A death warrant for the Afrikaner

James Myburgh explains the purpose behind the 1973 UN Convention declaring apartheid a ‘crime against humanity’

Earlier this year the former National Party President, FW de Klerk, was challenged in an interview on SABC as to whether he agreed with the United Nations designation of apartheid as a “crime against humanity”. He replied that he “did not fully agree with that” – given the equation with genocide - even as he accepted and apologised for all the wrongs, presented to him, that had been committed under that system.

On the 13th February the Economic Freedom Fighters’ leader, Julius Malema, disrupted the opening of parliament on the basis that an invitation had been extended to De Klerk, who was in attendance. De Klerk, Malema said, was “a murderer and has blood on his hands. The people of Boipatong are turning in their graves.” Furthermore, Malema continued, De Klerk was an “unrepentant apologist of apartheid who is not willing to accept that apartheid was a crime against humanity”.

The following day the FW de Klerk Foundation issued a statement defending De Klerk. It pointed out that, contrary to ANC claims at the time, the June 1992 Boipatong massacre had not been state-orchestrated, but had been carried out by Inkatha members, acting alone.

It further questioned whether apartheid could be categorised as a “crime against humanity”. The designation of apartheid as such by the UN General Assembly in 1973 was and remains, the Foundation said, “an ‘agitprop’ project initiated by the Soviets and their ANC/SACP allies to stigmatise white South Africans by associating them with genuine crimes against humanity — which have generally included totalitarian repression and the slaughter of millions of people”.

This description provoked a festival of self-righteous outrage. The Daily Maverick described it as an “utterly insane observation”. The EFF said that De Klerk was an apartheid denialist and that under that system, “millions of black people were killed, banished and starved to death”. The ANC said that denying that apartheid was a crime against humanity should be made a crime “as is done in other jurisdictions such as Germany where holocaust denial is not tolerated in any form”.

The SACP declared that the 1973 United Nations General Assembly was correct to adopt the "International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid". President Cyril Ramaphosa told parliament that to reject the UN’s categorisation of apartheid as a “crime against humanity” was, in his view, “treasonous”.

In the face of this barrage FW de Klerk personally announced that the Foundation’s statement was being withdrawn, as now was not the time to “quibble” about such matters. He also said that the Foundation supported the incorporation of the “crime of apartheid” into the 1998 Statute of Rome, which established the International Criminal Court.

This incident provoked more general comment, with white South Africans accused of “amnesia”, and unfavourable contrasts being drawn with Germany’s reckoning with its past. The BBC for instance opined that De Klerk’s “comments appeared to reinforce a wider perception that many white people have never been obliged to confront, properly, the evils of the past.”

For all the talk of the issue of forgetfulness, and the need to have courage to face up to the past, this debate was characterised by an almost complete lack of knowledge as to how the 1973 convention came into being, who drafted it, its context, what the purpose behind it actually was, and what the implications were at the time (and arguably still are).

To remedy this, it is necessary to reach deep into the memory hole in order to retrieve this long-forgotten history.


The draft text of the convention was introduced, in Russian, at the UN General Assembly, by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and one of its client states, Guinea, in late 1971. Article I of this draft defined the “crime of apartheid” as a number of acts, which it defined, “committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and of systematically oppressing them”.

Neither the Soviet Union nor Guinea had spotlessly clean hands. At the time the Afrikaner-controlled South African state was ultimately responsible for a few hundred politically-related deaths – from the infamous Sharpeville massacre, where panicked policemen had fired indiscriminately on a crowd of protestors, to some twenty deaths in detention, to the executions of a number of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and Poqo members following their trials and convictions for murder, among others.

The Soviet Union was responsible for the killing of millions – including the mass executions of surrendered army officers and members of the intelligentsia from occupied Poland, in parallel with the Intelligenzaktion of the German occupiers to the West, in 1939. From the 1950s onwards it had, along with Red China, become the major international sponsor of a particularly virulent and immiserating brand of racial nationalism that was sweeping across the globe. Ahmed Sékou Touré’s regime in Guinea meanwhile is estimated to have murdered some 50 000 political enemies and opponents, often by locking them in their cells and starving them to death (the so-called “black diet”), or, in some cases, publicly hanging them from a bridge in Conakry pour encourager les autres.

If the drafters of this convention, and many of those who ultimately ratified it, were not driven by a principled commitment to human rights, as we now understand them, what was their actual purpose? This initiative was not, as sometimes been claimed by its critics, just a matter of “propaganda” or embarrassing the Western powers diplomatically at the UN. To understand it fully, it is necessary to place it in the context of a major but almost completely forgotten Soviet-backed SACP/ANC operation which, it was believed, could well soon lead to the overthrow of the Afrikaner-dominated regime in South Africa.


From its inception a major obstacle to MK’s successful prosecution of guerrilla warfare in South Africa was the fact that the country was surrounded by a cordon sanitaire of colonial and minority-dominated states. This hugely complicated efforts to infiltrate guerrillas and armaments into the country overland, as was evidenced by the failure of the Wankie campaign of 1967.

