Black activists shift tactics in South Africa. South Africa's blacks are exploring new approaches to antigovernment activities. A 23-month state of emergency has nearly crushed their movement. Some activists now reject open confrontation, but seek to keep dissent alive by working through `nonpolitical' groups, such as churches and civic groups.

South Africa's black activists are beginning to formulate new strategies. Paralyzed by Pretoria's clampdown on their activities, groups fighting the government's segregationist policies - known as apartheid - are shifting from confrontational-type tactics of protests and mass meetings to organizing around nonpolitical associations. The idea is to use groups, such as sports associations and church societies, to hold people together, keep them mobilized - and keep a low profile for the organizations themselves.

``The time for protest is over,'' one activist declares. ``What we need now is action on fronts where we know we can win and give people a feeling of power. We need to appear very harmless, but need to be very harmful to the government.''

While some ``street committees'' - radical groups that virtually ruled black townships from 1984 to 1986 - are quietly being resurrected to carry out the new approach, they are severely constrained by the government's 23-month-old state of emergency and the bans it slapped on 17 anti-apartheid groups in February. Thus, churches and trade unions are now actively considering jumping in to try to fill the void.

This is the picture that emerges from interviews with members of several grass-roots organizations. Although still in the embryonic stage, these plans provide insight into how antigovernment activity, of necessity, will be redefined. And while it is too early to determine the effectiveness, this is a process many deem crucial to the future of black resistance.

``Government opponents must start thinking of new political strategies,'' says Peter Gastrow, an independent member of Parliament. ``Confrontation, mass mobilization - all that has been flattened by the state of emergency and banning orders. Without new strategies, the government's attempts at co-option can work for a long time.''

To be sure, many blacks here have given up on political tacks altogether and switched to violent means. Township leaders talk of the large number of young men who have disappeared lately and gone over to the ``other side'' - a euphemism for linking up with the armed wing of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC).

The need for a new approach has been clear since the state of emergency was imposed June 12, 1986, to halt violent upheavals that had engulfed black areas for almost two years. Thousands of activists were detained without trial - just about crushing the nationwide network of antigovernment groups that belong to the United Democratic Front, the largest multiracial opposition organization. The latest measures that effectively shut down the UDF and other organizations were more serious blows.

The government said it issued the orders because the affected groups fostered civil disobedience and rebellion, created alternative structures to replace official ones, and waged campaigns of fear and violence.

Consider how one group, the Mamelodi Civic Association, has been disabled. Its top leaders were picked up in this Pretoria township ``left, right, and center'' by security forces after 1986, says one association member, and more were detained after the latest government clampdown. Although the executive has since been filled by second-tier commanders, their effectiveness is blunted by having to work underground and in small, inconspicuous groups.

And their communications have been decimated. Time was when the Mamelodi group could call a boycott and get almost 100 percent participation. Not anymore. When it tried to organize a stayaway about a month ago, the car carrying pamphlets explaining the strike was stopped at a military roadblock. The literature was confiscated, thus preventing the message from getting out - and the stayaway flopped.

Thus, groups that are still functioning legally see subterfuge as the answer. Take the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the country's largest black labor federation whose activities have been restricted solely to labor-related functions under the recent bans. A Cosatu official says the idea is to become active in such benign organizations as taxi drivers' associations and soccer clubs that are fighting for specific - but not necessarily political - issues.

By getting into those groups, he explains, union representatives will ensure that people stick to the fight, thereby continuing their ``political education.'' In setting and achieving certain goals, they will cultivate a sense of empowerment, self-confidence - and a readiness for real political issues when they are introduced later, he says.

Not all affiliates are thrilled with the idea, however. A special Cosatu congress was held last weekend to discuss this strategy, among other things. Some leaders grumble that unions cannot be expected to fill the shoes of anti-apartheid organizations. Besides, they want to focus on labor problems, not politics.

(Cosatu will apparently pursue open resistance at the same time. In a statement issued after the congress, it called for three days of peaceful protest in June, and demonstrations every Tuesday in the workplace.)

The church also provides good cover, activists say. While clergymen such as Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu have been vociferous in their criticism of the government, many ministers want to take it further. Some - notably the Methodists - are setting up food cooperatives and other self-help programs with the same aim as Cosatu: to unite people for a common cause, against a common enemy.

Politically minded preachers are forming committees in many township churches to conduct workshops and hold meetings. ``The government repression has left our people in darkness,'' an activist minister says. ``There is no one else left to continue their political education.'' Numerous clergymen, however, apparently object to the church being used as a political front.

And even the civic associations are looking to less-volatile programs. The leader of the Mamelodi Civic Association says his group is running a Saturday morning ``alternative education'' course on black South African history. It also wants to start a mobile medical clinic.

``We have to soften up and reorganize what we were doing,'' he explains. ``This is the only way to keep the struggle alive.''

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