People's war: New light on the struggle for South Africa, by Anthea Jeffery
Anthea Jeffery's previous books include The Natal Story: Sixteen years of conflict and The Truth about the Truth Commission. Both, books have been acclaimed for their meticulous and objective approach, and for breaking new ground on important and contentious issues. This is No 3: People's war. New light on the struggle for South Africa.
Introduction: In 1961, when the African National Congress (ANC) embarked on armed struggle, racial discrimination permeated every nook and cranny of life within South Africa, stunting the lives and betraying the hopes of millions of black people. After some 15 years of National Party (NP) rule, discrimination lay 'at the very heart' of South African society, as John Kane-Berman (then a journalist on the Financial Mail and since 1983 the chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations) was later to write: 'Discrimination... governs every facet of our lives from the cradle to the grave - and even beyond, since even our cemeteries are racially segregated. It is enforced where we live, where we work, where we play, where we learn, where we go when sick, and on the transport we use. Not only does the government condone it; it systematically pursues it, preaches it, practises it, and enforces it. It is enshrined in our Constitution, written into our laws, and enforced by the courts.'1
There was little realistic prospect that the NP government under prime minister Dr Hendrik Verwoerd would abandon the apartheid system of its own volition, for Verwoerd resisted pressures for change and saw himself as 'the man of granite' who would hold the race-based edifice together. The Sharpeville shootings in March 1960 had also narrowed the space for peaceful protest, as had the banning the following month of both the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), the organisation responsible for organising the Sharpeville demonstration against the notorious pass laws.
In 1961 the government again rejected pleas by black South Africans for a national convention, underlining the futility of patient appeals for a shift in policy. In response, various political organisations began turning to violence to reinforce their demands for change. The PAC established an armed wing, Poqo, which sought to spark a general insurrection. A group of white liberals, the African Resistance Movement (ARM), embarked on a series of bomb blasts. Against this background, the ANC may have felt that it had little choice but to follow suit. Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Spear of the Nation, was formed in November 1961 and began attacks soon afterwards under a manifesto stating: 'The time comes in the life of any nation where there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has come now to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom.'
Though apartheid injustices fostered polarisation and invited insurrection,3 the ANC's decision to adopt armed struggle was nevertheless deeply controversial. Most Africans were devout Christians who opposed the use of violence on principle. It was also far from clear that non-violent strategies had in fact been exhausted, as the ANC asserted. According to Professor Tom Lodge of the University of the Witwatersrand, stayaways and other demonstrations had been poorly organised in the past, while protest had been used mainly to 'underscore moral assertions' rather than make strategic gains. In Lodge's view, the ANC had also paid little attention to the focused and incremental advances that might still be attained via strikes, civil disobedience, and boycotts.
In the outside world, the tide of African nationalism was running high and some 20 African states had already attained independence. Condemnation of apartheid was also growing in intensity. Nevertheless, no Western democracy was willing to assist the ANC in its armed struggle against Pretoria. By contrast, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had already endorsed the ANC's turn to violence and stood willing to help in its implementation. However, Soviet assistance was motivated by factors other than a simple desire to help end apartheid. The USSR had long been intent on expanding communist influence wherever possible and saw the wresting of control over southern Africa as part of that process.
Said Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev on various occasions: 'Our goal is to control the two treasure chests on which the West depends - the energy treasure chest of the Persian Gulf and the mineral treasure chest of central and southern Africa.'6 South Africa had particular strategic significance to Moscow, not only because of its huge mineral resources but also because of its position on the important trade and oil supply route between Europe, the Persian Gulf, and the East.
Soviet involvement complicated the situation, generating legitimate concerns that majority rule in South Africa would quickly turn to a form of communist dictatorship, as it had in other newly-independent African states. However, it was also not true, as the government was wont to claim, that communist agitation was solely to blame for the grievances of the African majority. Those grievances were real. Moreover, the longer they remained unresolved, the more opportunity this provided for the ANC and its key ally, the South African Communist Party (SACP), to agitate and organise for the overthrow of the minority regime - and to do so with a significant measure of international support.
The ANC nevertheless faced huge obstacles in mounting its armed struggle in the 1960s and the 1970s. Following its banning in 1960, it found it difficult to maintain a presence inside the country. Despite steady infusions of money, weapons, training and other military aid from Moscow, its armed struggle had little impact. The organisation found it difficult to recruit for Urnkhonto, especially after Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were arrested at Rivonia (Johannesburg), tried for sabotage and attempted insurrection, and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. It also found it impossible to infiltrate trained men back in significant number, and failed to sustain its bombing campaign after the collapse of its internal leadership.
By 1976 the ANC's voice within the country had been silenced for 16 years, while Urnkhonto's armed struggle was moribund. The ANC had largely been forgotten by black South Africans, while new political organisations were growing rapidly in strength. The first of these internal rivals was Inkatha, which stood for liberation through non-violent means and commanded a strong following in KwaZulu/Natal as well as in Soweto and other townships on the Reef. The second was the Black Consciousness (BC) movement which Steven Bantu Biko had helped to form. The BC movement aimed to raise political awareness among Africans, overcome an ingrained sense of racial inferiority among many black people, and take the lead in demanding an end to political and economic exploitation. The BC movement had particular impact on black youth, and was instrumental in sparking the Soweto revolt on 16th June 1976. [...]
This is an extract from the book: People's war: New light on the struggle for South Africa, by Anthea Jeffery.
Book title: People's war
Subtitle: New light on the struggle for South Africa
Author: Anthea Jeffery
Publisher: Jonathan Ball
Cape Town, South Africa 2009
Softcover, 17x24 cm, 676 pages
Jeffery, Anthea im Namibiana-Buchangebot
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