DURBAN, South Africa -- The African National Congress, wrapping up its historic five-day conference, softened its position yesterday on international sanctions against the Pretoria government.
In the face of an erosion of sanctions by other nations, the ANC said that it would be more flexible on the issue in the future and that it would support a phasing-out of sanctions as the government of President F. W. de Klerk makes increasing progress in ending apartheid and negotiating a new constitution.
The anti-apartheid group had adamantly opposed the lifting of sanctions in the past, leading some observers to the belief that the group was becoming irrelevant and that it was being overtaken by events.
Nelson Mandela's ANC concluded its flag-waving, foot-stomping conference, however, with a new sense of purpose, having pulled together the three main groupings that constitute its following.
"We have achieved an important milestone in our history," Mr. Mandela said yesterday, "and that is a merging of the different strands of our organization."
The three groups were political prisoners, political exiles, and activists who had remained inside the country during the years of the ANC's isolation.
Before the conference -- the first to be held by the ANC inside South Africa in 30 years -- the group's leadership ranks was dominated by former exiles and former political prisoners, such as Mr. Mandela, to the exclusion of a younger generation of activists who had stayed behind and clashed head-on with the apartheid system.
On the matter of sanctions, Mr. Mandela noted that some African countries were dropping sanctions in hopes of bolstering failing economies. He said that their economies were "strained as a result of the support they have shown to our cause."
He said that ANC leaders were now calling for a "flexibility and imagination, for an approach which is realistic. But our position is very clear. Sanctions must continue to be maintained and applied. That is our position. The flexibility we want is intended to keep this weapon in our hands."
Mr. Mandela thanked the Bush administration for consulting the ANC on the issue but also acknowledged that the U.S. ComprehensiveAnti-Apartheid Act would have to be lifted once all apartheid laws are off the books.
In an attempt to broaden its appeal, the ANC also succeeded during the week in gaining the support of the man who is perhaps South Africa's most popular "colored," or mixed-race, leader, Allan Boesak.
A leading activist and church official who was entangled in an adultery scandal last year, Mr. Boesak made a political comeback at the ANC meeting. Even though he is not a member of the anti-apartheid organization, which he had not joined in part because of its link to the South African Communist Party, Mr. Boesak was nominated for a spot on the executive committee.
After meeting with Mr. Mandela, Mr. Boesak removed his name from the nominations list but said that he would join the ANC this week and would debate the Communist issue from within the organization.
"This is an issue that concerns many Christians," he said.
The conference was attended by more than 300 foreign diplomats and guests, including three U.S. congressional representatives, Maxine Waters of California, Donald M. Payne of New Jersey and Walter Fauntroy of Washington, D.C.