The ANC’s rise to power: People's war or pragmatism?

2009-09-29 00:00

HANOI, October 1978. An African Nat­ional Congress delegation, including Thabo Mbeki, is in town to learn the lessons of people’s war — total onslaught by political and military means. In less than two decades this would put the ANC and Communist Party in control of South Africa, largely through a strategy of revolution that Anthea Jeffery argues drew its strength from the Viet Minh and stemmed from Soviet interest in South Africa’s mineral wealth.

How else, she asks, does one explain the rise of the ANC, also-rans at the time of the Soweto Uprising in 1976; and the parallel eclipse of Black Consciousness and Azapo, the Pan Africanist Congress and Inkatha? Her answer lies in fear generated by arbitrary terror, foreign-funded propaganda and internal collusion by willing dupes of the Kremlin. The people’s war was self-fuelled, manufacturing grievance to provoke an extreme reaction from the state. The United Democratic Front (UDF) was the equivalent of the South Vietnamese Nat­ional Liberation Front, a Trojan Horse preparing the ground for those in the ANC pulling the strings. In the process, Inkatha, which could easily have beaten the ANC in a 1984 election, was destroyed by targeted assassination and exaggerated claims that it was an ally of the system.

After the unbanning of the liberation movements in February 1990, this strategy was pursued alongside negotiations in a rerun of the early seventies’ Paris peace talks over Vietnam. The real third force, according to Jeffery, was the ANC, which caused mayhem in Natal and on the Reef and did not flinch at killing its own supporters to create terror (although, interestingly, she fails to say anything about its possible role in Chris Hani’s murder). An apparent collapse of the social and moral fabric created panic in the government and among a fearful, exhausted electorate that accepted a negotiated election in 1994 with a sigh of relief.

This is neat, gift-wrapped history that starts off with a theory and proceeds inexorably to prove it — reminiscent of much research that came out of government-created universities in the apartheid era. The ANC must relish this liberal-endorsed version of what it would like to claim. It justifies the demands of some for completion of the supposed revolution that was sidetracked by negotiations.

It’s the sort of history that can be likened to painting by numbers, except that in this case, the author decided not to use some of the colours. So, a mass of evidence and opinion produced by journalists (media guerrillas, Jeffery calls them), universities and faith and human rights groups, is not just ignored but denigrated as repetitive ANC propaganda. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is written off as inept. And if you add Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, the whole world was led astray.

It is a denial of agency that characterises this book: almost everyone is ultimately a victim or pliant collaborator of a communist-driven ANC, whether they be township dweller, academic, member of the clergy or international monitor. By comparison, Jeffery claims, Inkatha was unjustly demonised. She makes a half-hearted link with the mani­pulation of inter-war European intellectuals by the German communist Willie Münzenberg, but wisely relegates this unrealistic parallel to the footnotes.

While the National Party of P. W. Botha was cautiously reformist and developmental in its approach, Jeffery downplays the pent up rage of communities ground down by poverty and apartheid repression. Nor were the differences between the uprisings of 1984 and 1976 as wide as she assumes. The government was an active participant in lawlessness as the history of the Natal midlands in the eighties shows. It played a highly partisan role towards Inkatha and the KwaZulu Police and unleashed kitskonstabels on the community. It detained large numbers of UDF leaders without trial for long periods, leaving political hotheads to run amuk. And it employed spies, askaris and agents provocateur. The government’s National Security Management System is described rather quaintly by Jeffery as if it were a development agency rather than a parallel military regime. The even playing field is simply a product of right-wing liberal fantasy.

These complexities are ignored as they don’t fit the theory. Militant ANC rhetoric and the broadcasts of Radio Freedom are quoted at length in an attempt to link them, via nothing more than circumstantial evidence, to events on the ground. Every so often, Jeffery drops in a casual reference to Vietnam to keep the theory alive. There is such frequent mention of media bias against Inkatha that the book becomes an exercise in apologetics. And to describe the United Workers’ Union of South Africa, Inkatha’s labour affiliate, as workerist is patently absurd.

Jeffery is on safer ground in the period from 1990 to 1994, correct to question the idea of a third force, a long-standing and convenient myth trotted out by the ANC, and to point out that violence was not in the government’s best interests. Clearly, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) played a destabilising role (and Operation Vula was no figment of the imagination), but so too did Inkatha, Azanian People’s Liberation Army­ (Apla) and freelance elements of the security­ forces including those from Vlak­plaas and the army’s Civil Co-operation Bureau. It is well known that MK was an ill-disciplined, often­ ineffective outfit whose members engaged­ in criminal activity. Not even Jeffery can find a definitive pattern in this picture of anarchy, and she offers no sociological analysis of what were effectively turf wars typical of impoverished communities, as Richard­ Goldstone’s commissions showed.

She is justified in dismissing the miracle view of the transition, but describes a weak and indecisive government buckling under pressure. An alternative explanation is recognition between two dominant nationalisms that they had enough in common to make a deal; which they sealed, as Jeffery eloquently describes, in the fraudulent election of 1994. But the cheerful, peaceful people who queued patiently to vote, were the inheritors of negotiation and pragmatism, not a revolutionary war. Nor, from the late eighties did the ANC require a people’s war to promote its policy of a mixed economy in a liberal state exercising fiscal prudence.

Apart from rubbishing the evidence of the internal civil rights movement, this highly partisan history skims over the main factors that brought the government to the negotiating table. At a stretch it might have held off the AK47s for at least another decade. But it could not ignore the world economic climate, financial sanctions or the new geopolitical objectives of the West at the end of the Cold War.

This is essentially ANC revisionism and it does the country a great disservice by supporting the mythology to justify present attacks on the Constitution and liberal democracy. It is, in effect, an own goal. If there is one lesson to be learned from history, it is this. At moments of great drama when grand master plans seem a seductive explanation, look instead for muddle and compromise. Confusion generally trumps conspiracy in the long march of history.

• People’s war: new light on the struggle for South Africa by Anthea Jeffery is published by Jonathan Ball.

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