JOHANESBURG — THE African National Congress (ANC) has initiated an open-ended period of mass-action protests aimed at putting pressure on the government to speed up progress in negotiations on powersharing and a new constitution.
Coinciding with the anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising, the mass-action campaign is being viewed largely as a battle-ground for the manipulation of public opinion. The ANC accuses the government of stalling the transition process. The government, meanwhile, argues that the ANC is only fomenting further violence.
"We are not going to settle for something less than democracy," ANC President Nelson Mandela told a crowd of 35,000 supporters Tuesday. He said blacks were tired of government using the townships as killings fields in an effort to stall reforms. But he urged strict discipline during the mass action campaign.
Minister of Law and Order Hernus Kriel responded yesterday with the opposite view. "Mass action is unnecessary at this stage because negotiations are going ahead. It acts as a catalyst for violence and harms the economy," he said.
Citing at least 34 deaths in the Johannesburg area since Monday, Mr. Kriel described the campaign as "a futile exercise in blackmail."
The campaign follows the breakdown of talks last month at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, the forum set up to negotiate the end of minority rule. The government and the ANC split over the issue of a minority veto in the constitution-making process.
In observance of the day when police fired on Soweto students protesting the teaching of Afrikaans in their schools in 1976, millions of workers stayed home and thousands attended rallies.
Anna Maleka, a resident of Soweto, celebrated the anniversary of the uprising but stayed away from the marches and rallies.
"I was scared," she said. Her fear was typical of many blacks who felt they could be killed traveling to or from rallies, as so many others have died either at the hands of the police or during clashes between the ANC and the rival Inkatha movement.
Her fears were reinforced after police Tuesday returned thousands of so-called traditional weapons at the Johannesburg offices of the Zulu-based Inkatha party. Inkatha leaders strongly oppose the mass action campaign.
The weapons were seized Sunday during a police sweep of Soweto but were returned after an Inkatha central committee member, Themba Khoza, complained that the seizure showed that the police were not acting impartially in dealing with township violence.
Although the carrying of such weapons is banned under a national peace accord signed last year by most parties, including Inkatha, the organization still insists on the right to carry them as part of its cultural heritage.
A spokesman for the South African police said the weapons had been given back on the orders of the Soweto regional commissioner, Maj. Gen. Kobus Malan.
Meanwhile, ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa said the ANC believed it had taken sufficient steps to ensure that demonstrations were peaceful.