LAST month 77-year-old Walter Sisulu and five of his colleagues were freed from a South African jail after serving 26 years. As a former secretary-general of the outlawed African National Congress and closest confidant of jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela, Mr. Sisulu is destined to play a pivotal role in the rapprochement of black and white in South Africa. In a speech last week defending the government's policy of allowing peaceful protests and a freer political debate, President Frederik de Klerk said that the onus is on the ANC ``to demonstrate by its actions that it is committed to a process of peace and that it can be trusted to sit down with all other parties to plan the new South Africa.''
Sisulu says that the ANC has done precisely that with an ``orderly and disciplined'' rally on Oct. 29, attended by 70,000 people.
Situated in a dusty Soweto street, Sisulu's modest three-bedroom home has become a regular stop-off for Western diplomats and visiting politicians. He spoke to the Monitor about recent developments.
How has the Oct. 29 rally advanced the ANC cause in the context of negotiations?
I am very delighted with the success of the rally. One of its most significant aspects was that the discipline was amazingly high. We proved that when we say we conduct our struggle in an orderly and legitimate way, we mean it. When police do not interfere, our people are able to behave. The government should have no excuses now for fearing or imagining riots every time a meeting is to be called. Both the police and the government have been cautious in their comments, because they are still sensitive to the criticism of the right wing.
The government insists that the ANC is still a banned organization but the rally undermines its claims. How do you regard the current status of the ANC?
The unfolding situation, the enthusiasm of the people, places the government in a difficult position. Given the situation created by the mass defiance campaign, the mood of the people is: Let the people express themselves. I recognize the legal position [that the ANC is banned], but we will exploit the situation in the most advantageous way to us without being reckless. We want to create a situation whereby either the government must suppress the people completely - which it can no longer do - or it must lift the ban on the ANC. They must make a choice.
The unconditional release of ANC leaders inside the country - while maintaining the ban on the external organization - has fortified the impression that there is a quasi-legal internal ANC wing and an outlawed external wing. Are you not concerned this could lead to a division within the ANC?
No, it is not going to lead to that. We are one organization operating underground in South Africa and operating above ground externally. We will continue with that until a situation has been created - either by us or the government - whereby the movement has been unbanned. There is a clear understanding amongst us. We are here and the ANC executive is abroad. We want only one ANC.
Is there a tacit understanding between Mandela and the government that if your release proceeds peacefully and you can demonstrate that the movement is disciplined, then the state of emergency will be lifted, the ANC legalized, and Mandela freed to negotiate?
There is no understanding as such that the process will be resolved. Naturally, the government would find it difficult to release Mandela into a vacuum. He has become a very powerful personality and to release him while the ANC is still banned creates a difficult problem for the government. The government must necessarily be thinking about the situation because of Mandela's standing in the international community and the country.
In the present climate of political rapprochement, do you think it will be increasingly difficult to mobilize people for acts of mass defiance against apartheid?
I don't think it will be more difficult, but there could be problems. The question of continuous action is a way of mobilizing the people. You mobilize people around this issue [of negotiations]. The government would expect us to fold our arms and wait. We won't. I am impressed with what I have seen so far. There is proper organization and there is discipline. The government should be learning lessons from what is happening now.
How did you feel when your wife, Albertina, was received by President Bush?
I was completely surprised that Albertina had been invited to meet the US president. I was very happy with the manner in which the whole thing went off and also with President Bush's reaction, which was quite impressive. Incidentally, he was the first head of state to write to me to welcome me back after my release. Only one other - Sweden - has done so.