The most significant development in black politics in South Africa over the past four years has been the reemergence of the African National Congress (ANC) as the most popular black nationalist movement.
This lays the groundwork for greater black militancy.
A public-opinion poll among blacks just carried out by the Johannesburg Star shows the growing support for the ANC among blacks. The ANC's share of the poll was almost equal to that of all other black nationalist movements put together.
These findings confirm what has seemed to be a general trend among politically articulate South African blacks since the crushing of the Black Consciousness Movement after the death in police custody in 1977 of its youthful leader, Steve Biko.
That trend of thinking, away from non-violence, casts the ANC more and more in the role of a traditional black liberation movement, ready to use sabotage and guerrilla warfare as weapons -- and equally ready to accept self-sacrifice in the process. The South African government is almost certainly correct in attributing the growing number of bombing incidents in the republic to the ANC.
he implications of all this for the government are ominous. These implications help explain some of the government's recent tough actions -- actions that, as so often happiness in such circumstances, stem from a deep, underlying fear about survival.
The appeal of the ANC, established in the Johannesburg Star poll, is a warning to the government on the following counts:
* It proves that among politically aware blacks, the separate tribal homelands policy has not weakened the sense of overall black South African nationhood within the Republic of South Africa, since the ANC is a national organization in the latter sense. In other words, it raises a question whether the white policy of divide and rule will work.
* It marks a swing away from exclusive black nationalism -- the Black Consciousness Movement, for example, the Pan-africanist Congress, or Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi's Inkatha Movement -- bakc toward a black willingness to cooperate with white (and any other) radicals and idealists. The ANC, since its founding back in 1912, has always been multiracial.
* It keeps open a channel for communist involvement in South African race politics, since the ANC's multiracial policy has always provided an opening for nonblack communists (there are few if any black ones) to cooperate with or work within it as A political organization. For white Afrikaner nationalists, this is a nightmare contingency. They try to defend themselves against this by using the communist threat for propaganda purposes in the West.
But the ANC still has a long way to go before it can hope to get the white government either off balance or on the defensive. The political editor of the London Economist, in a masterly eight-page survey after visiting South Africa, writes:
"ANC bombing incidents have increased, though the primitiveness of the devices and the organization's inability to secure its agents' escape is regarded even by sympathetic observers as a sign of the chronic inefficiency and suscemptibility to informers. ANC training camps are a shambles, regularly vulnerable to South African hit squads. . . . [Zimbabwe Prime Minister] Robert Mugabe's reported view is that the ANC is nowhere near ready for him to risk his vital trade links with South Africa in its active support."
Those training camps and other ANC bases or supply lines have to be across the border in neighboring territories. Within South Africa itself, the ANC has been banned and illegal since 1960. Its leader, Nelson Mandela, is in Robin Island jail off the coast near Cape Town, serving a life sentence for treason and sabotage.
As the Economist writer said, the ANC camps in neighboring territories are intermittently the target of South Africa hitsquad swoops. An informer seized in such a raid last January on an ANC base near Maputo, the Mozambique capital, was the key witness in the Pretoria trial in August in which three ANC members in their 20s were sentenced to death for acts of sabotage. Such sentences are intended to deter, but to the frustration of the government, the courts have so far held up executions except in cases where there was loss of life.
Since the beginning of this month, there have been repeated bomb explosions and acts of sabotage in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, an independent territory entirely surrounded by South Africa.
Its geography has made it the usual first stop for many black nationalists leaving South Africa to make their first contacts with ANC recruiters and await onward transport to training camps elsewhere in Africa -- or even in Eastern Europe or Cuba.
Some explain the Maseru explosions in terms of internal Lesotho politics. A more widely held view is that South Africa has a finger in them, intending them as a warning to Lesotho's prime minister, Chief Leabua Jonathan, to crack down on the ANC.
The reemergence of the ANC as a prime black nationalist force also explains the government's resumption in recent months of arresting white as well as black student activists. The authorities are aware that under ANC influence black-white student activist cooperation becomes more active.
One of those now in custody is Andrew Boraine, president of the white National Union of South African students. He is the son of a member of the opposition Progressive Federal Party in the South African Parliament. His family connection has not prevented the authorities from holding him in solitary confinement without trial.
Clearly the mood of the South African government is that the best way to make a point is to show who holds the whip.