Address by Anthea Jeffery on her book "People's War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa", (Jonathan Ball, 2009), Johannesburg November 10 2009
Many people are likely to be surprised and dismayed at what I have to say, and many may find it hard to believe at all. This is not surprising. The outrage triggered by apartheid generated great sympathy for the African National Congress (ANC), while the iconic status accorded Nelson Mandela on his release from prison also generated an aura of sanctity around the organisation. Moreover, a people's war is primarily a war of communication. One of its main aims is to throw dust in people's eyes by putting forward a false theory of violence which is plausible in many ways but nevertheless subverts the truth. Once that false theory has become deeply rooted, it is very difficult to believe it could be wrong.
Many people have also found an understandable comfort in the notion of South Africa's ‘miracle' transition and have little wish to probe beneath that to a less palatable reality. But every organisation, including the ANC, has to be understood in the light of its own history. The People's War book is thus intended to deepen understanding both of the ruling party and of the country's political transition. The book itself is comprehensive, giving details of the people's war in every year of its implementation. In this brief overview, by contrast, I can only touch on some key points.
In 1961, when the banned ANC embarked on its simpler strategy of armed struggle, the National Party (NP) government had been in power for almost 15 years and racial discrimination permeated every nook and cranny of life within South Africa, stunting the lives and betraying the hopes of millions of black people. The prime minister, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, was intent on ratcheting up apartheid restrictions and it was unlikely that his government would ever embark on reform.
The ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Umkhonto), began by focusing on sabotage attacks, though some of these did put lives at risk. In 1963 the Mayibuye document signalled the ANC's intention to shift to guerrilla war. However, such a war never got off the ground. This was partly because Mandela and other internal leaders were arrested and imprisoned. But it was mainly because the ANC, even with substantial Soviet help, was unable to infiltrate trained Umkhonto insurgents back into the country in significant number.
By 1974, it seemed, as ANC president Oliver Tambo had earlier said, that ‘the guns of MK had been silenced for all time'. Inside the country, the banned ANC had largely been forgotten. Outside South Africa, the organisation was almost moribund. Without Soviet support, it would not have survived at all. But Soviet financial aid had nevertheless been reduced by two thirds from what it had been ten years before, for Moscow also recognised the ANC's ineffectiveness.
Back in South Africa, 1975 saw the establishment of Inkatha by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Inkatha disagreed with the ANC's principal strategies of armed struggle and economic sanctions and sought to end apartheid by other non-violent means. It soon commanded substantial support, making it an important internal rival to the ANC.
The following year, 1976, saw the start of the Soweto revolt, fuelled by the rise of the Black Consciousness (BC) movement inside the country. The upsurge lasted 18 months and shook South Africa to its core, even though the student activists were ultimately no match for the state. The revolt had great impact on the ANC, for it showed that internal insurrection was still possible. However, it also demonstrated that the ANC was in grave danger of being eclipsed inside the country. For BC continued to command significant support, while Inkatha's membership doubled and then doubled again as people mourned the youngsters gunned down during the revolt and reassessed the cost of fruitless confrontation with the state.
It was against this background that a senior delegation from the ANC and SACP went to Vietnam in 1978 to learn the formula for people's war. This formula was soon adopted in the form of The Green Book: Lessons from Vietnam, while the ANC alliance began implementing what it had learned.
The theory of people's war, as developed and applied in Vietnam, has many different elements, and I can only touch on some of them here. Not all were fully applied in South Africa, for the Vietnam war was fought at a much higher level of intensity, marked by B52 bombing raids, the killing of 10 000 village chiefs, and a number of pitched battles between heavily armed conventional forces. No such developments were evident in the struggle for South Africa, where apartheid was already crumbling by the time the people's war began, conventional warfare never developed, the negotiating process began early on, and violence was concentrated in a relatively small number of contested areas, mainly in KwaZulu-Natal and on the Reef.
