A group of black South Africans is undergoing training in Israel in social organizing and economic leadership skills that group members say are essential preparation for power-sharing in the event of a transition from white rule.
The group of community leaders, mostly from Soweto and other black townships, is concentrating on organizing South Africa's 12 million black laborers into trade unions, developing social programs and black civic groups, and organizing black women to be activists in an era of anticipated relaxation of apartheid laws that presently restrict such activities, according to the program's sponsors.
The training program is sponsored by Israel's national labor federation, the Histadrut, and the Israeli government is not directly involved, although official sources said it has the government's tacit approval. The group's arrival comes at a time when Israel is attempting to expand its ties to black African states and distance itself from the white South African government.
It is the first time a group of black South Africans has come here for the training program, although the Histadrut has brought individuals here for similar training in the past, as well as many other black Africans before most black African states broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 1973 at the time of the Arab oil embargo.
The initiative for this invitation, sponsors said, came jointly from the Histadrut and the Los Angeles-based Center for Policy Options, a Jewish research group.
Many black South Africans have attended similar leadership courses in Britain, the United States, West Germany and other western countries, some of them as joint ventures conducted by labor unions and the black trade union movement in South Africa.
Israel's moves resemble a balancing act in which, official sources here said, the government is seeking to create ties with blacks in the belief that they will eventually assume power in South Africa, while at the same time being careful not to alienate completely the white government. There are about 120,000 Jews in South Africa and the Israeli government was said to be anxious not to isolate itself diplomatically from the Pretoria government.
Supporters of the training program said that it not only could enhance Israel's standing in any future black-led government in South Africa, but also could significantly boost efforts to reestablish diplomatic ties with black African countries.
Israel has renewed diplomatic ties with Zaire and the Ivory Coast and recently has expanded political and trade links with several other African states in an effort to reduce its isolation from the continent.
The participants in the training program are said to be regarded in their communities as moderate intellectuals who, while outspoken in their opposition to apartheid, are not associated with militant groups that advocate the violent overthrow of the government in Pretoria.
Three of the participants, in a meeting with reporters today, characterized themselves as moderates, but said they were committed to the peaceful replacement of minority white rule in South Africa.
They stated their intention to learn from their Israeli hosts the skills necessary to rid South Africa of apartheid, but said the Pretoria government had placed no obstacles to their coming here.
"We are telling the government, 'This is our land. We want to run it. If you want to join us in running it, please do it on our terms,' " said Legau Mathabathe, cofounder of the Soweto Committee of Ten. Mathabathe joined a mass resignation of black teachers after the 1976 Soweto riots and is now the only black director of a large South African milling company.
When asked why the South African government would let him travel to Israel to advance the antiapartheid cause, Mathabathe replied, "They didn't permit me. I had a passport. If they want, they can take it away. If they don't like what I do here or say here, they can take it away and they are welcome to it."
The three said that virtually all of the workshop's participants had passports before being invited to Israel and that they required no special permission from the government to leave, although they conceded that if the government had wanted to prevent their coming here, it could have done so.
Another participant, Sally Motlana, president of the South Africa Black Housewives League in Soweto, said that many black South African leaders had been allowed to travel abroad and return without harassment by the government. She noted that Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu visited the United States, Britain, Australia and other countries and "he never promised to put apartheid in his bag."
Deborah Mabiletsa, executive director of the Urban Foundation, a private Soweto civic group founded after the 1976 riots, said that the participants in the Israeli workshop were not involved in tactics to violently overthrow the Pretoria regime, but were trying to learn strategies that would be useful after a peaceful transition to shared rule between blacks and whites.
"Because our struggle is so serious, we need strategies for later, so that we can apply them to our daily lives then. Looking for strategies is equally as important as taking part in the struggle itself," she said.
That they were permitted to leave the country openly for Israel suggests that the South African government does not interpret their training here as potentially subversive, the black participants and their Israeli sponsors said.
The group members who met with reporters sought to distance themselves from the militant African National Congress. Mathabathe said it "is a banned organization, and for you to say you support it is only inviting trouble. We are fighting this struggle in our own way."
Yehuda Paz, director of the Histadrut-supported Afro-Asian Insitute, stressed that the program was not sponsored by the government.
An Israeli government spokesman said that unlike some other seminars held for black Africans here, the current program is not being sponsored jointly by the institute and the Israeli Foreign Ministry because it was privately initiated. The official said no protest had been received from the South Africa government. "Some people may want to interpret it as more than it is, but it is just a trade union seminar, nothing more," the official said.