The Soviets and the ANC: An enduring legacy?

Hermann Giliomee on the war between old struggle doctrines and the spirit of the constitution

It is becoming increasingly clear that the ANC's muddle under Jacob Zuma's leadership has to be attributed largely to the presence in key position of cadres still committed to doctrines that captivated the ANC in exile during the sixties, seventies and eighties. Even if he wished to do so -and this is doubtful - Zuma is far too weak to counter these tendencies.

What were these goals and how did they become rooted in the ANC? Two outstanding recent books remove much of the fog surrounding ANC history in the 35 years before it took power in 1994. The work by Stephen Ellis, entitled External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990 (Jonathan Ball), deals with the ANC's camps and bases in Africa. It was awarded the Recht Malan prize for non-fiction earlier this year. The other is The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era(Jonathan Ball) co-authored by Irina Filatova and Apollon Davidson (Jonathan Ball).

External Mission presents a bleak and disconcerting picture of the autocratic and often brutal way in which the ANC camps in Africa were controlled.  Punishments often were excessive, leaders tended to be unaccountable and elections were more than once manipulated. Corruption was rife, particularly in drugs and cars hijacked in South Africa. Many of these practices that took root in exile continued in the post-1994 South African state.

The great value of The Hidden Thread by Filatova and Davidson is that it highlights the crucially important role of the Soviet Union in the evolution of the ANC in exile. It is no exaggeration to state that without the Soviet Union modern politics in South Africa would have taken an entirely different course.

How did the Soviet Union contribute?

Firstly there was its generous financial support, which was particularly important in 1960s and early 1970s when the ANC had few other sources of income. Without that the ANC would have been unable to maintain itself as a serious liberation movement.

Secondly the Soviet Union with its long involvement in the struggle against the West provided indispensable training to the ANC in the art of propaganda and disinformation. It was of crucial importance during the 1980s when some journalists and diplomats regularly swallowed the ANC version of battles. Using the court records as the main primary sources, Anthea Jeffery showed in her book People's War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa (Jonathan Ball. 2009) how distorted the newspapers' picture often was.

But the greatest propaganda coup occurred in the 1970s. In 1973 the Soviet Union got a resolution accepted in the UN General Assembly that declared apartheid "a crime against humanity" and authorised the drawing up of an International Convention on the Suppression of the Crime of Apartheid. It put apartheid South Africa virtually on the same level as Nazi Germany.

The first twenty countries that ratified the Convention were all part of the Soviet bloc. With no exception they were dictatorships with miserable human rights records.  The major Western states all refused to support the motion and to ratify the Convention. The USA stated: "We cannot accept that apartheid can be made a crime against humanity. Crimes against humanity are so grave in nature that they must be meticulously elaborated and strictly construed under existing international law."

Yet a persistent ANC theme is that the entire world community declared apartheid a crime against humanity. It is a great irony that the Soviet Union, which introduced the resolution, was a state in which political persecution resulted in the death of millions of its citizens. In South Africa the number of blacks killed by agents of the state between 1948 and 1973, when the UN motion was introduced, was well below two hundred.

The overall life expectancy in South Africa improved from 51 to 61 years between 1960 and 1990. Of course whites enjoyed a much higher standard of living, could expect to live much longer and were offered superior education. The important point was that the racial gaps had started to narrow in the early 1960s.

Thirdly the Soviet sponsorship over a long period influenced the ANC ideologically in a profound way. By the 1960s the Soviets did not like to be seen as "exporting" socialist revolutions, but they proudly supported the struggle against "colonial oppression".

And so, after extensive interaction with Soviet bureaucrats, leading thinkers in the SACP and ANC in the 1960s embraced three distinct ideological positions: South Africa was proclaimed a colony, albeit of a special type, and its "liberation" had to come as a result of the two-stage revolution, first the national one, then the socialist one. The two could be combined in the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), which meant a transition from national liberation to socialism by peaceful, incremental means.

Underlying it all was the belief that South African whites, like colonists elsewhere, had seized the land and had robbed the indigenous people of their wealth. The dominance of whites was not the result of any innate superiority or any achievement brought about by organisation and effort, but because of their role as agents of Western imperialism and capitalism. Since the property and positions of the white minority were seen as "unearned"- the result of the exploitation of and theft from the black minority - they were regarded as basically illegitimate.

The Constitution of 1996 only uses race-based terminology in referring to filling positions the judiciary and the civil service. Now the ANC has suddenly extended it to managerial positions in the larger companies. It pretends to be shocked when people object on the grounds that this was never part of the grand constitutional bargain of the mid-1990s.

In effect the ANC cares less about the Constitution than its historic mission to transform the economy and the social order. It rejects white "over-representation" in any field because it implies the continued superiority of the white race over the black and because it signals that the country has not been fully liberated. Of course this programme of displacing white incumbents also unlocks huge amounts of loot and patronage.

ANC supporters sometimes like to present the ANC's present attempts at racial engineering of the job market as simply a variant on the policy of Affirmative Action introduced in the USA in the course of the 1960s. But the ANC had a much more powerful model: the policy of "Africanization" employed by every Africa nationalist regime on the continent.  In his recent essay on this website James Myburgh is quite correct to talk about the great big crocodile with its endless appetite.

