JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- After months of struggling to keep pace with President F. W. de Klerk, the African National Congress has made the leap from an underground movement to a political organization eager to negotiate with white authorities.
The more pragmatic ANC emerged from its five-day national conference with a commitment to fight the white-minority government at the negotiating table and with a determination to be seen as a serious and equal partner in the task of shaping a democratic future for South Africa.
"We have reaffirmed the premise that negotiations is a terrain of struggle leading to our central objective, the transfer of power to the people," Nelson Mandela, the ANC's newly elected president, said in closing the conference Sunday.
As if to underscore the point that the ANC is ready for the negotiating table, delegates chose for the No. 3 leadership job Cyril Ramaphosa, a skilled negotiator who has led the National Union of Mine Workers through labor and political battles for the past decade.
Corporate leaders who have butted heads with the 40-year-old lawyer describe him as a tough opponent and a smart negotiator. He also represents a younger generation of activists who organized anti-apartheid protests inside the country while older activists were either abroad or in jail.
The ANC's new confidence and sense of direction contrast with its foundering in the months before the conference, when Mr. de Klerk seemed to have stolen the initiative.
Mr. de Klerk scored political points around the world and won support for the lifting of economic sanctions by pushing legislation through Parliament repealing the last major pillars of apartheid.
His actions left the ANC scrambling for an appropriate response and struggling to remind international supporters that South Africa was still a long way from resolving the most basic problem of apartheid -- the fact that 28 million blacks don't have the vote.
The ANC also threatened repeatedly to call off negotiations in an effort to prod the government to release all political prisoners in line with an earlier agreement.
Some observers thought ANC leaders were trying to delay until they could get a clearer mandate from the national conference. The leaders emerged from the meeting confident they received such a mandate.
They also succeeded in steering the delegates to more pragmatic positions on such issues as economic sanctions while satisfying the young militants with tough talk about the ANC's commitment to defend black communities from attacks.
The conference supported a phased lifting of sanctions, which already are crumbling in response to Mr. de Klerk's moves. Mr. Mandela described the revised position as a way of ensuring the ANC didn't lose the sanctions tool altogether.