SECRETARY of State Shultz told home truths to the leaders of Nigeria, Kenya, Liberia, and the Cameroon on his recently concluded swing through middle Africa. Important as reading the economic lesson has been to our black African allies, what to do about South Africa is still the key question for Mr. Shultz and the US. Mr. Shultz will be conferring with Oliver Tambo, exiled head of the African National Congress, later this month in Washington. The ANC, founded in 1912 by black South Africans trained at US and British universities, is the white government of South Africa's most dedicated and threatening opponent. It rallied and protested openly within South Africa, vainly attempting to counter the rush of apartheid, before being banned and thus forced underground in 1960. It has used the weapons of physical sabotage and verbal polemic ever since, during the 1970s and '80s, from political headquarters in Zambia and from military training camps in Angola.
Only this year has the State Department at last moved openly to embrace the ANC as a legitimate, if violent, player in the desperate game of South Africa. Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost visited Zambia late last month and arranged the official meeting with Mr. Shultz that has long been desired by the ANC. It has also been advocated by those American advisers and by South Africans who see the ANC as integral to the solution, and not simply the problem of a South Africa in turmoil.
Every recent opinion survey of black South Africans reports the enormous popularity of the ANC.
The ANC, financially and militarily supported by the Soviet Union, has long espoused a socialistic, nationalistic program for the post-apartheid country which it intends to rule. Its spokesmen hint at the industrial takeovers that would follow majority rule. But they also talk confidently of a truly multiracial society, and of a future South Africa that will be black-ruled and continue to count upon and have abundant room for the economic efforts of whites.
Leading South African businessmen, opposition politicians, churchmen, and educators began flocking to Zambia to see Mr. Tambo and the ANC in 1985. At that time, this decade's bitter conflict between urban black protesters and the police and Army of South Africa had been under way for nearly a year. Now that struggle, shattering and consuming the energies of a vast number of Africans and whites, is 2 years old, with no end in sight. About 2,300 Africans have been killed, 10,000 wounded, and more than 20,000 detained. More than 1 million Africans have stopped paying rent to the government, a sign that the townships where 10 million of the country's 25 million Africans live are no longer fully under the government's mailed fist.
Mr. Tambo ought to have a lot to say to Mr. Shultz. But it will be a mistake if they spar far too long about global issues.
As much as some Americans may think so, the ANC is less an instrument of Soviet forward strategy in Africa than it is a nationalist movement whose time has come and will keep coming. Since the US has no direct leverage over South African official policy, Mr. Shultz can advance US policy interests in South Africa and Africa most dramatically by investing his meeting with Mr. Tambo with added symbolism. If he can be persuaded to recognize the ANC as an authentic contender for power in South Africa - as a legitimate opponent of a minority regime - then it will say more psychologically to the government, to its white and black opponents, and to Africa than almost anything uttered privately, or in the ears of the South African government alone.
There is a ferment in South Africa which Mr. Shultz would do well to back and foster. The political leader of the Coloreds (or those of mixed race) in South Africa's tricameral Parliament recently threatened to cease cooperating with the white regime if apartheid were not completely dismantled.
White businessmen almost without exception are eager to see their government negotiate rather than battle against blacks. Voices from almost every corner demand the release from prison of Nelson Mandela, Mr. Tambo's colleague and the original leader of the ANC, so the process of bargaining can begin.
Every South African fears even more bloodshed than at present. Mr. Shultz can help stanch the flow of blood by emphasizing American understanding of and public appreciation for the goals of the ANC. Temporizing will only hinder those within South Africa who are campaigning for meaningful negotiations.
Robert I. Rotberg is a professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.