JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africa's top law enforcement officer confirmed yesterday that the government gave thousands of dollars to political opponents of the African National Congress, the main anti-apartheid group in the country.
Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok said the government financed two political rallies held by the Zulu-based Inkatha movement, the ANC's main black rival, but he said the support was non-partisan.
The statement was the first official disclosure by the government that it has helped Inkatha. The ANC, led by Nelson Mandela, has repeatedly accused the government of rendering such assistance to tarnish the ANC's vast popularity among black South Africans.
The ANC and the government have been the major parties in negotiations aimed at reforming South Africa's political system, which denies blacks the vote, and the ANC believes that the government is trying to weaken its hand at the negotiating table.
The ANC also has accused police of encouraging and supporting violent attacks against ANC supporters in order to destabilize the organization and cause chaos that would damage its reputation.
Hand-to-hand combat between Inkatha and ANC followers has claimed thousands of lives in recent years.
Mr. Vlok said that before the political changes in South Africa last year, it had been necessary for the government to launch covert activities to "promote order and stability and to combat South Africa's isolation."
He said the money was paid by the government as part of an anti-violence, anti-sanctions campaign, not to promote the Inkatha movement of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Mr. Mandela's main political rival.
Mr. Vlok's startling revelation came in response to published reports that the South African police spent thousands of dollars in a campaign to undermine the ANC after it was legalized last year by President Frederik W. de Klerk.
Until now, police have denied all allegations of collusion between the government and Inkatha. Police officials have challenged the ANC to produce evidence of collusion.
Mr. Vlok's statement amounted to an admission of collusion but an attempt to justify it as necessary to protect South Africa. "Both overt and covert assistance was, on request, provided to a wide spectrum of persons and institutions in South Africa in an attempt to combat sanctions effectively," he said.
President de Klerk also issued a statement pointing out that "numerous covert actions" were canceled by his government last year after he launched his program of political reforms.
His remarks and those of Mr. Vlok followed reports in the Weekly Mail, a liberal newspaper, that police supported Mr. Buthelezi's efforts to combat the ANC. The paper said Mr. Buthelezi held discussions with a senior police official in Durban in which the Zulu leader expressed concern about losing support to Mr. Mandela's organization.
The paper published a memo from police Maj. Louis Botha to the chief of security police, dated Feb. 10, 1990, the week after Mr. de Klerk lifted a 30-year-old ban on the ANC.
In the memo, Major Botha requested 120,000 rand (about $45,000) to support an Inkatha rally and ensure a large turnout that would enhance Mr. Buthelezi's status. The newspaper said it had obtained receipts showing that the cash was deposited in an Inkatha bank account. It said a similar deposit was made four months earlier to support another Inkatha rally.
Suzanne Vos, a spokeswoman for Mr. Buthelezi, said he had "absolutely no knowledge of any payments of this nature." She confirmed that Inkatha had a special bank account into which anonymous donations could be made, but she said it was used primarily by businessmen who did not want their political sympathies made public.
She said Mr. Buthelezi flatly denied that he had ever had conversations with the police major named in the Weekly Mail report.