SINCE South Africa's largest black political movement, the African National Congress, renounced its policy of armed struggle against apartheid last August, the organization's grass-roots members have experienced little but struggle. The situation in the townships where many of them live has become nearly intolerable, with violence between ANC partisans and backers of the Zulu-based Inkatha movement often claiming dozens of lives weekly. That violence has generated deepened resentment against the white-run government, whose police forces are accused of favoring Inkatha. Also aggravating the situation is the government's slowness in following through on promises to release political prisoners and allow political exiles back into the country.
Small wonder, then, that the recent ANC conference in Johannesburg - the group's first legal gathering in 31 years - produced a flare-up of radical rhetoric and criticism of the more moderate stands taken by the group's senior leadership. While those leaders, most notably Nelson Mandela, have embarked on negotiations with the ruling National Party, their constituents share little of their vision of a new South Africa. Average ANC supporters still see a lot of the old South Africa in their daily lives.
No one recognizes this situation better than Mr. Mandela himself. His call to involve ``the masses'' in all stages of the process and report regularly back to them will have to be heeded. The political traditions of South Africa's black community demand that kind of consultation.
But consultation requires structure, and the ANC, legal for only 10 months, is struggling to convert itself from an underground organization into a functioning democratic coalition. Its prospective adversary/partner in negotiations - the National Party - has well-oiled party machinery, money, and the whole structure of government behind it.
The ANC also faces the sobering realization that its chief ``weapons'' for forcing change are becoming obsolete. The armed struggle was relinquished because it had become counterproductive. Sanctions were again endorsed by the ANC, but the international community has already begun to loosen sanctions in response to reforms by President Frederik de Klerk.
To satisfy militants in its ranks, the ANC has adopted a program of mass demonstrations to emphasize the need for further reforms. It is also talking about organizing local security units to protect ANC supporters from violence. Mr. De Klerk has called these backward steps. In fact, they may be politically necessary tactics, given the discontent within the ANC.
The majority of South Africans have yet to feel significant benefit from changes in the country. That will come as the process moves toward universal democracy. Meanwhile, those long disenfranchised need to feel involved in the change. Mandela recognizes this. So should De Klerk.