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S. African blacks drop slogans, forge alliances

Young blacks in South Africa are waving fewer banners and spending less time devising slogans.

But black student leader Joe Phaahla says this is not a sign of quiescence in the black political struggle for a ''nonracial democratic society'' in South Africa.

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Rather, it is a switch from the ''emotionalism'' of the black consciousness approach of the 1970s to the more mundane, but potent, activity of building stronger organizations that can win victories and survive the periodic waves of government ''repression.''

Mr. Phaahla, a fifth-year medical student at Natal University, is president of the Azanian Students' Organization. AZASO, formed in 1979, began to grow rapidly only last year. Originally a black consciousness group that emphasized the cultural and psychological importance of ''blackness,'' AZASO changed direction last year, becoming more preoccupied with ''organizational structure'' and effectiveness, says Phaahla. The change was in keeping with trends in the black community at large, he says.

In an interview, Mr. Phaahla said that despite all the talk of ''reform'' in South Africa, blacks are ''feeling even more desperate.''

He conceded that Pretoria's new proposals for ''power sharing'' with Indians and Coloreds (persons of mixed racial descent) might win the government some more support across the color line. But it did not represent real reform and would come only ''at the expense of more repression of the majority.''

Phaahla likened the ''power sharing'' proposals to the ''homelands'' policy and other government attempts to co-opt ''nonwhites'' with concessions that ultimately only further alienated most blacks.

In the past, he contends, government concessions along these lines were accompanied by greater ''repression'' to force as much acceptance as possible. AZASO expects the same with these ''reforms.''

Phaahla foresees a bleak scenario of conditions only worsening for blacks, making all the more necessary pragmatic organizations, like AZASO, that are prepared for a ''disciplined, protracted struggle.''

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The black consciousness movement - which borrowed rhetoric from the black American civil-rights campaigns and slogans like ''black power'' - reached dramatic expression in South Africa in the student unrest in Soweto in 1976. Its theme, formulated by student intellectuals, emphasized being black, and carried the converse rejection of any real role for whites in black ''liberation.''

Black consciousness is not considered a spent force in South Africa. But now, instead of dominating internal black politics, groups like AZASO must compete for black support with groups that have different ideologies, says close observers.

Phaahla says that promoting a sense of self-reliance and identity among blacks was necessary and valuable. ''But while that approach makes it very easy to get through to people, it doesn't give much guidance about how to approach problems and how to survive in the face of repression.''

The black consciousness movement was, in fact, severely retarded by a government clampdown in 1977.

Although AZASO, which has about 5,000 members, is restricted to blacks, Indians, and Coloreds, it does see a role for whites in the broad fight against ''repression.''

''We don't simply look at the situation as one race against another,'' Phaahla says. ''We ourselves are not homogenous.''

The most worrisome sign for Pretoria must be that groups like AZASO - and it is typical of many others - are increasingly echoing much of the ideology of the banned African National Congress (ANC).

Although the ANC was outlawed in 1961, opinion surveys show it to have greater support among South Africa's urban blacks than any other political body. Because it is an outlawed organization espousing violence against the South African government, internally based black groups must steer clear of any relation whatever with the ANC if they wish to avoid becoming similarly outlawed.

But AZASO is just one of a growing list of black organizations that openly align themselves with the principles of the ''freedom charter,'' ratified as the basic policy document of the ANC in 1956. Its emphasis on multiracialism and a left-wing political philosophy represents an increasingly attractive tradition in urban black politics.

''People are quite spontaneously identifying with this common philosophy of the ANC, although not with the group itself,'' says Tom Lodge, a lecturer in black politics at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Phaahla says one of the main failings of the black student groups that led the urban revolts of the 1970s was their failure to see that ''students cannot change things by themselves.'' AZASO is making a point of working more closely with community organizations, labor unions, and business groups in order to be more effective on local issues.

AZASO's main focus is to use its base as a student organization to push for educational reforms. But Phaahla says AZASO will get involved in community causes as well, such as boycotts, resistance to rent increases, and helping to support striking workers.

''We see ourselves as a student movement that is part of a greater political movement,'' he says.

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