NELSON MANDELA'S historic visit to the United States beginning tomorrow is likely to increase the influence of the African National Congress over US policy toward South Africa and boost his authority among black South Africans. ``Mandela being hailed as a hero in the world's most powerful nation - with its strong civil rights history - is positive symbolism which will play well in South Africa,'' says Natal University's Mervyn Frost.
Before his June 4 departure on a six-week, 14-nation tour, Mandela acknowledged the special role played by the US in the African National Congress's (ANC's) campaign to end white rule.
``The United States is the only country which has incorporated in law a measure making it an offense to trade with South Africa, and we thank them for that,'' said Mandela.
Despite the fact that the US is a latecomer in supporting the organization, the ANC recognizes that the US stance on sanctions gives Washington unique leverage, and says that the advantage should not be relinquished too soon.
``The primary political objective of the trip is to win the support of the American people and the Bush administration, and to ensure that sanctions are maintained until we are convinced that the negotiating process has become irreversible,'' says ANC national organizer Steve Tshwete.
The trip will also provide the ANC with its best opportunity for raising the funds needed to acquire and equip offices, to set up a newspaper, to buy media access, and to resettle some 20,000 exiles.
ANC officials in the US have appealed for from $100 to $200 million from the international community. They hope to collect more than $1 million in each US city Mandela visits. South African newspapers have been running front page reports about glittering fund-raising dinners where guests will pay $25,000 a plate. ``Fund-raising is one of the most important aspects of the tour,'' Mr. Tshwete says.
But Mandela's most immediate need is to make sure that the ANC retains control of the agenda and sets the schedule for easing sanctions. ``To lift them [sanctions] now could sink the whole negotiation process,'' Democratic Party economist Sampie Terreblanche told the financial daily Business Day. ``Rather, when there is a clear indication that this is a genuine process, let Mandela call for an end to sanctions and disinvestment.''
``If he [Mandela] achieves a standstill on sanctions, it will strengthen his position internally - both in respect of doubting youth and the collective ANC leadership,'' said a Western diplomat.
If the negotiation process that began with ANC-government talks in May is to remain on track, both Mandela and De Klerk must retain the support of their followers all the way to the negotiating table.
Even liberal South African opponents of sanctions are beginning to say that continued sanctions could promote negotiations.
Unchallenged statements Mandela made after recent meetings with French President Fran,cois Mitterrand and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl indicate that he has made headway in convincing South Africa's trading partners that the time has not yet arrived to lift sanctions.
The final decision on European sanctions will be taken by the 12-nation European Community at its summit on June 25. But diplomats expect, at most, a symbolic gesture like the lifting of the cultural embargo. And European leaders - including Britain's Margaret Thatcher - do not indicate that they will act unilaterally in conflict both with Mandela and the US administration.
Mandela appears to have achieved the support despite De Klerk's success last month in persuading the same leaders that change in South Africa was ``irreversible,'' an agreed signal to consider lifting of sanctions.
Mandela indicated that sanctions should remain until negotiations have removed apartheid and settled on a nonracial, one person-one vote constitution. This has presented the US administration with a dilemma in reviewing the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA), which sets down specific conditions that must be fulfilled before sanctions can be lifted. (See box).
With the lifting of the nationwide state of emergency on June 8, the last formal obstacle was removed. The emergency still has to be lifted in Natal, and the ANC leadership must sanction a deal on the release of political prisoners De Klerk has accepted.
But already, the US administration has indicated that it is tilting toward a more stringent ANC agenda for lifting sanctions.
A group of US congressmen, led by House majority whip William Gray, visited South Africa in March and were impressed by the growing momentum for peace and democracy. But they noted that the ``basic structures of apartheid remain wholly in place'' and added that the lifting of US sanctions could be considered only ``once irreversible change had occurred.'' (Complete removal of apartheid is not one of the CAAA criteria).
This response gave the impression that the goalposts of the discussion on sanctions are shifting. Secretary of State James Baker stated recently that the administration was not considering lifting sanctions at this stage.
And ``there is a strong feeling in Washington that sanctions should not be lifted before congressional elections in November,'' says a US diplomat. Even then, initial gestures could be limited to symbolic ones, such as restoration of South African landing rights in the US.
De Klerk has already won an important concession from the ANC, namely that the ANC will drop its call for intensified sanctions. And officials in Pretoria indicate that the Bush administration has helped move the US sanctions debate from considering new sanctions to deciding when to reduce them.
De Klerk's now-postponed trip to the US to meet Bush ``would have fueled the anti-apartheid campaign in the US and strengthened the [ANC's] move to retain sanctions,'' says a Western diplomat. He adds that as a result, Mandela will be left to give the signal for the lifting of sanctions.