South Africa’s armed struggle: where the ANC’s ineptitude was a virtue

Former members of the ANC’s armed wing perform the toyi-toyi dance in support of then ailing former President Nelson Mandela. Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

Whatever the virtues of South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) – we are assured it still has a few – it was never any good at armed struggle. And no more comprehensive support for that judgment has been assembled than the valuable new book, “Umkhonto we Sizwe: The ANC’s Armed Struggle”, by the University of Pretoria’s Thula Simpson.

South Africans can be grateful for this ineptitude. It may even count among the ANC’s greater virtues. For, had the ANC been militarily more capable, millions of South Africans might now be living in hell-holes of war such as those we see in Syria.

Instead, the ANC had the political imagination to reach an accommodation with apartheid’s masters who were, militarily, more powerful than it would ever be. The outcome was thus not a revolution in South Africa – although there have been far-reaching changes. Rather, both concluded they had more to gain from compromise than further confrontation.

People’s power trumps armed struggle

Armed struggle played a subsidiary – but, I will suggest below, an oddly important – role in this negotiated outcome. But the tactics deployed inside the country that were most decisive against apartheid were those that did not involve organised violence. They were the tactics in which ordinary people involved themselves, including strikes, boycotts and marches, and developing a vision of a different South Africa.

Underlying these nonviolent tactics was an insight that had become obscured during the setbacks the ANC and others suffered after the birth of the organisation’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), in 1961. The insight, only recovered in the early 1970s, was that any ruler can rule only for as long as those he rules allow him to rule.

Put another way, South Africans became increasingly aware that the claim of their primary slogan, “Amandla! Ngawethu!” (“Power is ours!”), was true. The power to decide the fate of the country was, indeed, theirs. Each man, woman and child possessed that power in some degree. And he or she didn’t need to carry a gun to be an agent of change.

Former Umkhonto we Sizwe commander Siphiwe Nyanda went on to head South Africa’s military. Reuters

Siphiwe Nyanda, probably the most effective field commander in MK, put it differently this year. The ANC, Nyanda said, might have been at the forefront of the struggle, but the people of South Africa had “liberated themselves”.

A rich historical collection

These are my own conclusions, re-asserted with considerably more confidence after reading Simpson’s book. They are not his. Rather, Simpson is careful to reserve his own judgment, preferring to tell his readers the story and leaving it to them to reach their own conclusions about the role of armed struggle in South Africa. In doing so, he has given us what is undoubtedly the richest collection of incident and claim assembled about MK.

Most of the book consists of accounts of attacks, firefights, bombings, the capture of fighters, disputes within the ANC and MK, and cruelties on both sides. The accounts are drawn from, among others, interviews with MK fighters, court records and other scholars.

Each account is usually no more than a page long. And Simpson writes each in the historic present tense. This style puts the reader inside the situation being described, which enhances the drama and readability. It will please the scholar looking for more empirical detail and others, adult or child, who want to know how things happened.

Here is a snippet from his account of the night attack by South African special forces on the headquarters of MK’s special operations unit in Matola, Mozambique, in January 1981. Some South African soldiers had managed to slip into the special operations compound and rounded up some MK people. The noise attracted others’ attention:

Sipho Thobela gets up and looks out the window. He sees his comrades lined up as if by a firing squad. He goes to fetch his AK [AK-47 assault rifle]. From the house’s balcony, Thobela opens fire on the men in the yard, upon which they start shooting at their captives as well as back at the house. The first captive they hit is Montso Mokgabudi, the commander (p276).

This attack was a heavy blow for MK. A group of gifted young commanders from the post-1976 generation was lost. It was they who had executed the attacks on, among others, the Natref and Sasol 1 and 2 oil-from-coal plants eight months earlier.

Success in failure

The preface to the book states that MK’s armed struggle was “the longest sustained insurgency in South African history”. That billing – though useful in marketing – may be a little misleading. There have been few “sustained insurgencies” in South Africa, let alone long ones.

It is also moot to ask how “sustained” MK’s armed struggle was, even in its own terms. For ten of MK’s 30 years of existence – from 1966 to 1975 – there was no armed struggle inside South Africa. The Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns in which MK was involved in then-Rhodesia in 1967-68 were aberrant adventures that failed. And from 1976 to 1990, armed struggle spluttered on at very low levels of intensity.

MK’s significance may, paradoxically, lie in its failure – in the ANC’s inability to persuade most South Africans that armed struggle was a plausible way to achieve regime change. I say this as someone who wrote scores of Aesopian newspaper articles and distributed thousands of ANC underground leaflets trying to convince South Africans that it was!

I long to hear Simpson, after all this work, argue a judgment on this and related questions.

Daring to struggle

The best tribute I’ve heard to MK’s contribution came from Ronnie Kasrils in early 1990. The ANC had recently been unbanned. Kasrils was on the run inside South Africa after apartheid intelligence had uncovered Operation Vula, which they saw as an act of bad faith by the ANC and in which he was number three.

My former commander, Kasrils was willing to be interviewed for my doctoral research on ANC operational strategy. At one clandestine meeting at Zoo Lake in Johannesburg, talking off tape, I asked if he could explain how the ANC was commanding such apparent authority among democrats inside the country even though its domestic organisation was at the time, we both knew, pitifully weak. How was it that the ANC looked likely eventually to lead a united front of democrats in negotiations?

Kasrils referred me to Oliver Tambo’s words in a speech in Venezuela seven years earlier. Tambo had been accepting, on Nelson Mandela’s behalf, the Simón Bolívar Award, named after the South American revolutionary. Tambo had told his audience of how the ANC and Mandela had “dared to struggle”.

I recall Kasrils saying:

Our armed struggle, whatever its limitations, has shown that. We’ve dared. Say what they will, no other organisation can match it.

That, to my mind, is what MK fighters’ blood, courage and daring bought. It was an important part of the price that the ANC paid to have the authority it needed to lead a broad front of democratic South Africans into negotiations that produced the minimum necessary condition – the institutions of formal democracy – to shape a free society. It was only a necessary condition that those fighters helped achieve, not a sufficient one – but it was priceless all the same.

Umkhonto we Sizwe: The ANC’s Armed Struggle”, written by Thula Simpson, is published by Penguin Books South Africa.

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