The ANC and the fall of the Berlin Wall

Paul Trewhela on an anniversary the ruling party should not forget to remember

Monday 9th November is an anniversary of first rate importance in South Africa, to be met with silence by its main beneficiary, the African National Congress, as ruling party of the state. Its non-commemoration arises from a tangle of contradictions as sharp as razor-wire.

On 9 November 1989, twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall cracked open, the Cold War in Europe came to an end, the Soviet empire tottered to its grave...and the ANC military option lost whatever teeth it might have had.

The military/security state erected by the National Party never lost a centimetre squared of its soil. Umkhonto weSizwe, the military wing of the ANC and the South African Communist Party, never won a centimetre squared of soil.

True, the repeated mass mobilisations and popular uprisings within South Africa through the Seventies and the Eighties placed a colossal strain upon the regime, and, true, the economic strain upon the state - especially in conditions of attrition exercised against it by the US banking system - placed it under further serious pressures.

Nevertheless, honest accounting must say that, given the continuation of the Cold War system in Africa, this nuclear-armed state at its southen tip was nowhere near collapse.

Yes, it had suffered a serious bloody nose at Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola between September 1987 and May 1988, as evidenced by Professor Piero Gleijeses of John Hopkins University and in documentation available on Wikipedia.

Its military adversary in that engagement, however - commanded by Soviet and Cuban generals, and provided with high-grade Soviet weaponry and a huge detachment of Cuban troops - rested on a global infrastructure that was on its knees. This entire military-strategic system received its coup de grace in the bloodless revolutions of the peoples of eastern and central Europe, in which the decisive 'battle' was evidenced by the Fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989. After that, Humpty Dumpty could never be put back together again. All the king's horses and all the king's men longer available.

Within a few short years, the Soviet Union and the system of so-called People's Democracies in Eastern Europe, on which the ANC and the SACP had built their exile edifice, had crumbled unto dust, devoured by their own internal contradictions. The predicted end of capitalism had brought about the end of Communism. The peoples of eastern and Central Europe, in lands where the leaders of the ANC and the SACP were on first-names terms with Comrade This and Comrade That, had voted with their feet. No more 'African Stalingrads', rhetorical or otherwise.

No more Soviet generals, no more MiGs, no more free training for the military in the warmth of the Crimea, or for the security establishment in the Stasi academies of eastern Germany. No more funds. No more Cuban air bridge.

The bottom had fallen out of the ANC's military exile strategy. Realpolitik dictated: negotiate.

And the Realpolitikers, of whom no-one was more attuned to military realities than Joe Slovo, Chief of Staff of Umkhonto, negotiated. With its troops withdrawn from the former Cold War battleground of Angola under the Crocker Accords of December 1988, and deposited in sullen camps in Zambia - far removed, again, from the South African field of conflict - the ANC had no option except the diplomatic and the political. It was time for the men in suits; or rather, for the commanders in uniform to get measured up for suits, and to pack away their fatigues for ceremonial purposes only.

The theatrics of war replaced the practice of war.

In the same process, the failure of war brought the triumph of politics.

Any candid study of the ANC and SACP in exile would conclude that, by and large - with the single exception of the Wankie campaign of 1967 - the military strategic thinking of their major thinkers, with Slovo almost certainly the most prominent, was nearly always exceedingly cautious and conservative. Generally speaking, the military leadership of the ANC/SACP was powerfully averse to the loss of large numbers of its troops in direct engagement with the South African Defence Force. In this sense, a strong sense of military realism, and respect, prevailed, in assessment of the capacities of their adversary. Small-scale guerrilla-type sorties, yes, with varying but limited success; large-scale military operations, no.

In this sense, the military strategy of the ANC/SACP in the South African theatre resembled a variant of the old anarchist prescription - 'Propaganda by deed' - far more than anything comparable with the history of the Vietminh in Vietnam, or the initially tiny force that won military victory in Cuba in January 1959, or the anti-colonial struggles in Namibia or Mozambique. Generally speaking, a very sober realism prevailed, when it came to risking its own forces in any numbers in direct engagement with the SADF.

Yet this approach - which contributed greatly to discontent among the troops in Angola in 1984, who wanted to be sent to the front to fight, rather than be wasted in the civil wars there - was also supremely successful, politically.

The ANC returned to South Africa after 1990 with its army almost entirely intact, and strongly politicised. If its record as a military force from its time in exile resembled more an army of the opera than a real army of the field (quite different in this sense from the SADF), then in retrospect this proved to have been a triumph of political management.

From its earliest days in exile, the ANC wiped the floor with its previously formidable political rival within South Africa from the early 1960s, the Pan Africanist Congress. From the exile period, there were no contenders. The Soviet system from 1960 to 1990 operated exclusively to the benefit of the SACP and the ANC, and gave this strange creature with two backs an overwhelmingly decisive advantage over any actual or potential rival. It was no contest.

In this way, the ANC benefited from the existence of the Soviet system, and it benefited from its collapse.

The result of this bizarre and contradictory history has been a not less bizarre reign of confusion within the ANC and its allies, in which the sober military realism of the ANC in exile has been replaced by an almost drunken stupor among some of its members and allies when it comes to economy.

In the period after the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Nelson Mandela, its sober military realism was complemented by a sober economic realism, as well as a sober political realism which culminated in the Constitution, the election of 1994 and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Of all political tendencies in South Africa, the ANC was the prime beneficiary of this process.

By a supreme act of historical forgetfulness, however, the non-commemoration of the Glorious Revolution of 1989 in Europe which brought the ANC to office in South Africa has produced a state of mind akin to that of the dynasty of the Bourbons in France, who forgot nothing and remembered nothing.

In a desire to re-erect the failed states of Russia, Romania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany etc etc which sustained the ANC in exile, and whose demise was announced as if by the trumpet of an archangel on 9 November 1989, the leadership of the National Union of Metalworkers has demanded a very general statisation of the economy in South Africa, to its own advantage - including nationalisation of the assets of the Minister of Human Settlements and ANC National Executive Commmittee member, Tokyo Sexwale (see here) - not long after the Treasurer General of the ANC, Mathews Phosa, had assured business leaders at a meeting in London of the precise opposite (see here).

It is time for more careful attention in South Africa to the collapse of the ANC's former support base in Eastern Europe. Time for more sober realism.

Paul Trewhela is the author of Inside Quatro: Uncovering The Exile History of the ANC and SWAPO, Jacana Media, 2009 (order it here)

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