South Africa's oldest and most powerful black nationalist organization, the outlawed African National Congress (ANC), could be nudged toward a crisis of identity by moves to bring it into talks on the country's future. Part guerrilla army and part political organization, the ANC has faced at least two recent challenges to decide which should take top priority. First, ANC officials say the Pretoria government has sent secret messages suggesting a high-level meeting. Too, the ANC has been invited to a conference this week in New York on South Africa's political and economic future.
So far at least, the guerrilla's persona is winning out, without much trouble. Top ANC officials - here to attend a symposium on ``Children, Repression, and the Law in Apartheid South Africa'' - reacted cooly to Pretoria's feelers, seeing them as a political ploy to dampen black pressure for majority rule. ANC sources said they declined the invitation to New York, since Pretoria would be represented.
A central concern in deciding both questions, ANC officials said, was that a ``yes'' might well have been misinterpreted by blacks inside South Africa - as a retreat from the ANC's quarter-century-old ``armed struggle'' to replace the country's white-dominated system with a nonracial ``one-person-one-vote'' government. They said this was particularly possible given the fact Pretoria's announced vision of ``power sharing'' with blacks explicitly retained a commitment to racially based politics and rejected black rule.
But there are also signs the ``no'' decisions - if not difficult at a time when South Africa's political conflict has left hundreds of black activists jailed or dead - were not automatic.
ANC sources said the move not to attend the New York meeting was complicated by the fact that prominent white liberals, from South Africa and abroad, were attending in the initial expectation that they could talk with the ANC. While ANC officials said they were convinced Pretoria's feelers are aimed at coopting ANC into a streamlined system of white domination, they left no doubt in discussions with this and other South African-based US reporters that they are at least anxious to gauge the extent to which Pretoria's attitude may be changing.
In meetings with reporters, they seemed anxious to get a better fix on presidential aide Stoffel van der Merwe, who, since being named top ``power sharing'' negotiator this year, has stressed the need to get black ``radicals'' involved in any workable talks.
The ANC's curiosity seemed piqued by Pretoria's recent hints at eventually freeing at least some of the veteran ANC leaders serving life sentences on treason charges. While charging that these hints were meant solely to dampen international sanctions pressure, ANC officials did indicate they were keeping abreast of recurring rumors about prisoner releases.
In the short term at least, the ANC is not exactly holding its collective breath. Barring a quantum change in the ground-rules for proposed negotiations, ANC sources argued they would have far more to lose by entering talks. In a keynote address to the conference here, exiled ANC President Oliver Tambo flatly ruled out participation in the national ``council'' being set up for the power-sharing talks.
``It cannot be at this late hour,'' he said in a speech not reported by South African newspapers because he cannot legally be quoted there, ``that we would accept some creature of the apartheid parliament ... [or] an electoral process based on race.
But private remarks by ANC sources suggested some longer-term concern that substantive concessions - even if stopping short of a ``one-person-one-vote'' system - could bring pressure on the ANC from world leaders, perhaps including African ones, to participate.
Journalists in South Africa operate under official press restrictions.