JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The guerrilla army of the African National Congress, which operated in secret from bases outside the country for nearly three decades, opened its first-ever national conference inside the borders of South Africa yesterday.
ANC President Nelson Mandela, commander in chief of the army and one of its founders in 1961, said the three-day meeting was historic because "we are gathered not in the cellars, safe houses and hide-outs of the underground, but in full view of all."
The gathering is taking place in the tiny black homeland of Venda, near South Africa's border with Zimbabwe, where the ANC has operated military camps for years. It occurs at a time of change for the ANC, which over the past 18 months has been transformed from an illegal rebel organization into a key negotiator on South Africa's political future.
The transformation has put a big question mark over the ANC's army, Umkonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), which was legalized last year when the ANC was unbanned.
Though the army remains popular among black township youth who see it as the ultimate symbol of the fight against the white regime, Spear of the Nation has an uncertain role in the present political climate.
Given the government's new willingness to negotiate and President F. W. de Klerk's goal of eliminating apartheid, the ANC has turned to negotiations instead of combat.
"We took this path not because we had become tired of fighting," Mr. Mandela told about 500 delegates at the army's convention. "We took it because of our firm conviction that we should exhaust every opportunity to resolve by peaceful means the terrible crisis into which racism has plunged the country."
But the ANC leader denounced the government for funding "an orchestrated covert campaign" against the ANC and insisted that the organization "dare not" allow its military wing to disband before a new political settlement is drafted.
The ANC suspended its guerrilla campaign a year ago but has continued to recruit members into its army. Its military leaders have threatened repeatedly to resume the guerrilla fight if negotiations break down, and the ANC's military wing remains the subject of heated debate between government and ANC leaders.
Military chief of staff Chris Hani, one of the most popular leaders of the ANC, is one of the most feared and despised by white South Africans. He recently asked the ANC to relieve him of most of his leadership duties within the organization so that he can work full time to rebuild the South African Communist Party, of which he is a member.
Mr. Mandela has said Spear of the Nation might be needed in the future to defend black communities against attacks by vigilantes who allegedly get assistance from police or soldiers.