Exile's return to South Africa quickly turns to disillusionment with black activists Woman leaves again after seven months

January 10, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- For some South African exiles, coming home after years of fighting apartheid from afar has turned from hard-won hope to disillusionment.

Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo, who spent 11 years in Baltimore before returning to South Africa last March, knows about the disappointments that accompany the joy of coming back.

She is back in Baltimore now.

A political activist who fled South Africa in 1980 after being harassed and detained by police, she returned at the invitation of the South African Council of Churches to run a resettlement program for other returning exiles.

But she resigned after seven months and headed back to Baltimore recently, saying the struggle in her country is not only against white rulers who oppress blacks, but also against black activists who don't have a clue about how to be administrators or leaders of a government.

"I've learned how people behave, and unless we change from activism to professionalism, we're going to have serious

problems in governing," she said in an interview before leaving Johannesburg.

Mrs. Mahlangu-Ngcobo complained that her staff at the National Coordinating Committee for the Repatriation was unprofessional and unwilling to improve. She said staff members were late for work, were insubordinate and refused to keep proper records or make plans.

"People at NCCR were looking for prestige for themselves," she said, rather than for ways to help former exiles find jobs and homes.

She said the governing council of the NCCR, which had appointed her national coordinator of the office, refused to give her authority to run the staff and the program.

"I couldn't even hire a secretary without their approval. Everyone wanted to be in charge. People wanted to have power. I had to fight all the time I was in charge," said Mrs. Mahlangu-Ngcobo, 42, who went on leave from her job at the Baltimore health department to coordinate the exile program.

"I also sensed that some people were not ready for black female leadership. They thought I could be easily manipulated, only to find out the opposite."

Her biggest disappointment was that she had to fight her own people to help South Africans return home.

"The repatriation program is like a welfare program. People need housing, education and jobs," she said, alleging that her colleagues at the NCCR didn't have the skills to do the job properly.

"Activists work by reacting. But now, if we are going to lead and govern, we need some action plans, and we need some accountability."

She said she found neither at the NCCR and warned her colleagues, "If we are not going to be professional, we leave ourselves open to manipulation and corruption."

Mrs. Mahlangu-Ngcobo also complained about some officials of the African National Congress, of which she has been a member since she went into exile in 1980.

"In the ANC, we have the habit of thinking we're the only kids on the block, so we should take over," she said.

Although the exile program is non-partisan and is supposed to be a joint operation of church groups, the ANC and other political groups such as the Pan-Africanist Congress, she said, ANC officials constantly tried to dictate how it should be run.

The ANC is the most influential of the black political groups in the country and is the main political opposition group involved in negotiations with the government of President F. W. de Klerk.

The PAC and the Azanian People's Organization, a black left-wing organization, have accused the ANC of cutting its own deal with the government to the exclusion of other anti-apartheid groups.

An estimated 40,000 political dissidents fled the country because of apartheid, and more than 6,000 returned in the seven months that Mrs. Mahlangu-Ngcobo was in charge of the repatriation program.

Her supporters at the NCCR said she was an asset to the program.

"Mankekolo was brought in at a time when NCCR had no direction. It was operating mainly on an ad hoc basis," said Pule Pule, a member of the NCCR board and an official of the Azanian People's Organization. "It was very good to have her here. NCCR was pushed ahead in many ways. Unfortunately, as an operation that went on for a long time without a good work ethic, there was bound to be conflict."

The program is now mostly out of the NCCR's hands.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees took over most of the work of resettling exiles.

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