MORE than a year after the African National Congress was legalized, its rank-and-file exiles have begun returning to an emotional reception - and an uncertain future. The long-awaited return of some 20,000 exiles, which is likely to take many months, represents a breakthrough for the ANC. Until now, it has been able to show few tangible gains after 10 months of talks with the government.
``The return of the exiles will be good for morale,'' said ANC executive member Jackie Selebi, who heads the ANC's repatriation committee. ``It will show our cadres that the process [of negotiations] that we have embarked upon can be realized.''
However, the government's refusal to accept financial responsibility for the exiles has left a residue of intense anger in ANC ranks and undermined recent ``apologies'' for apartheid from government officials.
``If it had not been for apartheid there would not have been exiles at all,'' says Mr. Selebi.
Pretoria is also dragging its feet on the involvement of the UN High Commision on Refugees. Several Western government have linked financial assistance to UNHCR involvement. It is estimated that the repatriation will cost about $140 million.
The exiles' return is a key condition for negotiations which the ANC says must be met by April 30. ANC ranks now accept that all exiles cannot return by then but should at least be indemnified.
Hours before the first batch of 94 exiles flew in from Zambia on Friday the government announced more lenient grounds for granting indemnity. Now, all ANC members who received military training prior to Oct. 8 last year will qualify for indemnity, unless they are currently serving members of the military wing.
``This will cater to more than 80 percent of our exiles,'' said Penuell Maduna, an ANC official. ``All those who are not in the army will be able to return.''
It is estimated about 5,000 of the ANC's 20,000 exiles are serving members of the military wing, but nearly three times that number have had military training.
Until now the government has granted indemnity only on a temporary basis to about 200 or so ANC officials to enable them to re-establish their organization inside the country. A further 1,000 or so exiles are estimated to have infiltrated the nominally independent Transkei homeland.
The Department of Justice says it has indemnified 2,092 exiles, but most amount to conditional indemnity. The Home Ministry says it has issued 2,874 travel documents for exiles and 3,370 more are being processed.
THE first exiles - some gone 30 years - returned to a tumultuous reception by family, friends and ANC supporters. But the joy at Johannesburg's Jan Smuts airport was tempered by grim-faced policemen and snarling police dogs which bit at least six ANC supporters as they waited for the returnees.
``Nothing much has changed, I see,'' said Ahmed Qono, a spokesman for the returnees.
The ANC hopes the returnees will make a major contribution to its internal organization and help restore unity which has been strained by excluding exiles.
``It will give a new impetus to the ANC,'' said Selebe. ``These are experienced cadres used to a disciplined way-of-life. They will have political clout.''
The exiles' happiness was tinged with bewilderment and fear. Many of them realize they face grim prospects in South Africa. There are an estimated 7 million black South Africans without formal housing, and unemployment is pushing 50 percent in many parts of the country.
Despite the ruling National Party's dramatic politicla turnabout, blacks have not experienced any material benefits. Political violence between rival black groups has turned life in the black townships into a living nightmare.
The experience of those who have returned shows their vulnerablity. Many have been arrested and harassed by the police, and some have been abducted by the feared Askaris - former ANC guerrillas who have ``turned'' under interrogation and now work for the security forces.
``Returning is an emotionally costly experience,'' said Ndumiso Matlala after his first five hours on home soil. ``One moment you are happy and the next moment you are feeling depressed.''
Mr. Matlala fled South Arica in 1984, shortly after the nationwide black uprising which resulted in the declaration of a national emergency in 1986.
He was studying at the University of the North in northern Transvaal at the time. ``Education was becoming impossible because of boycotts, and we felt it would not be long before the government was overthrown.''
In this heady climate, Matlala went to an ANC military camp in Angola for training.
He has no regrets. But his main ambition now is to return to his university and take up where he left off his commerce studies.
``That's if they will take me back,'' he said.