EDENDALE, SOUTH AFRICA -- These are tough times for Nelson Mandela.
Hailed in America as a modern-day Moses and here as father of the anti-apartheid struggle, the leader of the black-nationalist African National Congress is running into considerable difficulty convincing his people that negotiations with the white-minority government are the best and quickest way to the Promised Land of freedom.
So far, talks that Mandela has held with President Frederick W. de Klerk since being released in February from 27 years in prison have reaped few political dividends, and to many blacks, Mandela's defense of de Klerk as "a man of integrity" has begun to ring hollow.
In fact, Mandela's aides admit that he has not gotten from the government what he expected when he agreed in August to suspend the ANC's 30-year-long armed struggle against Pretoria. Despite de Klerk's pledges to implement reforms, imprisoned ANC members are being freed only sporadically, few of an estimated 3,000 exiles have been allowed to return and accords struck one day with Pretoria seem to get bogged down the next in conflicting interpretations and red tape.
Mandela's difficulties were on display here Oct. 5, when he found himself facing a crowd of 25,000 mostly skeptical radical youth gathered in a stadium to find out why he keeps talking about the country's political future to a government that most of them still regard as the enemy.
Mandela, delivering a "report back to the people" on the ongoing talks with the government, was speaking here in the Edendale Valley just outside Pietermaritzburg, where hundreds died last spring in fighting between supporters of the ANC and those of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party.
While his regal presence and deliberate tones commanded the crowd, much of his audience here seemed to question his logic. One moment he was accusing the government's security agencies of fomenting violence here last spring and in the townships around Johannesburg over the past few months. The next moment he was arguing that talks with the same government should continue anyway.
"I will not allow anything to derail the peace process," he said, prompting murmurs of discontent. "But at the same time I must confess, I have asked myself the question whether any useful purpose is served in me having discussions with Mr. de Klerk about the peace process in this country.
"I am the last person to be expected to go on discussing with a government which fails to carry out its duties of maintaining law and order," he said. That hint of a breakoff in the talks stirred one of the few rounds of applause Mandela received here.
Increasingly, Mandela and other ANC leaders have found it increasingly difficult to respond to anger among blacks while honoring their commitment to negotiations, issuing contradictory statements, empty threats and hollow-sounding accusations in an effort to do so.
Meanwhile, the ANC, which was legalized in February but has long been South Africa's most popular black nationalist organization, has been coming under attack from many quarters, including radical township youth, middle-class blacks, white liberals, white right-wing extremists and even its own grass-roots organizers. The right charges that the organization uses confrontational tactics; the center says it has ambiguous policies and indecisive leadership; radicals allege that it has poor organization.
In fact, the political violence that took more than 750 lives in the townships around Johannesburg in August and September seems to have caught the ANC unaware and unprepared, exposing its weaknesses and internal confusion.
"An Ailing ANC: Does Nelson Mandela Have the Cure?" is the headline across the latest issue of the leftist monthly Work in Progess. Under the headline is a picture of Mandela looking down on a hospital bed at one of the victims of the violence, and inside the newspaper is a biting critique by a young ANC regional organizer, Andrew Mapheto, of how the group failed to come to the aid of its own supporters during the violence.
"Frankly speaking, our people missed the presence and guidance of our national leadership at the height of the crisis," wrote Mapheto. "Generally speaking, the image of unbreakable strength the movement had nurtured and earned over the years was dented. Instead, people felt the ANC was displaying a political paralysis and had fallen prey to de Klerk's sweet talk."
The ANC's problems seem legion. The old-guard leaders who had long lived in exile have returned to South Africa since the group was legalized, out of touch with the grass roots. They are being challenged by a new internal leadership sprung from pro-ANC groups such as the United Democratic Front, a coalition of hundreds or organizations that led the anti-apartheid struggle inside the country since the mid-1980s.
Tensions between the two factions are mounting as the ANC approaches its first national conference scheduled for Dec. 16, when a new leadership will be voted into office and many old-guard members on the National Executive Committee are expected to be forced into retirement. There are also signs of tensions over whether South African Communist Party leaders should continue holding so many seats on the Executive Committee, where reportedly over half of its 37 members are declared or undeclared Communists.
Competing factions in the ANC are said to be at odds over whether its armed struggle should have been suspended, whether township self-defense groups should be armed and whether talks with the government are worthwhile.
Meanwhile, the ANC's latest recruitment drive has been sluggish. In the Western Cape region, which includes the heavily populated Cape Town area, it has enlisted just 18,000 members, according to figures released in September.
In the Johannesburg area, the membership reported was 35,000, with Soweto, home to 2 million blacks, accounting for only 14,000 of the total. In Port Elizabeth, an old ANC stronghold, the ANC has signed up only 20,000 so far.
While there is no nationwide ANC membership figure available, the number is unlikely to exceed 150,000 by very much, even though hundreds of thousands of people have turned up for ANC rallies across the country since its legalization, and polls show it to be clearly the favorite party among the country's 33 million blacks.
Amid these difficulties stands Mandela, widely viewed as the lynchpin to the organization. But he too has started to come in for criticism, mostly over what critics have charged is his authoritarian style of leadership. These ANC critics have said that this has been evidenced in his strong-arm tactics used to promote his wife, Winnie, into top ANC positions.
Despite eight charges against her in connection with the kidnapping and assault of four Soweto youths, and despite significant grass-roots opposition to her promotion, Mandela succeeded in having her named head of the ANC's social affairs department and elected to its Johannesburg regional executive committee.
Some ANC sources say Mandela is equally authoritarian in internal ANC deliberations.
ANC spokesmen react angrily to the criticism of their organization and their leader. Steve Tshwete, a senior ANC national organizer, said in a recent interview that Mandela was the victim of "too much expectation."
Everybody thought Mandela had "a magic wand" that could solve the country's problems instantly, he said. "You're not going to build a powerful infrastructure in all parts of the country in seven months after having been illegal for 30 years."