THE decision by the African National Congress to create armed self-defense units in violence-ravaged black townships - announced Saturday by Deputy President Nelson Mandela - was spelled out by the leader of the ANC underground, Ronnie Kasrils, in a clandestine interview. ``Until people are able to organize effective, disciplined structures to protect their neighborhoods, communities, and housing we have got no way of adequately halting this onslaught of violence,'' said Mr. Kasrils, who is wanted by authorities for an alleged role in a plot to overthrow the government should negotiations fail to secure a transfer of power.
The surprise decision to form armed defense units, announced by Mr. Mandela at a funeral for massacre victims in Alexandra township, has been slammed by South African police as a ``recipe for civil war,'' which would lead to increased polarization and greater bloodshed. It was also widely condemned by the government and by political scientists.
Mandela called on the black community to form ``defense units'' regardless of government protests: ``If it is OK for whites to have neighborhood watches and civilian guards, it should be equally acceptable for blacks to have their own defense units.''
Mandela said the decision on self-defense units was not in conflict with an agreement reached by the ANC and the government in August last year that the ANC would suspend its armed struggle and halt training of cadres inside the country.
``We are going to honor that agreement,'' he said. ``But there was no agreement that we will not form defense units to defend our people.''
Political scientists warn that allowing armed defense units in the townships could take the country a step closer to full-blown civil war. But Kasrils says that black South Africans should demand the same rights to self-protection as whites already have.
``I concede the danger of a Beirut-type situation where you have the proliferation of private armies. But [Chief Mangosuthu] Buthelezi [leader of Inkatha, the ANC's prime rival] has a private army.''
Kasrils says the defense units should be community-based and ``above board.'' They would be created by the community and civic associations in consultation with political groups. He said finding arms for the new units would not present a problem.
``People have got to find ways of arming themselves. They must not wait for Umkhonto we Sizwe [the ANC military wing] to deliver arms when the ANC has agreed that we won't infiltrate arms into the country.
``The country is bursting at the seams with weapons,'' says Kasrils. ``We must go on a political offensive demanding the right to legal weapons.''
He says the defense units are vital for the ANC's survival because the police and the government are waging a war against the ANC in collaboration with armed bands linked to Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party.
``The police and the government to the level of [South African President Frederik] De Klerk are implicated in allowing this to happen,'' says Kasrils, the only member of the ANC executive who has not been granted indemnity by Pretoria. ``The motive is to weaken the ANC and inflate the strength of Buthelezi and Inkatha. The state wants to force the ANC into agreements that are beneficial to the state.''
Kasrils is also a senior member of the South African Communist Party which first mooted the idea of community-based self-defense units last August after the ANC suspended its armed struggle.
The defiant ANC move follows repeated calls on the government to disarm Inkatha followers who carry spears, hatchets, and other weapons when they march through black townships. The government has so far refused to take steps to outlaw these ``traditional or cultural'' weapons, and Buthelezi has reacted angrily to ANC calls on the government to do so.
The ANC first embraced the idea of defense units last December at its militant consultative conference. But the decision, which the government sharply condemned, was never implemented.
Slow to act
``We've been too slow to get these defense units going,'' Kasrils says. ``It's left us a bit naked and off-balance. The ANC's constituency has begun to question it as not being capable of protecting its people,'' added Kasrils who defended the role of the ANC underground in ensuring that the process of political change became irreversible.
An accord between the government and the ANC in February halted further expansion of the ANC underground but did not outlaw its existence.