THE African National Congress (ANC), Africa's oldest liberation movement, takes a key step toward becoming a political party when it meets here May 28 to draw up a detailed policy blueprint.
The four-day conference is the culmination of exhaustive consultations with the ANC membership to produce an official policy that will form the basis of the ANC's election campaign in the country's first democratic election.
The 700 delegates will debate policy on key issues such as the economy, land and trade-union rights, and welfare services.
"The conference represents a landmark in the ANC's evolution from a liberation movement to a fully-fledged political party," says a Western diplomat.
A 45-page draft policy document urges a "flexible" rather than a "rigid ideological response" to economic issues and sets economic growth, foreign investment, and a "dynamic private sector" as key goals.
The gradual transformation of the ANC, founded 80 years ago as a lobby group for black South Africans, has gained momentum since its leaders opted for political negotiations in 1990 and suspended its 29-year "armed struggle" to end white rule.
As a liberation movement the ANC has embraced a broad spectrum of ideological views ranging from socialism to capitalism. But while it has reached broad consensus on the form of a new constitution, the ANC has struggled to find an economic policy that both addresses the backlogs of apartheid and establishes a free-market economy.
The adoption of a detailed economic policy is likely to widen the gap between the ANC and its main ally - the South African Communist Party. It could, however, set the stage for negotiations between organized labor, business leaders, and government on the restructuring of the economy.
Meanwhile, the ANC's transformation to a political party is being hampered by the setback in negotiations for an interim government that stalled earlier this month when the parties failed to reach agreement on a timetable for elections and the form of an elected constitution-making body.
Relations between the ANC and the ruling National Party have continued to deteriorate in the wake of the impasse. Further, current levels of township violence have cast a shadow over the prospect of an early election. Election prospects
While the ANC is planning on elections in December or January, economists and Western diplomats are less optimistic. Many doubt an election will be held before the middle of next year; some say early 1994 is a more likely timetable.
In a confidential letter to its clients, a leading Johannesburg brokerage firm this week cautioned investors against banking on an early political settlement to sustain an expected upturn in the economy in the second half of next year or early 1994.
"An election anytime soon appears out of the question," the letter said. "The government is resisting pressure to give up power and is unlikely to take adequate steps to attend to the deep-seated cause of violence. If the turbulence in the streets is not restrained, the ANC might find itself compelled into an alliance with the government to crack down."
James Stuart, chairman of the ANC's elections commission, concedes that the ANC faces enormous logistical problems in preparing its supporters and allies for the country's first ballot in which the black majority will have a vote.
"We are dealing with a population that has never voted before and an illiteracy rate which is over 60 percent in some areas," Mr. Stuart says. "We are devising a system of mass voter education and have already conducted 12 seminars which have trained 2,500 activists in the logistics of elections."
The seminars, which have been carried out with the assistance of the National Democratic Institute in Washington, will continue throughout the run-up to an election.
"But our election information campaign can only go ahead once this weekend's policy conference has endorsed a detailed policy," Stuart says. Contest between alliances
The ANC will enter the first election for a constitution-making body as part of a broad democratic alliance, he explains. "Basically, it will be a contest between the ANC and its allies and the National Party and its allies."
Stuart says that in the second election for a democratic parliament the ANC will stand as an individual party.
The ANC hopes to campaign around the slogan: This is your chance to change South Africa. A recent document circulated by the ANC political education branch, however, is mindful of the potential damage the government can inflict by portraying the ANC as a pawn of its Communist alliance partner.
"We need to point to the essentially moral character of our demands and to show the public that the demands of the alliance tally completely with Christian values," the document said.
Comments by ANC President Nelson Mandela during his recent visit to Scandinavia that there can be no return to "armed struggle" have bolstered the growing perception of the ANC as a political organization rather than an armed liberation movement.
In Sweden, Mr. Mandela also acknowledged the dilemma of countries that support the ANC but now want to lift economic sanctions against South Africa. Sweden, the ANC's major financial backer during 30 years of exile, has lifted most of its sanctions; Norway, another ANC supporter, has indicated that it will do so within two months.
"With sanctions crumbling and the option of armed insurrection eliminated, the ANC has little option but to leave liberation politics behind," says the Western diplomat.
"This confronts it with one of the toughest challenges any liberation movement has had to face. It is losing the glamor of being the liberator before it has achieved its political goals."