One possible strategy to deal with this problem was to simply leapfrog South Africa’s neighbours – geographically and in terms of historical development - by bringing in guerrillas and armaments by sea. This had first been suggested to the Soviets by Arthur Goldreich in January 1963 and it was raised again by Joe Slovo in discussions in Moscow in July and August 1967. In October that year the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) gave approval for work to begin on the operation. It would come to be dubbed ‘Operation J’ by ANC President Oliver Tambo. This involved, in its initial phases, recruiting and training ‘organisers of struggle’ as well as operatives to surveille the coast to identify possible landing places.[1]

From 1967 onwards the ANC/SACP in London would recruit young leftists and Communists to travel into South Africa for short periods on various missions. This was done, in large part, by Ronnie Kasrils either at the London School of Economics or through the British Communist Party. These were clean skins, completely unknown to the South African Security Police and Bureau for State Security (albeit not MI5), who could blend into white society, and operate without detection. Two of these initial recruits were a young British communist, Daniel Ahern, and a tough and dedicated communist of Greek ethnicity, Alex Moumbaris.[2]

The initial focus was on bringing banned ANC and SACP propaganda into the country. Leaflets were printed on thin cigarette paper, and thousands could be easily smuggled into the country in false bottomed suitcases. These were either then posted to recipients across the country or would also be exploded into the air in city centres using bucket bombs. Pro-ANC banners would also be unfurled from buildings, and tape-recorded broadcasts played. The leaflets usually contained the message that the “voice of the African National Congress” could be listened to on radio every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday on short wave 1, 19.44 metres at 8.45pm. These messages were broadcast by the external service of Radio Tanzania from Dar es Salaam.

The purpose of this propaganda was to communicate the instructions of the ANC to their supporters in South Africa and stir up nationalist sentiment. For instance, a pamphlet titled “We are at war!”, distributed in May 1968 and which referenced the Wankie campaign, declared: “We have suffered long enough. Over 300 years ago the white invaders began a ceaseless war of aggression against us, murdered our forefathers, stole our land and enslaved our people. Today they still rule by force. They murder our people. They still enslave us.” The leaflet called on the recipients to prepare to “support our fighting men!” and “help the freedom fighters!”. “We are answering the white oppressors in the language they have chosen!”

In 1969 Operation J seemed to move into a higher gear, along with the establishment of the Revolutionary Council at the ANC’s Morogoro Conference. This was the conference where the ANC formally adopted Colonialism of a Special Type and the National Democratic Revolution as key pillars of the party’s ideology in a Strategy and Tactics document drafted by Joe Slovo.

The operation was directly planned by Revolutionary Council members Oliver Tambo, Moses Mabhida and, in particular, Slovo. Yusuf Dadoo and Chris Hani also played prominent roles. Thabo Mbeki was made secretary of the council in 1971 although his name is not mentioned in reports on the operation.

In the second half of 1969 Ahern and Moumbaris were sent to the Soviet Union for training and became full time paid operatives. They were then sent into South Africa in early 1970 to identify possible landing places with Moumbaris reconnoitring the coast from the Northern KwaZulu down to the Transkei, and Ahern the southern Cape coast. Moumbaris then flew out of the country on 22 April 1970. Based on the reporting of Ahern and Moumbaris a landing place on the Transkei coast near Port St. John’s was ultimately decided upon.

In June the South African Communist Party held an Augmented Central Committee meeting in Joseph Stalin’s old dacha outside of Moscow where it focused on the question of how to overthrow the Afrikaner regime in South Africa. It was at this meeting too that both Thabo Mbeki and Chris Hani were brought onto the SACP CC.[3] The initial work on Operation J, and the overall revolutionary strategy that it formed part of, seems to have met with the approval of the Soviets. On 20 July 1970 the Central Committee Secretariat gave the green light to the Soviet Defence Ministry to start preparing for the implementation of the project. On 20 October 1970 these proposals were approved by the CPSU Politburo and the Soviet government.[4]

Among the financial support provided by the Soviets was £75 000 (over R20m in current Rand values) to purchase a motorised yacht named the Aventura. Specialised training would be provided to MK combatants, and “continuous technical and security support by Soviet personnel” also extended to the ANC/SACP.[5] In early 1971 a group of some 24 MK members were sent to Baku to begin their specialised training for the beach landing, which was completed in around July. They were under the command of Fanele Mbali, who went under the nomme de guerre Lammy Booi. His deputy was Mongameli Johnson Tshali. Eric Mtshali and Ranka Cholo were the two commissars. The men were mostly from the Eastern Cape and Natal as, it seems, this was where the main focus of their activity would be.

The group then returned to a camp near Moscow where they were visited by Oliver Tambo, Yusuf Dadoo, Moses Mabhida, Chris Hani and Joe Slovo. Here they were trained in underground work, and how to communicate secretly by post with the ANC’s Revolutionary Council in London. Their mission on arrival was to recruit members for the ANC, train and arm them, and organise them into military and political groups. Sabotage actions were to be carried out in an organised, not isolated, fashion.[6]

Other operatives were sent into South Africa from London to identify possible sabotage targets, as well as prepare caches where the armaments smuggled into the country would be stored. An equally important part of the operation, which we shall return to, was the propaganda element. Through 1970 and 1971 thousands of leaflets were smuggled into the country and distributed. There were spectacular co-ordinated bucket bomb operations, in all major urban centres, which attracted huge press coverage both within South Africa and internationally, in August 1970 and again in August 1971. Ahmed Timol was deployed into South Africa by the SACP in early 1970 after eight months of training in Moscow the year before in order to start rebuilding the Party’s underground structures. Among the tasks performed by the unit he established, relevant to Operation J, were the procurement of pass books, and the printing of SACP literature and the distribution (by post) of ANC leaflets.

By late 1971 Operation J was moving towards implementation. It was to be launched from the southerly port of Kismayu in the People’s Republic of Somalia, then under the control of the Marxist-Leninist regime of Mohamed Siad Barre, in early 1972. The Aventura travelled from the Mediterranean, manned by a crew recruited by the Communist Party of Greece, around the Cape of Good Hope (the Suez canal being closed at the time), to meet them there. On the way the ship docked in both Cape Town and Durban to refuel.

