SA wild card that can change game: Mass police raids on the Pan-Africanist Congress reveal fears about its populist potential, writes Benjamin Pogrund

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The Independent Online
THE Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) is the wild card in the South African pack. Usually described as 'small and militant', its exact membership is not known but is certainly far smaller than the dominant African National Congress (ANC).

Its significance lies in its potential: if the constitutional deal being reached between the ANC and the white-minority government fails to deliver discernible benefits for blacks, the PAC could become the rallying force for masses of disaffected and angry people.

It would appeal to them through its fiery denunciations of white rule, its passionate support for black nationalism, its emotive demands for return of the land of which blacks were dispossessed by whites - all summed up in its slogan, 'One settler, one bullet'.

It is not a comfortable prescription for the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society that is South Africa. Yet, even while declaring these views, PAC leaders are equally vehement in denying that they hate whites, or that they are intent on indiscriminate violence and disruption.

The militancy and the contradictions come out of the past, from the period in South Africa when black nationalism first flourished. That was in the 1940s, in the Youth League of the ANC. Its leaders included Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, as well as Oliver Tambo who died in April.

Black militancy was spurred in 1948 when Afrikaner Nationalists were elected to government and systematically extended racism, under the name of apartheid. In 1949, the Youth Leaguers took control of the ANC from their elders, and opted for 'non-collaboration' with the government. That meant boycotts, strikes and street protests.

Arguments about how to resist apartheid precipitated a great divide among blacks. On one side was the mainstream in the ANC, who mounted campaigns in a vain effort to block the remorseless spread of apartheid. On the other were the black nationalists, who pressed for more militant action.

The ANC's internal battles led, in 1958, to the breakaway of the nationalists, who formed the Pan-Africanist Congress. Their leader was Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, a university teacher - an extremely rare post for a black person at that time - and a former ANC Youth League leader.

On 21 March 1960 Sobukwe launched a PAC campaign against the hated 'pass laws', which required every black male to carry identification on pain of arrest. Sobukwe urged blacks to leave their passes at home and to go to police stations and demand to be arrested. He set a personal example and, with a small number of followers, offered himself for prison. His slogan was 'no bail, no defence, no fine'.

At about 1pm that day police opened fire on a peaceful crowd outside the police station at Sharpeville, a township near Johannesburg. They mowed down 69 people, and South Africa was transformed: as protests erupted the government banned the PAC and the ANC - proscriptions that were to last for 30 years - and the country became an international pariah.

Sobukwe was jailed for three years, then a special law was passed to keep him in prison without trial. After six years he was confined to the small town of Kimberley, where he died nine years later.

While he was in jail, a PAC offshoot, Poqo ('Our Own'), set out on a campaign of mass murder of whites, which the police foiled only at the last moment with the arrest and jailing of several thousand members (it was British officials who tipped off the South African government about what was afoot).

In exile, the PAC turned on itself, with wrangling, expulsions and assassination of leaders. That contradicted a pillar of its existence: belief in black self-respect. With the self-respect comes the PAC's non-racialism: its ideology is that it is colour-blind and recognises only the 'human race'; it will admit any 'African' to membership, and defines an 'African' as anyone who regards him or herself as an African and who is committed to Africa. In practice, it has been loath to allow whites to join. While leaders are perfectly charming and friendly in dealing with whites, the ethos of the organisation ensures there is often hostility towards whites at ground level. As a result of its heritage of militancy, the PAC believes that no deal is possible with South Africa's white rulers. It argues that the majority must rule without qualification. Its attitude kept the organisation out of the constitutional talks for some time. But, finally recognising it was being left by the wayside, it has entered into them.

However, it is highly suspicious of the deal between the ANC and the government, and says that blacks are being betrayed. It says 'all forms of struggle' must be maintained to bring about a transfer of power to the majority. This attitude - 'We cannot abandon the bullet until the ballot is secure' - underlies the recent killings of whites by its armed wing, the Azanian People's Liberation Army (Apla) and precipitated last week's police raids and arrest of scores of PAC officials.

PAC leaders seem, at times, to be embarrassed by the killings. It might be that they are not entirely in control of Apla. But against that is their reluctance to compromise and their all-or-nothing outlook.

(Photographs omitted)