The long-established presence of whites in South Africa's outlawed African National Congress (ANC) is undergoing an important change: Their contribution as strategic planners, agitators, and couriers is being supplemented by their role as combatants on the front line. This trend was reaffirmed by the arrest last week of four whites on suspicion of having been recruited and trained to fight for Umkhonte We Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation), the ANC's military arm.
The change first became evident in 1986 with the arrest and conviction of two young white ANC recruits: Eric Pelser, a draft dodger, and Marion Sparg, a former journalist. Mr. Pelser was jailed for seven years and Ms. Sparg for 25.
The Pelser and Sparg trials highlighted a change in the function of whites in the ANC, according to a highly placed intelligence officer and Tom Lodge, an expert on the ANC. Both the ANC recruits received training in camps run by the ANC in Angola; and they were the first known white recruits to Umkhonte.
Before that, another young white, Hein Grosskopff, scion of a respected Afrikaner family, was named by the police as the suspected ANC bomber in a deadly blast in Krugersdorp in March.
There has been a continual white presence in the ANC from the time it went underground in 1961 to last week's arrest of the suspected ANC quartet on a small farm near Pretoria. The banning of the ANC in 1960 presaged the formation of Umkhonte. Among ANC activists jailed for life in 1964 was one white.
Whites who have served in one capacity or another include Joe Slovo, former chief of staff of Umkhonte, and Ronnie Kasrils, who, according to the security police, plays a key role in recruitment and training of ANC agents.
But according to the intelligence officer, the emergence of young white Umkhonte fighters is a new development. Umkhonte recruits are known as MKs (MK is the Zulu abbreviation for Umkhonte We Sizwe). Until 1986, MKs were assumed to be black.
The appearance of white MKs poses several questions:
How important are they to the ANC?
What special opportunities do they offer the ANC high command in its ``armed struggle.''
What kind of people are they, and why did they join the ANC?
``Whites are very important to the ANC,'' says the intelligence officer. They give credence to its self-projected image as a nonracial organization, he adds. The ANC opened its national executive committee to whites for the first time in July 1985, having already opened membership to all races in 1969.