The violence of the people’s war is the key to understanding the rise to power of the African National Congress (ANC).
It is nearly impossible to understand the last 43 years of South Africa history, and how the ANC came to power, without reading “People’s War” by Anthea Jeffery, the head of policy research at the Institute of Race Relations.
The fact that Cyril Ramaphosa, replacing Jacob Zuma as president, has not rescued the country makes clear that the fundamental problem was not the person of Zuma but the nature of the ANC – which Jeffery dissects.
The story begins in 1976, when a popular uprising, started by schoolchildren in Soweto and spreading widely, ended all dreams of apartheid. After that, the National Party (NP) government stopped fooling itself, and began the tortuous, clumsy process of trying to reform apartheid while retaining white power. The NP was horrified by 1976. The ANC was horrified more.
The uprising was inspired by the Black Consciousness movement, the Pan Africanist Congress and leaders such as Steve Biko. The ANC had played no part. It was aghast to realise that it had lost power over the ‘black masses’. It then planned to regain power and take over the whole country. It did so with ruthless brutality and stunning success. This is what Jeffery tells so well, with immense scholarship. These are some of my deductions from her book.
The ANC was seeking power, not freedom. It was not trying to end apartheid but to stop anybody else ending it. In 1978, various ANC leaders, including Oliver Tambo and Thabo Mbeki, visited Vietnam to learn how communists there had overthrown the Americans and established their dictatorship. They learnt strategies for demoralising the enemy, terrorising the population and gaining power.
There were important differences. The ANC’s fighting wing, unlike the North Vietnamese, was hopeless as a militia. It stood no chance against the South African forces. So it concentrated on terrorising the unarmed black population. In the townships, its thugs assaulted and killed anybody nominally thought to be collaborating with apartheid, including municipal workers and black policemen, but actually anybody who did not support the ANC, especially those in other liberation movements. Their horrible methods included the ‘necklace’ – placing a petrol-filled tyre around the victim’s neck and setting it alight, thus roasting the victim to death.
The whole fearful movement was controlled by the ANC leadership in exile, many living comfortable lives in agreeable settings such as England. They did not devise the necklace execution or compose the slogan ‘liberation before education’ but covertly assented to them. An exception was Winnie Mandela, who gloated with delight when some poor black person was roasted to death. None of the ANC leaders suffered the deprivation they inflicted on others. A poor black township child might be necklaced for going to school, but Tambo sent his own son to a posh private school in England. Think of this as you behold his statue at Oliver Tambo Airport.
The apartheid government was confounded by the People’s War and did the worst possible thing: they blundered in a half-hearted way, never using maximum effective force but always enough to fill newspaper covers around the world with lurid photos of evil white racists attacking innocent blacks. There were important reforms to apartheid, especially the recognition of the black trade unions in 1979 and the scrapping of the Pass Laws in 1986, but these were seen by the ANC as signs of weakness, and they simply intensified the People’s War. It intensified more when F W de Klerk ended apartheid in February 1990 and unbanned the ANC. Then ANC terror reached a crescendo as it feared another black group might come to power.
One group which did not kneel before it was Inkatha, in Natal, led by Prince Buthelezi. It fought back. ANC propaganda portrayed Buthelezi as collaborating with apartheid. This was a lie. In fact, by refusing ‘independence’ for KwaZulu, Buthelezi did more than anybody else to end Grand Apartheid. By contrast, Kaiser Matanzima, who had close family ties with the ANC, did accept independence for the Transkei.
Most important of all were the Nationalist Afrikaners governing in the 1980s and 1990s, especially F W de Klerk. Essentially, the ANC told them: ‘We are going to keep killing poor black people unless you hand over power to us.’ This demand depended on the innate Christian decency of De Klerk and his fellows. That decency was real: they were ashamed of the suffering caused by apartheid.
At the time of the People’s War, I was working at a power station in the Eastern Transvaal and a paper mill in Natal. I saw for myself the white working classes moving away from the NP and towards the Conservative Party of Andries Treurnicht and the Afrikanerweerstandsbeweging (AWB) of Eugene Terre’Blanche. I believe the pro-apartheid reactionaries could have carried the day. What stopped them was that a suitable fraction of the white population became rich enough to be liberal enough to be against apartheid. The poorer the white, the more he supported apartheid. The NP was just successful enough in fostering white prosperity to propel a sufficient number of whites into the liberal camp that supported De Klerk’s transition.
The ANC was lucky it was not dealing with the likes of Terre’Blanche or Treurnight, who would have responded: ‘Fine. Kill as many blacks as you like. But lay a finger against us and we’ll smash you!’
Apartheid could have continued indefinitely behind ruthless white racist leaders, who wouldn’t have minded a crumbling economy and devastated townships as long as the whites clung to power.
Instead the ruthlessness came from the ANC, which gained power in 1994 and is still in power now.
Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the IRR.
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