The MK guerrillas, trained in Baku and then Moscow, were flown out from Russia to Somalia in February 1972. Fanele Mbali recounts of how on its arrival they loaded the ship with “light machine guns, AK47 assault rifles, large amounts of explosives and ammunition, limpet mines, hand grenades, hand guns, maps, binoculars, inflatable rubber boats, life jackets and whatever each thought would be necessary to arm the volunteers in the regions where we were going to recruit. There was simply no shortage of anything.”[7]

In early February 1972 Moumbaris and Ahern, along with other operatives, were sent back into South Africa. Moumbaris was to head the welcoming party at the expected landing place in the Transkei, and Ahern the back up one at an alternative location.

As Slovo described it in an article in the MK journal Dawn in 1986 “the operation was very complicated. It involved having structures inside the country ready to receive the cadres on the various landing points which had been chosen for the purpose. The landing was to take place in actual landing boats of the mother ship. Radio signals were worked out from the beaches to indicate safety. Arms and equipment were specially prepared so that they could float in. Trucks, bicycles and other means of transport were ready to take the men to various parts of the country. Caches had been prepared in various mountains, ready to receive a vast quantity of armament.”[8]

The ship then departed on 6th March 1972. A few days into the voyage the radar system started giving trouble and an engine packed up. It was regarded as too risky to continue to South Africa on just the back up engine and the ship returned to Kismayu. Repairs were made but by this point the Greek crew had developed “cold feet” and announced that they would not continue with the mission. They were placed in a detention camp pending its completion and a crew of British communists were then flown in to take over.

Repairs were made and the ship departed again on 13 April 1972 but within a short time it had to towed back to port after the engines experienced irreparable mechanical failure. It seems that inter alia sand had somehow got into the lubricating oil in the engines and fatally damaged the bearings. At this point the decision was taken to abandon the mission. On 21st April Moumbaris and the others in the welcome parties on the Transkei coast were informed by the SACP in London that ‘mother had died’ and the mission had been abandoned. In his later report to the Soviets Slovo blamed “sabotage” by the “cowardly” Greek crew for its failure.

The Revolutionary Council then sought to implement a Plan B. The group of MK members were divided into groups of three and were to infiltrate into South Africa by land, this time without any armaments. Their instructions, Mbali recounted, were to go back to their home bases and “organise for a well co-ordinated popular uprising”. This effort also ended in complete failure with the arrest by the Security Police of both of Moumbaris and his wife, a number of MK members who had been part of the aborted landing, and another ‘London Recruit’ Sean Hosey. The 1973 trial of Moumbaris and five others exposed many details of the operation.

In the historical literature Operation J is generally mentioned only in passing, and usually disparagingly. This though is a mistake. Up until the point of termination the ANC/SACP and Soviet Union were confident of its prospects for success. Eddy Maloka recounts in his history of the SACP in exile that both the ANC and SACP “were very optimistic about the operation, according to correspondence between Tambo and Slovo on the matter, between 1969 and the period before implementation.”

One sign of this was that Tambo himself wanted to be on board the Aventura and lead the landing party. Slovo later recounted how there was a meeting, held in Moscow shortly before the Aventura was due to depart, to finalise certain details. Various admirals and generals from the Soviet armed forces were in attendance, as were Chris Hani, Dadoo, Moses Mabhida and Tambo. Once the consultations had been completed, and the group had had their dinner, Tambo said he would like a special meeting. Here the ANC leader announced that he wanted to be part of the landing. It was “going to be in an area very near his home, as one of the landing points, and he says he wants to go now to Mogadishu to join the group that is already there and to land with them, and to lead with them.” When told “on no account” Tambo broke down and wept and was angry for days afterwards.[9]

Apart from the financial and military resources the Soviet Union had poured into it, it was, Vladimir Shubin later noted, a product of almost a decade of planning, and years of preparation. The Soviets were dismayed and infuriated by its failure, which they blamed on Joe Slovo, and cut the SACP’s annual allowance as punishment.[10]


What though was Operation J actually trying to achieve? What was the purpose of landing a small ship full of armaments and some twenty guerrillas on the Transkei coast? What would have happened if everything had gone as planned, and the hopes the ANC/SACP/USSR had invested in it were realised?

It should be remembered that at the time the tides of history were running strongly in favour of the national liberation movements. Following the end of World War II one colonial or minority-dominated regime after another had been toppled across Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The first successful Marxist-Leninist revolution in sub-Saharan Africa was that in Zanzibar in January 1964. This had provided “proof of concept” for how a small group of armed men– acting at the right moment – could initiate the overthrow of a regime representing the minority oppressors (‘Arabs’ in this case) once the deprived majority had been awakened, through effective propaganda, to revolutionary racial consciousness.

In a long editorial essay in elated response to the success of the “Zanzibar uprising” the SACP journal the African Communist (1st Quarter January 1964) noted how “we have won and are winning splendid victories for the cause of African independence, freedom and unity”. It stated that the British were deterred from intervening militarily in Zanzibar, something which apparently would have drowned the “picturesque little Island in blood”, by the “speed and completeness of the take-over”. This had proved that the “Zanzibar masses” were firmly behind the new government.

“How fortunate, how happy we are to be living in these stirring days of the African Revolution!” the editorial remarked at one point. “The dream of our pioneer patriots, the little clear spring of independence and freedom which they began, has become a mighty river, a turbulent torrent storming through Africa, cleansing our motherland of the filth and backwardness of colonialism. Woe betide those who try to halt it, to tame it or to stand in its path!”

The Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, and the white minority regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa were among the last standing. The expectation then was that they too would be soon swept away by the great flood of revolutionary racial nationalism unleashed by the end of empire. In discussions in Moscow in April 1970 Tambo told his Soviet interlocutors that he believed that the situation in South African was explosive, but that the black African population were waiting for the return of armed guerrillas before initiating an uprising. If this return was delayed for too long such an unplanned uprising might occur in any event.[11]

The essential strategy that was to be followed was set out by a statement of the SACP’s Augmented Central Committee after their June 1970 meeting in Moscow. It was published in the African Communist no. 43 4th Quarter 1970 under the title, “Freedom can be won: A call to the South African people”.

After recounting the manifold wrongs and injustices of the apartheid system – from the pass laws, job reservation, skewed racial land distribution, and so on - it declared that it would not be possible to be “rid of these evils until we get rid of the main problem – white minority rule”. It pointed out that the minority regime could and would be overthrown. The fall of colonial and minority dominated governments across Asia and Africa over the past two decades had shown that “unjust minority governments cannot last”.

How though could the regime be overthrown while “all the power, all the money, all the weapons are in the hands of whites”; while the leaders of the ANC and SACP were in prison and exile, the ANC and SACP underground, political activity suppressed; and with “spies and informers” helping the police to “trap anyone who dares to protest or speak of freedom”?

It is true, the statement noted, that the “enemy is powerful. They have the armoured cars and tanks, the planes and the command of the roads and railways”. But, it declared, “there is a way to fight; to beat the enemy. It is the way of people’s war.” This required that “the people” as a whole must stand up and fight. In this way the advantages of the enemy would be overcome:

“We have no weapons? We shall take weapons from the enemy and make our own weapons: petrol bombs, hand grenades, the simple weapons of the freedom fighter.”

“We have only a handful of trained men at our disposal? Those few will train thousands. Our skills in the art of war will improve with experience.”

The enemy would be met, not head on, but through “hit and run” guerrilla warfare. As the clashes grew in number and size “the workers will refuse to work for the oppressor. They will strike and sabotage his production of weapons and supplies.” The people of the countryside will “take themselves the land for which they hunger, and arm their own freedom fighters to defend it. The roads will be bombed and the railways destroyed; by the people in the surrounding areas.”

As the tide of struggle rises the more strength of the white South African troops would be dispersed and “our superiority of numbers will assert itself.” The difficulty it declared was “only one: to start.”

It then made the following call to action to the “African people, the Coloured people, the Indians and the democratic elements among the whites”:

“Let us unite for the fight to end the shame and suffering of white minority rule headed by the Nazi National Party.

Let us resolve that the beginning of the seventies will put an end to white South Africa and mark the beginning of People’s South Africa, advancing towards socialism.

The armed groups of Umkhonto we Sizwe are ready to enter the fight. But they cannot fight alone.

The people must act!”

It concluded with a call on “the people” to support and rebuild the organisational structures of the ANC, trade unions and SACP, to act militantly for higher wages, land and freedom, to arouse the spirit of resistance and defiance. It then declared:

“They must arm themselves. The war of national liberation is on and we must fight it to the finish. Victory or death!”

The report of the meeting of the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress, held in Zambia from the 27th to 31st August 1971 – published under the title “The Time for Action Has Come” in Sechaba December 1971- suggested that the liberation movement believed that the revolutionary situation, in terms of Leninist theory, had now finally arrived in South Africa. The ruling class was no longer able to rule in the old way, while “the people” were no longer willing to reconcile themselves to their oppression and exploitation. The social crisis had created a “vast army” of victims who “have nothing to lose and everything to gain by the destruction of the present system”.

In his report to that meeting Chris Hani wrote that in order to carry out an armed revolution effectively “we need a tight, well organised and conspiratorial underground to prepare assault groups. We need to prepare a network of agents who will answer the signal of action the moment it is given.” The Revolutionary Council members planning the operation believed that, after a long absence, exactly such a network would soon be in place in South Africa.

In his statement to the “people of South Africa” on the 10th Anniversary of MK on the 21st December 1971 – as published in Sechaba in February 1972 – Tambo called on the “black masses” to rise up against the “white oppressor.” The hour had come he said. “Let us fight for Freedom. The White enemy in South Africa can and must be defeated.”


Given that the ANC/SACP underground structures within South Africa had been almost completely dismantled by the South African security services by 1967 the rousing of the masses to revolution, and guidance as to how and when they should act against their oppressors, depended heavily on propaganda smuggled into the country by the SACP’s London recruits. Up until Ahmed Timol’s arrest at a routine police road block in Johannesburg on 22nd of October 1971 the South African police and intelligence services had no idea as how this propaganda was flowing into the country and were unable to stem it.

These leaflets distributed in the implementation stage of ‘Operation J’ – in 1970 and 1971 - are highly revealing then of the intentions of the ANC/SACP and their Soviet backers at the time. In August 1970 the leaflet “The African National Congress says to Vorster and his gang: Your days are coming to an end!!” was distributed across SA, including through bucket bombings. A version was also broadcast on radio from Tanzania.

This conveyed basically the same message as the statement of the Augmented SACP CC meeting shortly before. It stated that as “our oppressor” took the land by force so it would be necessary to take it back by force. This would be done through “the new art of people’s war” – as had been practised in Algeria, Vietnam, Mozambique and elsewhere – which had “made it possible for an oppressed people to defeat an enemy 1 000 times stronger in arms and equipment.”

The leaflet then called on “the people” to start preparing for what was to come. The initial focus should be on organising in the factories and townships and in the rural areas, and securing and hiding arms. In its appeal to youth it declared: “Youth of our land, you must learn the skills which will bring us victory. You must try to get a gun. You must learn to use it. You must learn to hide it until the time for action comes. You must organise every young patriot in your school and university”. At the end of the pamphlet were instructions and a diagram on how to make a simple hand grenade. An earlier leaflet had provided instructions for making a Molotov cocktail.

A few months later another ANC leaflet – titled “Sons and daughters of Africa!” – was more quietly distributed, sent by post to black African high schools and colleges across South Africa in November 1970. It was later published in the March 1971 edition of the ANC journal Sechaba. Here the ANC promised the youth that it was “going to put guns into your hands. And you are going to have the pleasure of hitting back at last. You will avenge the massacres of Bullhock, of Witzieshoek, of Sharpeville.”

After listing examples of the humiliating and degrading treatment black youth experienced at the hands of the “white man” it commented, “You have a brain… When you get the weapon in your hands, you know you are going to use it against this cruel enemy”.

It then commended to the youth the actions and tactics the Zulu King Dingane had used against the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief and his followers. This was history that both black and white South Africans would have been very conscious of at the time, given its centrality to Afrikaner nationalist mythology. The Boers under Retief had been invited to Dingane’s capital, uMgungundlovu, on 2nd February 1838 to sign a treaty whereby the Zulu King was to cede a large tract of land to the voortrekkers in return for their successfully recovering some cattle stolen by the Tlokwa.

Afterwards they were invited to Dingane’s homestead on the 4th to celebrate the signing, and asked to leave their weapons outside, which they did. Two crack Zulu “amabutho” regiments performed a dance in front of the party, in which they moved forward and backwards, moving ever closer. At a signal from Dingane the amabutho rushed upon the Boers and overpowered them, beating them senseless. Dingane, who was still seated, then called out “Kill the wizards!” The men were dragged off, their feet trailing on the ground, and finished off in front of Retief, before he too was clubbed to death.

Of the party of seventy whites and thirty Coloured servants there was one survivor. At the command of Dingane the amabutho promised to “kill the white dogs!” and exterminate the families of the Boers encamped on the Natal plains awaiting Retief’s return. 40 white men, 56 white women, 185 white children, and 250 coloured servants were killed in the ensuing slaughter.[12]

The “Sons & Daughters” leaflet praised Dingane for the defeat that he had inflicted on the “white man”. It stated:

“Using simple weapons King Dingaan, gave his orders to his brave warriors: ‘Bulal ‘Abathakathi’ – Kill the evil men. And they were indeed evil men those slave owning colonialists who had vowed that there could be no equality between Black and White people neither in church nor in the State. These were the evil men who robbed the Africans of their land.”

“What is important to understand about this battle”, it continued, “is that Dingaan fully understood that he was dealing with a desperate and brutal enemy. Here therefore devised a plan of action that would meet the situation.” Using deception and surprise he was able to destroy the “white colonialists” using simple weapons such as knobkerries and assegais.

“History has shown that provided a people is UNITED and DETERMINED to win its freedom nothing can stop them. But like Dingaan, it will be necessary to use clever plans of battle to defeat the enemy. We must use surprise. We must use deception. We must hit and hit hard when and where he least expects us. We must use the tactics of guerrilla warfare. Dingaan used simple weapons against him. You too can use simple weapons to attack and rout him and take his gun.”

The leaflet then announced that it was giving the “green light” to the youth. If the youth wished to burn down a pass office, they should do so. If they wanted to rob a bank to secure money for organisational work they should do that as well. If they knew where to steal a gun or two they should go ahead. It also stated that Oliver Tambo was “organising from outside waiting for you to stand up tall and receive a gun and FIGHT. Yes, this violence of the White oppressors will be met by our revolutionary violence.”

Finally, in answer to the question “what must be done?” it declared that three things were needed. Firstly, the masses needed to be mobilised. Secondly, “from outside material help and the guns you need will be organised. The ANC promises today to place the GUN in your hands.” Thirdly, “Everyone must know that a war means that you MUST KILL.” It declared:


In August 1971 - and with the arrival of trained MK guerrillas and armaments on the Aventura now imminent – a series of yet even more inflammatory leaflets were distributed across the country. These were specifically written in the vernacular and, though hitting the same themes, were tailored for different black ethnic groups. Samples of these documents, and the somewhat clumsy police translations of them, were submitted in evidence in one of the political trials of early 1972. They provided further clarity, if any was needed, on who it was that the youth “MUST KILL” when the hour came.

The purpose of these documents was clearly to, on the one hand, attack the legitimacy of the Bantustans then being established and, on the other, to incite hatred of the white minority and those black people who cooperated or collaborated with them. The drafters clearly knew what they were doing. The propaganda techniques employed were tried and tested and had been proven highly efficacious in other contexts.

“Mokgosi wa lela!” was the leaflet published in Setswana. It described “the whites” as “bloodsuckers, robbers and thieves of our country”. They were an enemy whose government had long wanted to “exterminate” the “blackman”. It described black South Africans serving in the police force as “betrayers, like JUDAS, when he betrayed the Lord: they are snakes, lice that bite while in the garment. Let the rage of those who love freedom fall upon them.” Black “sell-outs” were also “enemies” whose “time had expired.” It called on the population then to rise up and seize power by force. “Fight for the freedom which is yours, and the freedom of the country of your birth. Remember whites are your greatest enemy!”

