Persistent propaganda over decades has blinded South Africans to the ANC’s incremental revolution – and its costs.

The millions of South Africans who will be voting in the polls next week have been robbed of a vital understanding of two key issues:

  • the ruthless people’s war the ANC waged from 1984 to 1994 to destroy its black political rivals and cement its grip on power in the post-apartheid period; and
  • the national democratic revolution (NDR) the ANC has been implementing for the past 25 years with the help of the “state power” it thus gained.

Persistent ANC propaganda over decades has made it very difficult for most people to understand either the first or the second stages of this incremental revolution. Yet without a sound knowledge of these events, South Africans cannot accurately assess the true nature of either the ANC or its “struggle”. Many are also likely to remain “baffled” by the ANC’s determination to pursue destructive policies despite their obvious damage to jobs, growth, and any realistic prospect of “a better life for all”.

Understanding the people’s war is the first imperative, for this is the foundation on which the NDR’s implementation has been built.

The ANC has always depicted its “struggle” as a just war fought by just means. But the people’s war it waged was in fact very different, for it deliberately targeted civilians, used terror to bring people into line, and concentrated above all else on weakening and destroying the ANC’s black political rivals – the Black Consciousness (BC) movement and Inkatha.

The people’s war began in Sebokeng in September 1984, with a four-week long upsurge in violence in which four black local councillors were killed along with 60 other people. Overall, the people’s war cost some 5 500 lives in its first five years, from 1984 to 1989.

After political liberalisation in February 1990 – when the door to democracy had already been thrown open and there was no need to batter it down – the people’s war tripled in its intensity. It thus resulted in roughly another 15 000 deaths between then and April 1994.  

When former president FW de Klerk unbanned the ANC and its allies, he believed he was laying the foundation for a process of “good faith” negotiations in which all parties would be committed to peace, mutual compromise, and respect for agreements reached.

However, the ANC never had any intention of regarding negotiations in the same way. Instead it saw the constitutional talks as nothing more than an additional “terrain of struggle”: an adjunct to the people’s war it had been waging since 1984.

The negotiations process was also very useful to the ANC, for it allowed it to bring back to South Africa some 13 000 Umkhonto insurgents it had previously battled to infiltrate into the country.

With these trained and armed men back inside South Africa, the ANC was able to intensify its people’s war, expand its local combat units (termed “self-defence units” or “SDUs”) and tighten its hold over a growing number of “semi-liberated” areas, many of them in townships where IFP support had previously been strong.

From 1990, the ANC’s black rivals experienced an upsurge in the violence against them. The PAC soon capitulated and entered into a loose alliance with the ANC – but the IFP declined to surrender and bore the brunt of the killings.

Some 420 IFP leaders were killed in the decade from 1984 to 1994: many of them shot dead in well-planned ambushes and some of them burnt to death by the necklace method. Many thousands of IFP supporters were killed in similar ways.

This high death toll should have put paid to the “third-force” theory the ANC was sedulously putting forward to explain the surging violence. According to this theory, the IFP was working together with the police to attack and weaken the ANC and so derail the negotiations process.

The IFP’s obvious role in the Boipatong massacre and other attacks lent a superficial plausibility to this theory. But no credible evidence of it was ever found, despite enormous efforts to unearth this. In addition, a “third force” that killed so many thousands of IFP supporters and leaders simply made no sense at all.

In 1993 IFP president Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi queried how credible negotiations could proceed, or how a fair election could be held, when so many people were “being shot for belonging to the wrong political party”. But Buthelezi was dismissed as a “spoiler” fearful of democracy – while the possible culpability of Umkhonto in the killings was simply brushed aside.

By the time the chaotic and often fraudulent election was held in April 1994, the IFP had been stigmatised as the key culprit in the killings. Azapo and the PAC had been neutralised, while both the National Party and the Democratic Party had been barred from canvassing in black areas. De Klerk and Buthelezi had also been substantially discredited.

The people’s war thus succeeded in giving the ANC the hegemony it had long been determined to achieve. This fundamentally weakened the country’s new democracy, for it effectively ruled out any change in government for many years. It also gave the ANC the “prime prize” of “state power” – and the capacity to start implementing the NDR, a Soviet-inspired strategy aimed at taking South Africa by incremental steps from a free market system to a socialist and then communist one.

In the first and more political phase of the NDR, the ANC focused on white-anting many of the checks and balances in the 1996 Constitution. In the second, socio-economic phase (which began in 2012), the ANC has concentrated on weakening existing property rights with a view to their eventual “elimination”. More recently, NDR ideology has prompted the ANC’s decisions to introduce expropriation without compensation (EWC) and nationalise the South African Reserve Bank (SARB).

The NDR and the threat it poses to freedom in South Africa is little understood, just as the people’s war is seldom grasped. The two are nevertheless integrally linked. Hence, if people had more knowledge of the ANC’s people’s war – the first part of a two-stage revolution – it would be would be easier for them to understand the NDR, which is its second stage.

For 25 years and more, the true nature of the ANC’s “struggle” has been consigned to an Orwellian “memory hole”. To help rectify this, the first comprehensive account of the people’s war was produced by the IRR in 2009. The IRR has now produced an abridged and updated version, which focuses solely on the most important events in a complex saga.  This short book also shows how the people’s war paved the way for the NDR, and provides a brief sketch of NDR implementation to date. This overview will soon be supplemented by a sequel, which will further explain the NDR at work.

South Africa’s recent history, and its likely future trajectory, cannot be understood without a grasp of both the first and second stages of the ANC’s revolution. The IRR’s new book focuses on the first stage, and provides a sound foundation for understanding the second. But ANC propaganda remains extraordinarily powerful – and most South Africans will thus be deciding how to vote next week without an adequate understanding of either the ruling party, or its “struggle”.

Dr Anthea Jeffery is Head of Policy Research, IRR. Jeffery is also the author of People’s War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa, soon to be available in all good bookstores in abridged and updated form.

If you like what you have just read, become a Friend of the IRR if you aren’t already one by SMSing your name to 32823 or clicking here. Each SMS costs R1.’ Terms & Conditions Apply.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here