A people's war, as the term suggests, revolves around the use of people as weapons of war. As many people as possible must be drawn into the war, whether by joining organisations allied to the insurgents, or taking part in demonstrations, or helping with the propaganda campaign, or taking part in violent attacks. In addition, all individuals within the arena of conflict - including those who support the insurgents - are regarded as expendable in the waging of the war, in the same way as arms and ammunition are expendable in a conventional conflict. It also means that children are just as expendable as adults and that there is no bar against using children either as combatants or as targets for attack. As a combatant, a child may be more willing to take risks, and as a victim of violence the child has much greater value in subsequent propaganda and mobilisation.
A further essential principle of people's war is that ‘political struggles', in the form of boycotts, demonstrations, stayaways and strikes, must always be combined with ‘military struggles'. These armed actions include attacks on the police and army, but also go far beyond that. For the aim is to use violence to drive out local councillors, create an atmosphere of terror, and weaken or destroy political rivals. This last objective is particularly important, for it gives the insurgent organisation the hegemony required to implement the further stages of its revolution.
Political and military struggles are equally important and must always proceed in tandem. Together they constitute the two arms of the pincer, the hammer and the anvil. The political struggle gives cover to the military struggle, for without the political ferment the violence would seem too brutal to be condoned. At the same time, the military struggle gives impetus to the political struggle, for voluntary participation in boycotts and other campaigns may not be sufficiently widespread or sustained over time without the use of intimidation and terror to give a further boost to mass participation.
As the people's war intensifies, the insurgents' main aim is to destroy authority and generate a climate of anarchy, or ‘ungovernability'. Their further objectives are to hobble the economy, increase poverty, and create such a degree of social pathology that people become desperate for a return to normality at almost any price.
As the ferment builds, propaganda is essential to shield the insurgents from blame for what is happening. Propaganda is thus the most important part of the political struggle, for it turns the truth on its head by blaming the insurgents' political rivals for the violence, the anarchy, and the increased economic suffering. Sympathy for the insurgent movement is fostered, while its rivals are likely to suffer crippling losses in credibility and support.
People's war proceeds through stages. In its preliminary phases, the aim is simply to create secret cells, form organisations, and advertise the insurgent movement via bomb attacks. Thereafter, people's war proceeds through its first (defensive) and second (mobile warfare) stages to the third stage, the beginning of the end. The strategy recognises that the end can come about either through a general insurrection (the rough road) or through negotiations (the smooth road), or though a combination of both.
The third stage is thus marked by great efforts to intensify all aspects of the people's war. For increased ferment and violence might succeed in unleashing insurrection, while increased ferment and violence will in any event weaken opponents, making it easier for the insurgents to triumph in negotiations. Part of the aim in the third stage is thus to delay substantive negotiations for a significant period: until insurrection has been achieved (or has been ruled out as impracticable); or until adversaries have been weakened enough for talks to proceed on the insurgents' terms. The insurgents will also try to set immovable deadlines for the talks because these, supplemented by persistent acts of violence, will encourage the making of concessions opponents would otherwise resist.
This, very much in a nutshell, is what the ANC learnt from its visit to Vietnam. From the ANC's perspective, it mattered little that the situation in South Africa was very different from that pertaining in Vietnam, for the formula for people's war could be applied in many different circumstances. What counted were the various factors on which the ANC could build in applying the lessons from Vietnam. These included a powerful sense of grievance within South Africa against racist misrule, strong international condemnation of apartheid, an evident willingness among black youth to embark on confrontation with the state, and the fact that Umkhonto had been strengthened by an influx of new recruits following the Soweto revolt.
In South Africa, the early phases of people's war culminated in the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983. The front was formed at ANC behest and had little popular support in many areas, particularly KwaZulu/Natal. Many of its affiliates comprised little more than narrow groups of activists, though some of them, such as the Congress of South African Students (Cosas), had major constituencies. ANC control over the UDF, though understandably denied at the time, was total: for, as Jeremy Seekings has recorded in his book on the UDF, 24 out of the 25 people on the UDF's national executive committee were formal or informal members of the ANC political underground.
The people's war began on 3rd September 1984 with a surge of violence in Sebokeng and other townships in the Vaal Triangle which lasted a month and cost the lives of four local councillors along with 60 other people. The conventional view is that the demonstrations on 3rd September were initially peaceful, turning violent only after the police had opened fire, in a replay of the start of the Soweto revolt. But the upsurge in the Vaal was different.