The leaflet in North Sotho was headed “Sebata Kgomo Banna”. This stated that while South Africa was rich “we have been turned into slaves”. After listing examples of degrading treatment black Africans had experienced at the hands of the whites it declared “Europeans are people without humanity”. Initially “we thought that they are human beings”, it said, and all could live together in harmony, but it has become clear “that they are not worthy people, they are killers. Fellow countrymen, these White people are foreigners, they come from overseas.”

The time had come, it continued, to “ask them from where they do come. All countries are rule by their rightful owners. Germany is ruled by the Germans, England is ruled by the British, India is ruled by the Indians. This one of ours must be ruled by us – The Africans. We do not want homeland administration, we want to rule our country as a whole.”

Those black people who had been co-opted by the “Boer government” through bribery were “Coward Africans who assist in dividing the children of the Black Cradle. We have no plea for the Cowards in our midst, let us get rid of them.” The leaflet concluded by telling people that “you are called upon and notified” by the ANC that trouble has erupted. “African take up a weapon, and get on to fight with all determination. Children of a Black Cradle: the country is never brought with money, it is brought with blood. A person’s enemy is a white man.”

The leaflet in isiZulu was titled “Saphela isizwe sika Mjokwane” (Essentially, “the Zulu nation is being annihilated”.) It said that “these insignificant WHITES deprived us of all we possessed originally, today we are nothing but beggars. Our children are suffering from malnutrition; our people our moving to and fro, seeking a place to shelter themselves; The graves of our forefathers are being unearthed by tractors, We are being pushed about and settled upon precipices like BABOONS.”

Addressing the Zulu nation, it said, “the enemy of the Black Man in our country is the European. It is now over a long period they have oppressed us like BABOONS”. The offer of self-government through the homeland system, it said, was pure deception. “WE DEMAND THE WHOLE OF OUR COUNTRY… LET THEM DEPART FOR GOOD.” The whole of all the provinces of the country – the Cape, the Transvaal, Natal, the Orange Free State – “belonged to the BLACK MAN, therefore we cannot be given boundaries by the EUROPEANS, we will not be dictated to by ABATHAKATHI. In fact KING DINGANE sized them up correctly.”

It rejected the belief of some black people that the Europeans were “good” or “wise”. Rather “WE ARE BEING ANNIHILATED BY THE ABATHAKATHI!!” This document too said that on the day of reckoning the cowards, sell-outs, traitors and secret informers would be dealt with and “swept away by the floods” (i.e. killed).

With regards to all this, it asked, “what is our conclusion?” Its answer included the following:

“Remain at arms and be ready for a fight!!
Our country was taken by bloodshed.
It will be recaptured by bloodshed.
Stab them spear of the nation.
Let us all, we black nation, take up arms and repossess our forefathers land.
The whites seized us by force.
We were attacked by dogs while we were defenceless.!

In conclusion let us praise the spirits of our late kings, Mzingeli son of Ehaka as well as Dingane and say: -
“He eventually reached Mlaba the son of Khwani, on arrival he gave him a large bundle of assegais, and said, “son of Ndaba you must stab them even in their eyes.
Congress has given the command!
Power to the people!”

The leaflet in isiXhosa was headed “Vukani Mzi Ontsundu!” (Wake up Black Nation!). This began by asking, “How long shall we remain under white oppression? For how long shall we live like dogs, living on bones? Where did such a thing happen, you black people? The freedom is in our hands.”

“We live in slavery on account of the whites” it said. “We have become strangers in our country on account of intruders.” The offer of self-rule was a deception, it said.

“How can there be good relationships between a white man and ourselves? The relationship that exists is just like the relationship between a cat and a mouse. The deceivers tell us that the whites are good, and that we should improve our relationships with them. Those who say we should accept dummy self-government deceive us. We have given the riches of this country to foreigners. What is that? How can we like a white man, who shot HINTSHA from behind, and crushed his jaws?”

The Black Nation should unite, it said, and be one solid body. The enemy is “the white man, the wizard, the one who finished us, is the Afrikaner.” Those sell-outs who assisted this enemy should be “isolated” and the informers “exterminated”.

The document declared the black nations must not be deceived by the whites, and fight among themselves, but “take over the whole country”. “The country is ours”, it said, “therefore we should prepare to take it over, let us fasten our belts and be prepared to listen to the instructions of the ANC”. When they come it is required that, on that day, “we should run on the rampage, embittered and destroy everyone like what was done by Hintsha, Tshaka, Maqooa, Dingaan, Sandile, and Sekukune. All the black heroes will support the resolution passed by the ANC, that this country should be taken back.”


To sum up then, in the early 1970s the ANC/SACP planned, with considerable Soviet financial, material and logistical backing, to engineer the start of a “People’s War” in South Africa. This involved on the military side years of intricate planning and preparation for the secret landing of guerrillas, and a massive quantity of armaments, on the Transkei coast.

The more visible propaganda operation was run in lockstep with these hidden military preparations. This was meant to steel black youth in particular for the moment at which they would be required to rise up against the Boers and their black collaborators. The “detonation” for this racial “explosion” would be presumably have been provided – in some way - by the sudden and unexpected emergence of an MK guerrilla force in South Africa and the cohort of radicalised youth they had secretly armed and trained inside the country.

The plan then of the ANC/SACP and the Soviets was to initiate in early 1972 a mass racial insurrection in South Africa. This was intended to lead not just to the extirpation of the “blood sucking [colonialist] parasites” and the “colonialism of the Boers” but the overthrow of the capitalist system as a whole. This would be followed by a rapid transition to socialism under the guidance of a Marxist-Leninist style “dictatorship of the people”. As an ANC radio broadcast from Dar es-Salaam put it on the 28 September 1971 “ending capitalism and colonialism must be done together”.

