The ANC and the Magoo's bombing

Andrew Kenny argues, contrary to what Mantashe claims, that apartheid was in retreat

The Constitutional Court has decided mainly against Robert McBride in his defamation case against the Citizen for articles written by the editor and me. In June 1986 McBride planted a bomb outside the Magoo's Bar in Durban, killing three innocent women and injuring 69 people.

In 2003, when it was proposed that McBride should be made head of the Ekurhuleni police force, Martin Williams, editor of the Citizen, wrote several articles saying that because of this bombing, he was not fit for the post. I wrote a similar article in the Citizen.

McBride sued us for defamation in 2005. He won the case in the High Court in 2008, won again in the Supreme Court of Appeal in 2010 and lost in the Constitutional Court this month.

I have no personal interest in McBride nor do I wish to discuss the strange, new idea that became the central argument in all the court hearings: whether McBride's amnesty at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made it illegal for anyone to say he had committed a crime.

My interest here is to look at the history of Magoo bomb, the reasons behind it and how it fitted into our transition from apartheid to democracy. These thoughts are my own and not those of Martin Williams or the Citizen.

McBride claimed that the bomb was part of the fight against apartheid. The Concourt judge said McBride was acting as "an operative of the African National Congress". In 2003, I wrote, "McBride's bomb was planted in 1986, at a time when apartheid was clearly in retreat ... " This comment has been furiously denied by ANC spokesmen including Gwede Mantashe, ANC Secretary General, in an official statement last week critical of the Concourt judgment

Apartheid, like communism, which it resembles, was not only evil but unworkable. Up until 1976, the National Party leaders pretended it could work. In 1976 came the Soweto uprisings, organised by the Black Consciousness Movement and its allies.

After that, the National Party stopped pretending, and thereafter apartheid was in retreat. But the Soweto uprising also horrified the ANC because they realised they were not in control of the black populace. After 1976, the ANC embarked a long, violent and successful campaign to take that control. The "People's War" began.

The rotten edifice of apartheid began to fall apart because of its own contradictions and because its masters were dismantling it. The lack of white skills, the economic nonsense of job reservation, the impossibility of enforcing residential separation and the folly of the Bantustans made it crumble. Since apartheid could not be reformed, each attempt at reform, by a government hoping forlornly to cling to minority power, hastened its end.

I was brought up in Cape Town, attended the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1967, went to England from 1972 to 1982, and returned. When I came back I saw a different country. Black people were in areas and positions they had not been in before.

My boss at my factory job in 1982 was black. A large proportion of my fellow students when I returned to UCT to do engineering were black. In 1983 I attended the launch of the United Democratic Front, which everybody knew was an ANC front. I heard ANC figures, such as Alan Boesak and Trevor Manuel speak at UCT.

In 1979, the government recognised the black trade unions, an immense advance. The reforms rolled on. As they did, political violence increased. Throughout history, a time of reform has always been a time of danger. The French and Russian Revolutions happened after reforms. As repression is lifted, people feel emboldened to rebel. They are inflamed by the hope that liberation is near.

Above all, as the old order falters, factions within the subjected people begin to fight amongst themselves for power in the new. In South Africa all of this was worsened by the nature of the two main protagonists: P W Botha's government and the leaders of the People's War.

To understand this period, it is essential to read "People's War" by Anthea Jeffery, who describes in detail the purpose and strategy of this war that bought the ANC to power. The war was about gaining exclusive power for the ANC and its allies, which meant smashing all other black groups such as the PAC and Azapo, and using violence and terror to gain hegemony.

(The one black rival that fought back was the IFP. ANC propaganda has successfully stigmatised the IFP for cooperating with apartheid. In fact the opposite is true. Chief Buthelezi, the IFP leader, defied apartheid by refusing "independence" for KwaZulu, whereas the allies of the ANC, such as Kaiser Matanzima and Stella Sicgua, co-operated with apartheid by accepting independence for the Transkei, which became apartheid's flagship.)

In the townships, young thugs used beatings and torture to enforce consumer boycotts, burnt down the houses of local councillors and policemen, and necklaced suspected collaborators. "Liberation before education" stunted a generation of black school children. The townships become "ungovernable". To add to the terror, there were occasional bombings of civilian targets outside the townships, such as shops and restaurants. The aim was to show that the government was incapable of protecting its citizens.

It has been said: "The ANC's goal was not to end apartheid but to stop anybody else ending apartheid."

Part of the strategy was to goad the government into violent retaliation. President P W Botha complied. His intention, always ill-defined, was to reform apartheid while somehow retaining white power. But with each reform he saw the violent assaults grow. Being a bellicose man, he hit back brutally and clumsily, exactly as the ANC wanted.

He unleashed the beasts of apartheid and there were bloody police raids, horrible special operations and a repressive state of emergency. TV screens around the world showed apartheid bully boys marauding through innocent black crowds.

The most hated of all the apartheid laws were the pass laws. It was because of them that 69 people died in the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. In the 1980s the pass laws ceased to be enforced. In May 1986, the government published the "Abolition of Influx Control Bill", and they formally ended shortly after.

Now there could be no doubt in anybody's mind that apartheid was in retreat.

A month later McBride planted his bomb at Magoo's Bar.

The bomb was manna from heaven for the white reactionaries and made it more difficult to end apartheid. Whether McBride acted alone in planting it or acted under orders of ANC high command, which I don't know, makes no difference to my view that he should be condemned for it. But it makes an important difference in judging the history.

In the High Court trial in 2005, McBride's lawyer, Danie Berger, showed me a statement by Oliver Tambo, head of the ANC in 1986, on extending the armed struggle. Berger asked me whether this statement was not authorising just such an action as the Magoo bomb. I had not seen the statement before, didn't know and couldn't give a good answer.

Now I want to know. I have written to two senior ANC figures asking them if Oliver Tambo approved of the bomb. Neither answered. So let me now ask anybody from the ANC: "Did Oliver Tambo approve of the Magoo bomb, which killed three innocent women, a month after the government gave notice to repeal the pass laws?"


1. Publication of the Abolition of Influx Control Bill in the SAIRR's 57th Annual Report, 1986/7.

2. The High Court Trial began in 2005 but judgment was only given in 2008. This was because, after my cross examination, our lawyer asked the judge to recuse himself. We then had to get a transcript of the arguments up to then and this took time. The judge didn't recuse himself and eventually after a long time the case proceeded.

3. My 1982 job was at Wilmill Narrow Fabrics in Salt River. My boss was Claude van der Poll, the factory manager, a Coloured man with Std 7 in woodwork and a genius on weaving machines.

4. Pres Mbeki gave a eulogy to Matanzima at his funeral. Sicgau become an ANC cabinet minister.

5. The two ANC people I wrote to were Pallo Jordan and Kader Asmal.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung.

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