According to the judgment in the Delmas treason trial - which was later overturned on a legal technicality, not for any flaw in its findings of fact - the violence in the Vaal was carefully pre-planned. Roads in five townships were comprehensively barricaded well in advance, while stones, bricks, and sometimes containers with petrol were placed near the homes of councillors who later suffered attack. The pattern of violence in at least four of the Vaal townships was also very similar, while it was at roughly 8am that attacks in many of these areas began: ' that the situation in the Vaal exploded', as a policeman in a spotter aircraft later testified.
The judgment also accepted the testimony of a senior policeman who had been in charge both in the Vaal townships and in Soweto in 1976. According to this evidence, there were significant differences between the two uprisings. In the Vaal, attacks had been carefully aimed at specific targets and the crowd had shown a strong determination, attacking councillors repeatedly in many instances. This was different from what had happened in Soweto, ‘where anything in the way of the mob had been attacked'. Moreover ‘in the Vaal, barricades were erected the previous night, whereas in Soweto that happened only after the riots started'. Furthermore, in the Vaal, ‘the leaders and instigators of the various mobs of rioters often wore UDF and Cosas T-shirts' - all ‘nice, new, and clean' - and ‘as soon as the attack was under way the leaders wearing the UDF T-shirts would melt into the crowd and disappear'.
Around 10am, as attacks intensified, the police resorted to sharp ammunition, killing and injuring a number of people as they sought to put an end to rioting. Local and international condemnation was severe, especially as the police were accused of having provoked the violence through their harsh repression. The government found itself in a cleft stick; on the one hand, it had a duty to protect life and property; on the other, its legitimacy was already so tarnished by apartheid that it could not afford the condemnation police action had evoked.
In November 1984 the South African Communist Party (SACP) held its 6th congress near Moscow, where it recognised that the Sebokeng upheavals spelt the end of white rule. This made it particularly urgent for the SACP to consolidate its control over the ANC before the transition took place. This was achieved at the ANC's national conference in Kabwe (Zambia) in June 1985, where the ANC's national executive committee was opened to people of all races, allowing Joe Slovo and other SACP leaders to reinforce their dominance over the ANC. The relationship between the two organisations was summed up by SACP general secretary Chris Hani in 1991 when he said: ‘We in the Communist Party have...built the ANC. We have made the ANC what it is today and the ANC is our organisation.'
By the end of 1989, some 5 500 people had been killed in political violence, some 700 of them by the necklace method. Black local government had been profoundly weakened, facilitating the establishment of street committees and people's courts which had brought terror to a number of townships. Azapo leaders and supporters had been attacked, and some of them had been necklaced. Inkatha had suffered particular attack, especially after conflict began in the Pietermaritzburg area in 1987 and then spread to Durban. Inkatha had also fought back, sometimes viciously, and the death toll in Natal had risen to some 2 400 in two years.
The propaganda campaign vital to the success of the people's war had also done its work. Inkatha had been demonised for unleashing violence through its ‘warlords' and its ‘vigilantes'. The government and the police had been equally condemned, especially for imposing emergency rule and resorting (so it was rightly suspected) to the extrajudicial execution of Matthew Goniwe and other activists. Sympathy and support for the ANC had soared, resulting in both economic sanctions against South Africa and a flood of foreign money into the coffers of the UDF.
Following the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in 1985, strikes in 1987 had reached unprecedented levels, reinforced by the necklacing of non-strikers. Operation Vula had begun in 1988 and was succeeding in infiltrating large quantities of arms, stepping up internal training for militants, and giving increased direction to the UDF in implementing the people's war.
However, a stalemate had also arisen. The ANC's push for insurrection in 1986 had failed, while the government had restored control in contested townships through emergency rule. But the government also knew that it could not end the people's war, that it could not maintain emergency rule indefinitely, and that apartheid, in any event, had failed and could neither be justified nor sustained. This realisation, coupled with the fall of the Berlin Wall, were vital factors persuading state president F W de Klerk to embark in February 1990 on negotiations for a new South Africa.