Fourthly the Soviets provided invaluable military assistance for the ANC in its armed struggle. Without it the ANC would never have achieved its stature and image as the only true fighter against apartheid. The methods of the "People's War", which the ANC was waging in the 1980s, came straight from the pages of "Military Combat Work", a Soviet manual on how to conduct such a war.

This war included violent confrontations of over rent and service charges, strikes and marches and violent action against the regime's "spies" and "stooges" which often culminated in necklace murders. Ronnie Kasrils, one of the senior SACP members, wrote that "Military Action Work" shaped the thinking of the ANC-led alliance in an important way after it had decided in 1979 to switch to a "People's War".

During the first half of his term in office John Vorster followed the policy of just containing the Soviet influence in the southern part of Africa. The turning point was the incursion in Angola in 1977, which led to a steady escalation of commitments far beyond the borders. To justify this, it blew up the Soviet threat out of all proportion. There was never a threat of the Soviets sending its own soldiers or its surrogates to invade Namibia, not to speak of South Africa.

But Botha was no cold warrior unable to take in new information and re-adjust his position. In my recent book I tell how he sent Dr Niel Barnard, head of National Intelligence, to Vienna in 1984 to meet with a Russian delegation to explore ways of reaching a modus vivendi with the Soviets.

This mission was unsuccessful and the South African government never fully learnt how to understand the ANC before the negotiations began. It incorrectly assumed that Moscow had an overbearing influence on the ANC in exile and could not operate without its assistance. The ANC was never Moscow's stooges.

After the Berlin wall had fallen in 1989 the South African government moved towards an opposite extreme. The assumption now was that the ANC was significant weakened and was no longer able to embark on its two-stage revolution. Consequently the NP did not insist on a sunset clause on affirmative action or minority rights. The pensioning off of 120 00 senior civil servants between 1996 and 2001 was quite unexpected.

In July 2007 Rapport) carried a bold front-page headline ‘The ANC lied to us' over a report of  a speech by RF (Pik Botha on affirmative action in which he said: ‘If the ANC had demanded that the provisions of the Employment Equity Act, and in particular the way it was implemented, be incorporated in the new constitution, such a constitution would not have been agreed to.'[1]

In a private exchange of letters with Thabo Mbeki, Botha wrote:

"You know that we could not have agreed to a process based solely on racial demographic representivity. Surely you will agree that young white children who were at school in 1990 and who had no connection with apartheid should not be punished for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers. You also know that, internationally, affirmative action is limited by a time frame."

The work of Filatova and Davidson forces us to reconsider the violent 1980s in a quite different way. It also raises the question whether the tendencies described so compellingly in External Mission and The Hidden Thread are still the guiding force behind the controversial measures recently pushed through by the ANC. If that is indeed the case all parties and organisations committed to non-racial liberalism have little option but to wage a prolonged battle against the ANC attempt to give effect to the doctrines it has clung for so long.

The main reason why newspapers and organs of civil society have woken up so late to the Employment Equity bill is the stature and legacy of Nelson Mandela. Mandela never appeared to take the ideas of a National Democratic Revolution and Colonialism of a Special Type seriously. This certainly was the view of the late Neville Alexander, a leading revolutionary who spent ten years with Mandela on Robben Island and had numerous personal discussions with him. During the early 1990s Mandela went out of his way in reaching some accommodation with capitalist system in order to attract investment.

Some of those scholars who have studied Thabo Mbeki's speeches and articles carefully feel that he was profoundly influenced by the Colonialism of a Special Type. The traces of this is obvious in pieces like "The Historic Injustice", "I am an African" and his "Two Nations" address. Initially, however, the focus of the ANC was on capturing the state (which was a core part of the NDR), and the private sector was left largely untouched until it could be dealt with in some point in the future. Mbeki in all probability planned to go after the economy following his re-election in 2007. The Polokwane revolution, however, threw ANC plans into disarray until the controversial bills were introduced recently.

The question is whether the ideological disarray and the lack of leadership from which the ANC presently suffers have created an opening for the ideological hardliners to push for the legislation. It is in a time of confusion that the ideological hardliners appeal to the original faith that helped the movement to conquer the state.

In his most recent Business Day column John Kane-Berman of the SA Institute of Race Relations points out that the ANC is moving further and further from economic rationality in its employment equity quotas. It is simply ignoring the labour market's age and skills profile. It is a sure way to drive the economy into even deeper trouble.

It reminds one of the late decade of NP rule. As Lawrence Schlemmer remarked at the time: "The only reason why the apartheid bureaucrats are still pushing ahead with such ridiculous things as independent homelands is that the last person to give them really clear instructions about what they should be doing was Hendrik Verwoerd. It is like a default setting on a computer."

"Employment equity" is a denial of the non-racialism that the drafters of the Constitution tried to introduce as the ground rule of the new order. It is a denial of the rights and opportunities of the non-African minorities. It replaces the spirit of the Constitution with the mentality of Colonialism of a Special Type. We should be thankful for the book by Ellis and the one of Filatova and Davidson that we now know far better than before how we landed up at this juncture.

Hermann Giliomee is a historian. His latest book is The last Afrikaner Leaders: A Supreme Test of Power (Tafelberg, second edition, 2013).


[1] Letter Pik Botha to Thabo Mbeki, 17 July 2007, private archive of Pik Botha.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter