From The Guardian, London
As streets violence and political unrest spreads through the townships and cities of South Africa, the African National Congress which launched armed struggle against apartheid in the early 1960's—now believes there is a chance that the whole I edifice of white minority rule could collapse as suddenly as the Shah's regime in Iran. Little more than a year ago, the Nkomati Accord between South Africa and Mozambique had denied the armed fighters of the ANC their best access to South Africa, via Mozambique. The mood of the ANC leadership, in the wake of that setback, was gloomy. Today they have never been so optimistic.
The ANC's leading cadres, some 250 people, met in Zambia last month for the first consultative conference since 1969. In one of its most significant decisions, the ANC opened its top ranks to everyone in South Africa, and elected one white, two Indians, and two people of mixed race (Coloureds) to the national executive committee of 30.
Joe Slovo, a key member of the ANC's military wing, Umkonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), and the white member of the executive committee, says that "no romantic illusions must be held about the speed with which apartheid can be destroyed."
But never, he says, have so many people started "to take their own initiatives—not all directed from some national or regional under-ground - but subjectively inspired by the situation. People are showing their teeth."
Slovo believes that two critical psychological barriers have been breached on both sides. "The century-old African feeling of impotence has faded, and there is the beginning of a feeling—I put it no higher than that—that the white monolith can be cracked. On the white side there is less certainty that before that the system is unassailable."
The current proliferation of protests all over South Africa began with the campaign last August to boycott the regime's elections for Coloureds and Indians in a new three-chamber Parliament. Slovo believes that a key factor was the increase in ANC armed actions between March and August last year.
After the Nkomati Accord many people thought the ANC's effectiveness would dwindle. But the upsurge in armed activity, acknowledged by the regime's own statistics of incidents, has had, says Slovo, "a big inspirational effect," both on the ANC cadres and on people in South Africa.
Slovo points out that although there have been periods of rioting before, and other moments when the regime has been in crisis, there is now, for the first time, a convergence of three essential pre-revolutionary factors: a crisis in the enemy's ranks, a clear demonstration that people are ready to struggle and sacrifice even at the risk of death, and widespread acceptance that there is an alternative source of power—the ANC.
Most black townships have become ungovernable, he says, and are no-go areas for the white authorities. They are known locally as "free zones." While the regime can still enter with a massive show of force in armoured vehicles, no black policeman can survive normally. Local administration in the urban ghettos is collapsing, and there is what in Latin America would be called a state of siege.
Slovo believes that the white regime has lost the initiative and no longer has a coherent strategy. It veers wildly from reform to repression. "They realise that their life support system, the Bantustans, has gone. Everything was premised on the theory that South Africa was a country of minorities, with no single majority. But no-one internationally has accepted the Bantustans. The people who live there don't accept them. Botha's tricameral assembly has also failed to gain acceptance, and at the beginning of this year he even started to talk about offers to urban blacks. One felt he was beginning to enter Afrikaner holy ground. But he'll find few black collaborators for urban reform."
Slovo acknowledges that most of the upsurge in African strikes and protest is spontaneous and semi-spontaneous. In these circumstances the ANC's highest priority is to build up and expand its underground cells. One of the most encouraging recent developments has been the growth of internal leadership. The appearance of the United Democratic Front, which groups together more than 500 separate community associations, is "an enormously positive factor." While there is no formal link between the UDF and the ANC, many UDF leaders are veterans of the ANC.
"The trade union movement has also grown fast, and for the first time in South Africa history, there are more blacks in unions than whites. This creates the possibility of making the economy unworkable as well as the country ungovernable.
As chief of staff of the ANC's military headquarters which has planned all the recent sabotage attacks, such as the burning of the Sasol coal-to-oil conversion plant, and explosions at the Koeberg nuclear reactor, Slovo is usually described in the South African press as "number one wanted man" or "the master mind of the terror bombs." He hardly ever gives newspaper interviews.
With his wife, Ruth First, he was an early promoter of the Freedom Charter written in 1955, and is a veteran member of the South African Communist Party. He left South Africa in 1963. Ruth first was killed in 1982 by a parcel bomb delivered to the research centre at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo where she worked. During the negotiations leading to the Nkomati Accord, South African police officials privately confirmed to the Mozambicans that their agents had sent the bomb.
The Nkomati agreement dramatically changed the ANC's position in Mozambique and seemed to be the nadir of its fortunes. In one of its few comic moments last May, Slovo found himself visiting contacts in the Hotel Polana in Maputo and having to slip past a poolside gathering of Johannesburg businessmen, any of whom might have recognised him. Since then he has moved to Zambia.
Slovo says that the ANC's sabotage attacks—"armed propaganda"—have been very successful but the ANC now has to extend the range of its military actions and to concentrate even more on underground political organising.
He denies recent press reports that the ANC has prepared a hit list of top white politicians for assassination. Actions like the IRA's Brighton bombing are not part of its strategy. "We don't believe we'll solve the problem just by getting rid of Botha, and having another Botha to take his place. There are plenty of them."
But the line between civilian and military targets "is becoming thinner and thinner. Many levels of the white state have been militarised. For example, nowadays every farm is a centre of communication linked to the military, and all farmers are part of the paramilitary apparatus, the Skietkommandoes."
In May, the ANC issued a call to black policemen to refuse to shoot other blacks, and "to organise secretly to turn their guns on their masters." People were also asked to steal weapons from within the system, to reduce the ANC's previous dependence on weapons brought in from outside. The ANC is now forming small, mobile units in the townships.
There is one area in South Africa, where half the blacks live, which the ANC has tended to ignore until recently: The Bantustans. Their nominal "independence" makes it potentially harder for Pretoria to intervene there, if radical trends were to develop. Last month the ANC conference decided to increase its activities in the Bantustans. The conference also discussed the relationship between the ANC's initial concept of prolonged people's war and the approaching possibility of insurrection. It decided it must prepare for both.
Slovo believes that the Freedom Charter around which the UDF and many other South Africans have now rallied is as valid today as it was in 1955, even though it is not a socialist blueprint. "We're not Pol Pot," he says. "We're not in favour of abolishing the middle class. Black traders will be better off with us than under the present regime with its apartheid restrictions."
He describes the recent moves in the United States towards imposing sanctions on apartheid as "a measure of the strength of our movement. The United States is beginning to fear that everything it supports might be undermined. That is why it has begun to make overtures towards the ANC. On the right terms (the ANC is willing to talk to anyone. Dialogue is part of the struggle, although it has its menacing side."
The recent ANC conference also discussed the regime's growing efforts to split black unity, to create tension between the UDF and black-consciousness movements like Azapo [Azanian People's Organisation] to send in agents provocateurs and infiltrators, to use forged pamphlets, and to promote tribalism. A new development is the emergence of death squads, who have been responsible for killing 11 people and abducting 25 black activists recently.
"But the vital element now," says Slovo "is the combat willingness of the majority. We need to respond to the mood of the people —that we must take the lives of the other side as well. Some may seek revenge, but this is not our policy. Our task is to find ways of harnessing the combat potential, and exploiting the new strength of "the people in political motion.' "