In addition, the government, for some years before then, had already begun reaching out to the ANC in secret talks. It found itself much reassured, for the ANC successfully conveyed the message that it was full of reasonable men, with whom the government could do business. Thabo Mbeki and in time Mandela were particularly important here.
However, the ANC, in keeping with the lessons from Vietnam, was also determined that negotiations should take place on its own terms. It thus orchestrated widespread rejection of the government's pre-condition for talks: that the ANC must first renounce violence. Simultaneously, it generated local and global support for its own pre-conditions. These included the unbanning of all organisations, an end to emergency rule, the removal of troops from townships, the release of detainees, and the return of exiles.
These demands, though reasonable and broadly supported, were also calculated to make it easier for the ANC to step up the people's war during the negotiations process. For the ANC had no intention of ending the people's war when negotiations began. Rather it planned to use the talks as an ‘additional terrain' in its multi-faceted political struggle. At the same time, it planned to intensify military struggles as well. It also knew it would be much easier to achieve an upsurge in mass action and political violence when at least 13 000 of its armed and trained Umkhonto combatants were back inside the country.
The ANC's strategy, in short, was a variant on the Trojan Horse one. By professing a commitment to peace, the ANC could secure the legal return of Umkhonto as part of the negotiations process. This would bypass the great difficulty the organisation had always faced in infiltrating its insurgents illegally. Moreover, having got Umkhonto back inside South Africa, the ANC then refused to disband or disarm its armed wing.
Propaganda, as ever, was vital to conceal the truth. Hence, as Umkhonto combatants returned and violence began to surge, so the ANC and its supporters increasingly blamed the killings on a sinister Third Force, comprising elements within the police and the IFP. De Klerk was implicated too, for the constant accusation made was that the state president had a ‘dual strategy' of talking peace while using the Third Force to wage a low-level war against the ANC.
This propaganda campaign soon had huge impact. This was partly because the same message came from so many quarters - not only from the ANC and its many allied organisations but also from journalists and monitors of violence who professed political independence yet consistently endorsed the ANC's perspective. But much of the impact came from the role of Mandela, who quickly became the ANC's most important propagandist. He repeatedly used his iconic status to accuse De Klerk of ‘fuelling...the killing of innocent people', and to charge Buthelezi with being the state president's willing surrogate. Mandela's accusations gave enormous credibility to the Third-Force theory. The upshot was that De Klerk and Buthelezi were further discredited, while sympathy for the ANC rose yet again.
Judge Richard Goldstone and his commission of inquiry - which had been established in 1991 to investigate political violence-had such wide powers of investigation that he should have been able to cut through the propaganda and get to the truth. Instead, in a manner reminiscent of his recent controversial report on the Gaza conflict, Goldstone seemed willing, at crucial junctures, to accept the untested allegations of the ANC as established fact; ignore relevant evidence about the role of Umkhonto in violence; and overlook the ANC's determination to persist with people's war in the negotiations period.
This was particularly evident in Goldstone's report on violence in KwaZulu/Natal in 1992. KwaZulu/Natal was the epicentre of ANC/IFP conflict and the bulk of political killings were happening there. Recent massacres in the region included the Patheni massacre in the Richmond area in August 1992 and the Folweni killings in southern KwaZulu/Natal two months later.
In the Patheni massacre, an induna (headman) named Fana Nzimande was approached at his homestead by five black men wearing brown army-type uniforms and balaclavas and claiming to be from the SAP firearms unit. Nzimande was instructed to produce the two G-3 rifles issued to him by the KwaZulu administration for his protection. Nzimande duly found the guns and handed them over. Once he had been disarmed, the induna, his wife, and their six children were ordered to line up against a wall of his kraal. The family were then gunned down, as if by firing squad. All were killed, save for two of Nzimande's daughters, who were seriously injured.
The Folweni massacre in October 1992 also involved gunmen dressed in army-type uniforms who attacked the home of a known IFP supporter where people had gathered for an initiation ceremony for a young girl. The attackers surrounded the venue and opened fire with AK-47 rifles. This time, 22 people were killed while 33 were injured.
