At its first conference inside South Africa in three decades, the African National Conference went a long way toward remaking itself from an outlawed revolutionary movement demanding power into a broad political movement democratically seeking it. Not all the way, but a long way.
Its newly elected president, Nelson Mandela, tried to broker between the party's internal life and outside realities. "Our position is very clear," he said. "Sanctions must continue to be maintained and applied." But acknowledging that they are disappearing, he told the 2,224 delegates that "unless there is a great deal of flexibility and imagination, we will be left holding a shell and nothing else."
The likelihood of the African National Congress orchestrating a phased reduction of economic sanctions, as negotiations with the government proceed, is not great. Most black African countries now trade with South Africa. Mr. Mandela conceded that the conditions spelled out in the U.S. law of 1986 for lifting sanctions will soon be met.
South Africa is breaking through its isolation in international sport. An integrated South African Amateur Athletic Association has applied for membership in the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), from which it was suspended in 1976, and will most probably get it. Whether South Africa is able to field a team at the World Track and Field Championships in Tokyo in August, it almost certainly will compete in the Olympics next year in Barcelona.
Besides making Mr. Mandela, age 73, its leader in title as well as fact, the ANC named another of the old guard, Walter Sisulu, 79, his deputy. But on a secret ballot, the delegates elected Cyril Ramaphosa, the mine workers union leader, to the No. 3 post of secretary-general. Mr. Ramaphosa, a skilled negotiator, represents the generation the ANC lost, that stayed in the country, becoming in some ways more militant than the elders while dealing with life as it is. The generation gap is the ANC's biggest problem.
While the ANC still does not call itself a political party, it came halfway to acknowledging that it must become one. Mr. Mandela spoke candidly of the failure to win "minority" adherents from the Asian, white and "colored" communities. A fair amount of introspection on its interlocking leadership with the South African Communist Party, and the price paid for that, was aired.
It is not enough for the ANC to champion majority rule. It must persuade the majority to champion the ANC. This is not assured, but its conference in Durban made strides toward that end.