THE African National Congress has strongly endorsed negotiations with the South African government at a conference that symbolized its transformation from guerrilla group to political movement.The first full ANC conference in 30 years, which ended Sunday, saw the opening up of debate, the democratization of ANC internal structures and practices, and searching self-criticism about its performance. "This is an astounding and impressive achievement," said a foreign observer who attended some of the closed sessions during the five-day meeting. "The ANC now has all the classic hallmarks of a political party and is fully committed to negotiations." The newly elected president, Nelson Mandela, welcomed the new mandate. "This conference has reflected the shifts we have made ... the transformation from a banned, illegal formation, to a mass-based and democratic organization," he said. "We have reaffirmed the premise that negotiation is a terrain of struggle leading to our central objective," Mr. Mandela said, choosing words clearly aimed at placating radical elements in the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). At the same time, he conceded the leadership had failed to consult with members before talks or report back on decisions taken: "We fully acknowledge that criticism ... and in future, we will try and work as systematically as you have demanded." The ANC adopted a more realistic position on economic sanctions by acknowledging that - unless it endorsed a phased lifting of sanctions - it would relinquish all remaining international leverage. Still, the conference appeared divided on the sanctions issue.
Merging of the strands "Unless there is a great deal of flexibility and imagination we will be left holding a shell and nothing else," Mandela emphasized. Former President Oliver Tambo was elected national chairman and veteran leader Walter Sisulu was elected deputy president. The first-ever democratic elections for 55 positions on the 90-strong national executive board saw exiles, internal anti-apartheid leaders, and former prisoners integrated into ANC structures for the first time. "The merging of the different strands of our organization ... is an important milestone in our history," Mandela told the 2,244 delegates. Half of the exile members of the former executive board were voted out. Of 55 members on the new executive board, 26 are former exiles and 29 are either internal anti-apartheid leaders (18) or former political prisoners (11). The proportion of communists to noncommunists remains about even, while the number of women has increased from three to eight. The number of whites on the board rose from two to eight, and Indians from two to eight. The election of National Union of Mineworkers leader Cyril Ramaphosa to the key post of secretary-general should defuse tensions between exiles and internal anti-apartheid leaders and bolster the ANC's negotiation team. Mr. Ramaphosa, who will be responsible for carrying out ANC policy under Mandela, has won the respect of business people, government officials, and activists for his negotiating and tactical skills and personal charisma. Ramaphosa's election is widely seen as giving substance to Mandela's firm commitment to negotiations and puts Ramaphosa in the direct line of succession, along with leaders like Thabo Mbeki, the ANC's top diplomat, and Chris Hani, the military chief of staff.
Still restive army For most of the delegates, the ballot marked their first experience in democratic election. "It felt really good placing the ballot paper in the box," said Colin Smuts, a mixed-race delegate from the Johannesburg branch of Fleurhof, a mixed-raced area near Soweto. "For the first time in more than 30 years, the ANC has its own identity and a fully elected leadership," said one delegate. The only militant opposition to a negotiated settlement came from the ANC military wing. In his closing speech, Mandela acknowledged restiveness in army ranks and pledged a separate conference by month's end to resolve misgivings about suspending armed struggle. "The ANC have done remarkably well in transforming themselves from a below-ground organization into a relatively sophisticated political movement," said Mervyn Frost, professor of political science at Natal University at Durban. "The emphasis now needs to be on getting into government quickly."