The police testified to the Goldstone commission that Umkhonto combatants, some of whom were based in the Transkei, had been involved in both these massacres. They gave examples of a number of attacks perpetrated by ANC members dressed in security force uniforms. The police also testified that the ANC was ‘waging an aggressive war' on the IFP ‘by military means' in the region, while the IFP was ‘disadvantaged in its resistance to the ANC's onslaught [because it] lacked the quantity and sophistication of the weaponry available to the ANC'.
However, instead of probing these submissions and providing reasoned arguments for rejecting or supporting them, Goldstone seemed simply to ignore them. He also made no comment on an IFP submission describing the killing of some 240 Inkatha leaders since 1985. Instead, Goldstone seemed willing to accept at face value an ANC statement that it was no longer involved in violence. In addition, Goldstone's recommendations were either naive (that Child Welfare should help promote political tolerance) or else implicitly endorsed the ANC perspective and singled out the IFP for blame. Proper investigation and a balanced report by Goldstone could have done much to reveal the truth and help put an end to conflict, but this was not forthcoming.
Meanwhile, in keeping with the lessons from Vietnam, for the first three years after the ANC's unbanning - while the death toll soared, the economy stuttered, and mass action increased - virtually no multilateral negotiations took place at all. Such talks began in earnest only after the killing of Chris Hani in April 1993, when a further surge in violence pressurised the government into agreeing to the ANC's demand for an election date. This was then set at 27th April 1994. Once this immovable deadline was in place, the pressure on the government and other parties to the talks rapidly increased. For negotiators had to agree on an interim constitution and other aspect of the transition well before this date, even if it meant making concessions which might otherwise have been opposed.
The upshot was what Slovo called ‘a famous victory' in negotiations, the ANC scoring ‘16 out of 16' on what it had intended to achieve. Among its many gains, three were particularly important. First, a Transitional Executive Council (TEC) would be appointed and given extensive powers for a number of months before the election took place. Second, provided the ANC won a sufficient proportion of the vote in the election, power would be strongly centralised in its hands under the interim constitution. Third, the constituent assembly elected via the April poll would be free to make important changes to the final Constitution, which in turn would make it easier for the ANC to pursue its further revolutionary objectives.
After the setting of the election date, the country also moved into pre-election mode, a vital stage during which ANC rivals were to be comprehensively weakened and discredited. Violence surged even more, especially on the Reef and in KwaZulu/Natal. The death toll among IFP leaders and supporters went steadily up, while IFP members were driven out of their township homes and also out of various hostels. On the east Rand, in particular, they became virtual prisoners inside the few hostels they were able to retain. To gain some understanding of what that meant in practice, consider this report in the Weekly Mail & Guardian in August 1993:
Toilet paper, mealie meal, soap, cigarettes and chocolate may seem harmless items - but last week it took three Nyala armoured police vehicles to get them into Katlehong's Mazibuko and Buyafuthi hostels... The two hostels are completely cut off from the outside world. Many inmates have not left the hostels for days or weeks... The state of siege experienced by inmates of Mazibuko is both physical and psychological... Razor wire surrounds the compound; most of the [hostel] windows have been shot out. The stench of urine and uncollected refuse permeates the shabby building; its corridors are dark and oppressive.
‘Tell them they must let the trains run,' says one Mazibuko inmate. ‘If not, we have to take taxis to get to work and then they attack us easily.'... All the surrounding shops are closed - but even if they were open the hostel dwellers would not hazard the walk. ‘We would be shot', they say matter of factly.
At the same time as the IFP was suffering this kind of attack, drive-by shootings, train killings, and other massacres on the east Rand for which the IFP was blamed (and was sometimes undoubtedly responsible) bred enormous fear and anger and turned many ANC supporters into refugees as well. This lent credibility to ANC propaganda that Buthelezi was ‘seeking to rise to power on the corpses of black people'. No accusation could have been more damaging.
