council, the government has started to move toward fulfilling his condition. But it is doing so cautiously, testing the reaction of South ' Africa's black and white communities to the release of lesser-known prisoners before freeing Mandela. The government has a second, associated motive: to "demythologise" the ANC and its leaders. The ANC has been outlawed since 1960. Many of its major leaders, including the original "high command" of its underground army, Umkhonto weSizwe, have been in jail or exile since 1964. The rest have been in exile.

Over the years, however, the public has not forgotten either the ANC or its imprisoned leaders. Instead, the ANC leadership has grown in stature and become shrouded in a status-enhancing mystique. The government now wants to reverse the process. In a revealing choice of phrase, the pro-government Afrikaans newspaper, Beeld, said in an editorial on Mbeki ' s release: "The Mbeki myth has suddenly become a human who, like all citizens, must be law-abiding and thus peaceful."

Demystification infers two developments: the re-emergence of the incarcerated ANC leaders into public life where they can make mistakes and, as a logical corollary, the unbanning of the ANC. The ban on the ANC seems to have been partially lifted, in practice if not in a strict legal sense, in Mbeki's case. He has made no bones about his commitment to the ANC and to its "revolutionary ally", the South African Communist Party. But he has not been prevented from speaking on their behalf, although the restriction prohibiting the press from publishing his remarks is still in force.

When Mbeki is joined by his colleagues – Walter Sisulu, 75, a former secretary general of the ANC, is tipped as the next ANC man to be freed – the facto lifting of the ban will become more apparent. But although the ban may be revoked, de facto or de fare, the State of Emergency is likely to be left intact. That will place the ANC in the same position as the legal, though severely harassed, United Democratic Front. The two opposition forces share a broadly common ideological approach.

The national State of Emergency, declared in June 1986 and renewed a year later, was imposed to contain an attempt by the ANC to fan the township revolt of 1984-1986 into a full-scale people's war or popular insurrection. Thus one government objective in the present situation, is to wean the ANC of its long-standing commitment to "armed struggle". Conversely, it hopes to lure the ANC, or sections of it into participation in approved structures, including the national council.

Stoffel van der Merwe, the man Botha has entrusted with a mandate to give impetus to internal negotiations with black leaders, has argued that there is no justification for the ANC's guerrilla war today. Whatever reasons the ANC may have had originally for its decision to revert w guerrilla war, these no longer hold, Van der Merwe argued in parliament. His speech might be construed as a bid to persuade the ANC to abandon its hope of winning power through revolutionary war.

Another, concomitant government aim might be to split the ANC into external and internal wings, a variant of Botha's earlier attempt to separate ANC nationalists from communists. The unfolding situation will, of course, present the ANC with difficult decisions. To function as a semi-legal movement in the minuscule are as of political freedom left by the Emergency restrictions is hardly an attractive proposition. At the time of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons peace mission to South Africa in 1986, the ANC was prepared to suspend its guerrilla campaign while negotiating with Botha – on condition that troops and police were removed from the townships.

Botha, however, is not offering to negotiate with the ANC now, still less to withdraw security forces from the townships. His lieutenants are merely hinting that he may be prepared to allow released ANC leaders a degree of freedom. Botha has not extracted a formal re- nunciation of violence from Mbeki. But the ANC leader's release is clearly based on a tacit undertaking that he will not try to mobilise mass demonstrations against the system let alone plan violent actions. Mbeki has indeed been restrained, cautious and conciliatory in his remarks. But for the ANC per se armed struggle remains a major bargaining card even if, as some observers have argued, the government is stronger on the military terrain than it is in the political arena.

The ANC is hardly likely to throw it away until it is in a much stronger position. Summing up the ANC' s position on, armed struggle, the Commonwealth's Eminent Persons said in their report: "For the ANC to renounce violence now would be to reduce itself to a state of helpnessness. There must first be sufficient indications of the South African government's readiness to negotiate the transition to non-racial sovereignty." The ANC position has not changed.

After the Emergency was renewed in June the UDF Natal president Archie Gumede, mooted the possibility of participation by the UDF in existing political institutions as a way of mounting pressure on the government and of breaking the logjam. He was promptly repudiated by UDF. There is no evidence that the ANC will react differently to a similar proposal from its ranks. If the government further raises the cost of hosting ANC guerrillas for neighbouring states, then these states may try to coax the ANC into opting for a political solution. Short of that possibility, however, the ANC is unlikely to forgo its guerrilla war, although it may tread warily in the immediate future for fear of jeopardising the release of Mandela and his comrades. – Patrick Laurence

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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