Had the Soviet Union and the ANC/SACP pulled this off this would have been a major victory over the West in the Cold War. Up until the engines of the Aventura starting seizing up, on the way to the Transkei, the expectations of all parties involved were riding high. Its failure was a crushing disappointment.

This then is the context in which the Soviet Union and Guinea’s “draft of a Convention on the suppression and punishment of the crime of apartheid” of 28th of October 1971 – on the cusp of the “start” of the People’s War - has to be understood. Only then is it possible to properly read the document for meaning.

Up until that point the definition of a “crime against humanity” was the one contained in the 1945 Charter of the Nürnberg Tribunal. This defined crimes against humanity as “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.”

The successful prosecution of “a war of national liberation” in 1972 and 1973– had it been successfully initiated - would potentially have ticked a number of these boxes. If you are inciting an ethnic majority to rise up en masse against an ethnic minority – and commanded your supporters to prepare to “kill” this “enemy” - then you have obviously reconciled yourself to all that would flow from that. The SACP were familiar with the lessons of the Zanzibar revolution, and would have been quite aware of what had occurred during the revolutionary upsurge.

At the time the ANC/SACP also clearly envisaged the successful implementation of the National Democratic Revolution followed by a transition to socialism as involving the total dispossession and expulsion of the white “colonialists”. It was the African majority who were the rightful owners of the land. This is what the ANC’s ideological and political allies in Frelimo quickly accomplished, albeit without significant bloodshed, after being handed total control of Mozambique by the departing Portuguese authorities in 1974.

The Convention, as formulated, was very cleverly drafted to legitimate what the Soviet Union was hoping to see realised in South Africa over the following few years. At the very least the blunt effect of extending the concept of a “crime against humanity” to include the apartheid and other policies of the Afrikaner nationalists would counterbalance, and thereby neutralise, the existing Nürnberg definitions. It did more than this, however.

Article II defined the “crime of apartheid” very broadly. It encompassed not just the totality of the apartheid and separate development policies of the National Party government, and the racial discrimination that occurred under them, but the “exploitation” of black labour as well, and the security measures the Afrikaner regime used to defend itself from revolutionary overthrow.

In terms of the Nürnberg definitions a perpetrator had to have committed or ordered an act (such as the massacre of a group of civilians), which then had to be proved in court, in order for that person to be convicted of a ‘crime against humanity’. In terms of the draft 1970 Convention however an unfair and unjust ‘system’ was declared to be ‘the crime’.

The Convention “branded” all those individuals and institutions actively involved or complicit in this system as “criminal”. Article III stated that the provisions of the Convention applied to all “representatives of the State authority and private individuals who, as principals or accomplices, participate in or directly incite others to the commission of the crime of apartheid, or who conspire to commit that crime, and to representatives of the state authority who tolerate its commission”. This potentially covered any individual or institution that participated in this system, however innocently or harmlessly.

Article IV meanwhile then empowered the State Parties to the Convention to adopt “any legislative or other measures necessary to prevent any encouragement of the crime of apartheid and to punish persons guilty of that crime.” (My emphasis).

Thus, having defined the system that prevailed in South Africa at the time as a “crime against humanity” the Convention declared all those who participated in it as guilty of the “crime of apartheid”. This would have probably covered, in one way or another, almost all of the Afrikaner civilian population of the time, most other whites, as well as black South Africans who willingly collaborated in the system. A narrow exemption would be provided, as far as the white population was concerned, only to those few individual white rebels who committed themselves wholly to the cause of black liberation.

At the time a “crime against humanity” was a capital offence, and one which attracted the highest penalty for the perpetrators. In terms of the Convention then Afrikaners and those who collaborated with them thus fell under a category of persons who had rendered themselves unworthy of life. The Soviet Union, and their allies, were further empowered by the Convention to take whatever measures they deemed fit to ensure they were punished.

This all slotted in tightly with the actions then being taken by the Soviet Union, and their proxies in the ANC and SACP, to engineer a mass insurrection in South Africa, in which the white population and their black collaborators were to be targeted for vernichtung.

The draft Convention of 28th of October 1971 was, in other words, a death warrant for the Afrikaner, and those allied with them. It was also one that was meant to start being executed shortly thereafter. The effort though to give effect to it, in early 1972, was nipped in the bud by the sabotaging of the Aventura shortly after its departure for the Transkei. As a result the link between the Convention and the Soviet sponsored plans for a “People’s War”/”war of national liberation” was never made or, if it was, has long since been forgotten.

It was only twelve years later that the ANC was able, and only in part, to put the People’s War strategy into operation (see here and here), by which time the link between the two was far less obvious. Indeed, it is commonly assumed in the literature that the ‘People’s War’ approach was only decided upon after the ANC’s Vietnam tour in November 1978. As a result the connection between that revolutionary strategy, and the UN Convention intended to legitimate it, was lost.


The Convention continued to make its way through the UN, being adopted largely unchanged by the General Assembly in 1973. The General Assembly at the time was dominated by a collection of truly awful regimes, something well understood in the West at the time. This was the same body that in 1975 gave Ugandan leader Field Marshall Idi Amin a standing ovation and declared Zionism to be a form of racism and racial discrimination. The Convention was subsequently ratified by a host of Soviet client states and African, Arab and Asian nationalist and Communist regimes, including the Khmer Rouge regime in Kampuchea. No Western liberal democracy ever ratified it.