This allegation was also given further force by the Wadeville massacre in Germiston on 8th September 1993, which was later described by the Sunday Times as ‘a classic textbook military ambush'. The attack was perpetrated during the evening rush hour by gunmen operating in two groups. The first group of about six men suddenly opened fire with handguns on commuters queuing for taxis at Lantern Road in Wadeville. As the gunfire cracked out, six people were shot dead and the commuters fled down the street with the gunmen close behind them and firing all the way. When they reached the intersection with a cross road, the commuters dived behind a sheltering wall and cowered there in a frantic bid to escape the gunmen chasing them. But they found no sanctuary there. For the second and larger group of gunmen had already taken up position in this cross road and the people sheltering behind the wall were now within easy range of their AK-47 rifles. Wrote the Sunday Times: ‘The commuters ran headlong into a killing zone under the muzzles of the second group... At least 12 of the victims died there, nine tumbled into a heap against the wall they had hoped would shelter them from the first group of attackers...'
Twenty-five people were killed in the massacre and another 25 were injured. The ANC blamed the IFP for the killings and so too did many in the media, prompting further fury at Inkatha. The ANC also used the killings to demand the speedy installation of the TEC, saying the massacre showed that the government was unable to protect black lives. Hence, only a new peacekeeping force (made up largely of Umkhonto combatants and soldiers from homeland armies allied to the ANC) could be trusted to undertake this task. The ANC thus drew substantial advantage from the massacre, while the IFP - despite the lack of proof of its culpability - was further demonised.
In the four months before the April 1994 poll, some 1 500 people were killed in political violence. Yet the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), international observers, and many others continually asserted that a free and fair election could nevertheless be held. Buthelezi objected, asking how this could be achieved when ‘people were being shot for belonging to the wrong political party'. But Buthelezi had been so thoroughly discredited for his alleged brinkmanship and belligerence that this was largely disregarded.
The 1994 election was so chaotic that no accurate result could be computed. In the end, the ANC was accorded some 63% of the vote. This was consistent with what some opinion polls had said, but it was also out of keeping with various other opinion polls putting ANC support at less than 50%. Only a free and fair election could have provided an accurate gauge of the ANC's electoral strength - but this the April poll had no prospect of providing.
The upsurge of violence that began in February 1990 and lasted until a few days before the April election cost the lives of some 15 000 people, three times the number killed in the first five years of the people's war. Yet, in the early 1990s, when political killings reached these unprecedented heights, the door to a non-racial democracy had already been thrown open by De Klerk and all major apartheid laws (other than the constitution, which had to be renegotiated) had already been repealed.
The upsurge was, however, consistent with the requirements of people's war in this third stage. It was also consistent with the ANC's declared ‘dual strategy' of talking peace while waging war. However, such has been the power of ANC propaganda that the probable part of Umkhonto in the violence has consistently been overlooked. Yet the ANC was also the only political organisation which not only had the means and the motive to unleash violence on innocent civilians, but which also drew substantial benefit from the killings, using them to put pressure on negotiators, stigmatise its opponents, buttress its support, and attain the hegemony that it had always sought.
In the 15 years since April 1994, the story of how the ANC came to power has never properly been told. Few South Africans know about the visit to Vietnam in 1978, or what the ANC learnt there. The People's War book seeks to unravel the diverse strands of the strategy and show its impact on the political transition. The book makes clear the great success of the Vietnamese formula in giving the ANC a virtual monopoly on power. But it also reveals the great cost at which that domination was achieved. Apart from the killings, the terror, and the destruction that marked the ten years of the people's war, the strategy set in motion political and social forces that cannot easily be reversed. For violence cannot be turned off ‘like a tap', as ANC propaganda suggested, and neither can anarchy easily be converted into order.
If nothing else, the people's war has played a major part in South Africa's plague of violent crime, for it turned policemen into targets of attack, loosened moral constraints, drew youngsters into heinous acts of violence, and flooded the country with illegal weapons, many of which remain in circulation.
Dr Jeffery is head of special eesearch at the South African Institute of Race Relations. This article first appeared in SAIRR Today, the weekly online newsletter of the institute, November 13 2009
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