In its final decade, the struggle took the form of a ruthless ‘people’s war’ that remains integral to South Africa’s future.

The African National Congress (ANC) has always depicted its liberation ‘struggle’ as a just war, fought by just means. But in the crucial last ten years from 1984 to 1994, that struggle in fact took the form of a ruthless people’s war that:

  • sought to turn order into anarchy; 
  • deliberately targeted civilians for attack; 
  • used terror to bring people into line; and 
  • aimed above all else at giving the ANC hegemony over the new South Africa.

The people’s war was partly aimed at robbing the National Party (NP) government of its already failing will to rule. But its key objective throughout was to weaken or destroy the ANC’s black rivals in the Black Consciousness (BC) movement and Inkatha – both of which had far more popular support than the ANC had ever enjoyed. 

This objective had to be fulfilled to ensure an ANC victory in the first all-race election and so pave the way for the ‘second’ stage of the revolution – the Soviet-inspired National Democratic Revolution (NDR) to which the ANC had been committed from at least as early as 1969.

The people’s war began in September 1984 with an upsurge in violence in Sebokeng, and then spread to other parts of the country. Some 5 500 people died in its first five years. Some 15 000, or almost three times as many, died in the five years thereafter – even though State President FW de Klerk had already unbanned the ANC and thrown open the door to non-racial democracy.

When the people’s war began, Inkatha’s claimed membership stood at close on 1 million. This was roughly ten times higher than the ANC’s membership had ever been. Inkatha thus had to be discredited and destroyed if the ANC was to gain control over the country.

Stigmatisation began in 1980, when the ANC declared Inkatha ‘an enemy of the people’. Thereafter, it grew increasingly sharp. In 1986 Buthelezi – who had successfully thwarted the NP’s ‘grand apartheid’ strategy by refusing to take independence for KwaZulu – was described as ‘a junior partner in Gestapo repression’ and ‘a snake that needs to be hit on the head’.

By 1986 the number of Inkatha leaders and supporters shot or hacked or burnt to death in KwaZulu/Natal had risen to more than 100. By the end of 1989, the death toll in the region had reached some 2 400, with Inkatha bearing the brunt of the attacks. The number of Inkatha leaders killed each year had also grown steadily: from the three killed in 1985 to the 54 killed in 1989. However, all this was overlooked amid a welter of accusations blaming Buthelezi’s ‘impis and warlords’ for the violence.

After the ANC’s unbanning in February 1990, some 13 000 Umkhonto insurgents were brought back to the country with the government’s consent and as part of the constitutional negotiations process. Contrary to De Klerk’s expectations, however, the ANC then refused to disband or disarm its MK cadres. Instead, it used them to intensify the people’s war, expand its local combat units (termed self-defence units or SDUs) and tighten its hold over a growing number of black townships where IFP support had previously been strong. 

Some 1 000 policemen were killed between 1990 and 1994, while Azapo and the PAC – both minor rivals to the ANC – suffered a series of attacks. Most of the violence was again directed at the IFP. Violence in KwaZulu/Natal rose sharply. Fighting also surged on the Reef, where thousands of IFP supporters were attacked and forced to flee their hostel or township homes. 

By the end of 1993, some 400 IFP leaders had been killed (many in premeditated assassinations) along with thousands of IFP supporters. Thousands more had been injured. But again this was concealed under a torrent of invective blaming the carnage on the IFP and the police, supposedly acting together as a sinister ‘third force’. IFP attacks in retaliation fed the media firestorm, gradually fixing in the public mind the widespread view that Inkatha was indeed the culprit in the killings.

Buthelezi asked how credible negotiations could proceed or a fair election could be held when ‘people were being shot for belonging to the wrong political party’. He also demanded that De Klerk disband Umkhonto and strip it of its weapons. But ANC propaganda had so demonised both De Klerk and Buthelezi for their alleged role in ‘third-force’ violence that the state president was reluctant to take such steps. Buthelezi withdrew from negotiations in protest and was dismissed as nothing but a ‘spoiler’. 

The international community either failed to understand or chose not to do so. It put huge pressure on De Klerk to meet the ANC’s demands, while criticising Buthelezi for his ‘brinkmanship’. The ANC, for its part, turned the truth on its head by accusing Buthelezi of seeking to ‘rise to power on the corpses of black people’ and of wanting to ‘drown democracy in blood’. 

By the time of the deeply flawed election in April 1994, the IFP had become ‘the eternal “other” (the equivalent of the Jew in Nazi Germany)’. The PAC and Azapo had been neutralised, the NP and the Democratic Party had been barred from canvassing in black areas, and De Klerk had been significantly discredited. This helped the ANC win a 63% majority in the 1994 election, despite its own earlier prediction that it would battle to win 50% of the vote.

The people’s war has had enormous ramifications for the country. By fundamentally weakening the ANC’s black rivals, it robbed the ‘new’ South Africa of any realistic prospect of a change in government. This has encouraged corruption and further abuses of power, which other constitutional safeguards have proved unable to prevent.  

The people’s war also added to 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 them still in circulation).

Above all else, the people’s war gave the ANC ‘the prime prize’ of the ‘state power’ it needed to implement the NDR. The NDR seeks to take South Africa, by slow and incremental steps over many years, from a free market to a socialist and then communist future.  

Major progress has been made in advancing the NDR over the past 25 years. Yet the huge 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 easier for them to understand the NDR, which is its second stage. 

Instead, most people remain blinded by the struggle ‘myths’ the ANC has so assiduously spread. Many are thus ‘baffled’ as to why the ANC, with its supposedly high moral standing and deep concern for the well-being of the people, should be implementing an NDR so profoundly damaging to the country’s best interests. Understand the duplicity and ruthlessness of the people’s war, however, and the NDR becomes far easier to grasp. 

Dr Anthea Jeffery is Head of Policy Research at the IRR, and the author of People’s War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa, now available in all good bookshops in abridged and updated form. See details of the book launches in Johannesburg and Pretoria.  


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