In the late 1990s though the ANC was, under the Presidency of Nelson Mandela, at the height of its moral and political authority internationally. It was hailed around the world for its historic commitment to “non-racialism” and its policy of “reconciliation” towards the white minority. Its past (not fully discarded) ideological commitments, and revolutionary strategies, had been almost totally forgotten. By contrast the old National Party regime been thoroughly discredited and disgraced by the exposure at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the criminal and murderous conduct of the covert units of the police and military in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

It was at this moment that the “crime of apartheid” was incorporated into the Rome Statute as a “crime against humanity”, a body of law meant to prevent another Rwandan genocide. The definition used in the 1998 statute was largely carried over from the Soviet Union’s original 1970 draft. Not much seemed to turn on this inclusion at the time however. Apartheid had been abolished some years before, and the statute was not meant to apply retroactively.

The effect of this inclusion though was to give backwards legitimacy to the 1973 Convention. The authority and legitimacy of that Convention has furthermore been endorsed by many of the world’s leading human rights lawyers.

In this manner a legal document embodying horrendous - but as yet unrealised - exterminatory racialism was effectively incorporated into “settled” international law. It now sits there like an unexploded bomb, threatening the existence of two peoples in particular. The major focus of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign, for one, is to define Israel as an “apartheid state”. If this ever were to succeed this would set in motion the provisions of the Convention against the now “criminal” populace of that country.

As the national revolution the ANC promised to bring about in South Africa has failed there are increasing calls by frustrated elements within the racial majority – notably the Fallists and the Economic Freedom Fighters – for the liberation movement to return to the path of revolutionary purity, and for there to be a final reckoning with the country’s Afrikaner (and white) minority. The fact that the “international community” declared “the Boers” to be guilty of a “crime against humanity” is central to legitimating such renewed calls to action. In rhetoric which harked back to the 1970 and 1971 propaganda of the ANC Julius Malema put it this way:

“We, the rightful owners, our peace was disturbed by white man’s arrival here. They committed a black genocide. They killed our people during land dispossession. Today, we are told don’t disturb them, even when they disturbed our peace. They found peaceful Africans here. They killed them! They slaughtered them, like animals! We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now.”

The ‘debate’ then around the FW de Klerk Foundation’s statement was characterised by almost total historical amnesia. Even De Klerk’s initial instinctive resistance to accepting the designation, on the basis that it (wrongly) equated apartheid to genocide, missed the main point.

The result has been a striking lack of clarity in the debate. The EFF of Malema have an intuitive grasp of the purpose to which the UN Convention was (and is) meant to be put, which is why they defend it so aggressively. The SACP and ANC would also have some residual though faded knowledge of this history. But many others – journalists, commentators, human rights lawyers - rushed in to condemn the FW de Klerk Foundation without grasping what it exactly was that they were, in turn, effectively endorsing.

It was disturbing to see so many different elements in society – at least some of whom should have known better - embracing in their frenzy of self-righteousness such a profoundly dangerous document. It was yet another reminder, if any was needed, of the dangers that come from forgetting the past.

James Myburgh is author of The Last Jacobins of Africa: The ANC and the making of modern South Africa. It is available on Kindle here


[1] Vladimir Shubin, ANC: A view from Moscow, Jacana Media: Johannesburg, 2008, pg. 82

[2] Ken Keable (Ed.), London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid, The Merlin Press: Pontypool, 2012

[3] Mark Gevisser, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, Jonathan Ball Publishers: Cape Town, 2007, pg. 277

[4] Shubin, ANC: A view from Moscow, pg. 82

[5] Eddy Maloka, The South African Communist Party in Exile, Jacana Media: Johannesburg, Kindle Edition, 2013

[6] ‘The making of a terrorist’, Rand Daily Mail, 20 March 1973

[7] Fanele Mbali, In Transit: Autobiography of a South African Freedom Fighter, South African History Online: Cape Town, 2012, pp 148 - 152

[8] Joe Slovo, “The second stage: Attempts to get back”, Dawn Souvenir Issue - 25th anniversary of MK, 1986

[9] Interview with Joe Slovo by Luli Callinicos, Johannesburg, 5 January 1994. As described in Luli Callinicos, Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Ngele Mountains, David Philip Publishers: Cape Town, 2017, pp. 367 - 368

[10] Shubin, ANC: A view from Moscow, 2008

[11] Discussion with OR Tambo and Alfred Nzo in Moscow, 24 April 1970, as described in Shubin, ANC: A view from Moscow, pg. 77

[12] John Laband, The Rise & Fall of the Zulu Nation, Arms & Armour Press: London, 2008, pp. 87-90



Luli Callinicos, Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Ngele Mountains, David Philip Publishers: Cape Town, 2017

Stephen Ellis, External Mission: The ANC in Exile 1960-1990, Hurst & Company: London, 2012

Irina Filatova & Apollon Davidson, The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era, Kindle Edition, Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg & Cape Town, 2013

Mark Gevisser, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, Jonathan Ball Publishers: Cape Town, 2007

Ken Keable (Ed.), London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid, The Merlin Press: Pontypool, 2012

John Laband, The Rise & Fall of the Zulu Nation, Arms & Armour Press: London, 2008

Eddy Maloka, The South African Communist Party in Exile, Jacana Media: Johannesburg, Kindle Edition, 2013

Fanele Mbali, In Transit: Autobiography of a South African Freedom Fighter, South African History Online: Cape Town, 2012

James Sanders, Apartheid’s Friends: The Rise and Fall of South Africa’s Secret Service, John Murray: London, 2006

Thula Simpson, Umkhonto we Sizwe: The ANC’s Armed Struggle, Penguin Books: Cape Town, 2016

Vladimir Shubin, ANC: A view from Moscow, Jacana Media: Johannesburg, 2008