The African National Congress celebrated its first national conference in South Africa in 31 years by refusing to split, while taking harder lines than its elderly leaders wanted. As it marches uncertainly from ineffective opposition toward a role in ruling the country, the ANC courts a split at every step. The question is not whether it should but whether it can avoid doing so prematurely.
No sooner had the organization's revered President Oliver Tambo returned from long exile and illness to question the ANC's commitment to economic sanctions against its own country, than the younger delegates reiterated that commitment. They called for renewed agitation if not violence, and threatened to end the ANC's talks with the government. Partly, this was a vain effort to convince the European Community to keep sanctions on until at least mid-February, as ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela had urged. This failed. The EC prime ministers hastily ended part of their sanctions to reward the positive steps of the government of President F. W. de Klerk.
The elderly leadership of ANC will be hard pressed to retain control while collaborating tacitly with the government. Mr. de Klerk's promotion of them to be the legal opposition may have come too late. A younger, more militant, less educated, nihilistic leadership was forged in the repressions of the 1980s and numbered a fair share of the 1,600 delegates.
Meanwhile, the older leadership is in charge. Mr. Mandela
insisted in his final speech that "the overwhelming majority of our people support negotiations between the ANC and the government." The conditions the ANC demanded in order to remain in dialogue are conditions already promised. The leaders of Mr. Mandela's and Mr. Tambo's generation have not much longer to serve, but appear as the best leadership for black South Africa at this juncture of history.
That means that Mr. de Klerk should give them victories by reining in the nihilists in his own camp. It means that the United States should not act precipitately in ending sanctions -- which are, indeed, crumbling. When all the political prisoners are released, the emergency laws are over and true dialogue is under way, sanctions should end. An invigorated ANC starting to share power and deliver improvements to the black majority would, at that time, want them to end.