Retrieving the people’s war from an Orwellian ‘memory hole’
Jeremy Gordin’s review of my new abridged book on the people’s war waged by the ANC from 1984 to 1994 is a complex mix of welcome praise and unfounded criticism.
Gordin praises the core chapters of the book (People’s War: New Light on the struggle for South Africa) for providing ‘a carefully thought-out, trenchant and compelling analysis’, which is ‘grounded in meticulous research’ and ‘casts the ANC in a completely different light – not as a warm-hearted and loving liberator and champion of the people but as a merciless and unscrupulous force intent on power’. He describes my study of the people’s war as ‘a compelling counter-narrative that pokes holes in the curtain pulled tightly by the ANC and others over our recent past’, that ‘punctures those Struggle myths’, and is ‘certainly worthy of our attention’.
Gordin also sees merit in the final chapter of the book – which outlines the ANC’s post-1994 pursuit of a national democratic revolution (NDR) – saying ‘it’s very difficult not to buy into my thesis’ in this sphere. He also seems to agree that if the NDR succeeded in foisting ‘a communist or socialist system (of a Chavezian or North Korean – or even a Cuban? – variety)...on South Africa, it’d be an unmitigated disaster’.
But Gordin then goes on to voice many unfounded criticisms of the book which cannot pass unchallenged. These include the false arguments and allegations set out below.
Gordin suggests that my description of the formula for people’s war – as taught to the ANC by General Vo Nguyen Giap and other leaders in communist Vietnam – is fundamentally flawed because it does not begin by describing the ‘thousands of years’ of colonialism and oppression to which Vietnam had been subjected.
This implies that a well-defined formula for people’s war cannot be ‘analysed’ or ‘understood’ without first setting out the (supposedly) anti-colonial context in which it was developed. But this makes little sense – especially when the formula was broad enough to be applied to many other countries, South Africa among them.
Gordin further implies that my ‘meticulously researched’ chapters on the unfolding of the people’s war in South Africa are simultaneously ‘not true’. As authority for this, he cites an adverse review of my original (and much longer) People’s War book by journalist and academic William Gumede, whose political activism in the 1980s and early 1990s seems to have aligned him closely with the UDF and ANC.
According to Gumede – who provides neither context nor evidence for his assertions – ‘there was counter or defensive violence by local ANC committees’, but nothing like ‘a national campaign...orchestrated from Shell House’. This claim disregards the ANC’s visit to Vietnam to learn Giap’s formula, its subsequent decision to embark on people’s war – as set out in The Green Book: Lessons from Vietnam – and its determination to intensify the people’s war during the negotiations period, as Giap had urged.
Gordin also suggests that I have little understanding of the role of Vlakplaas in political violence. To substantiate this inaccurate claim, he cites (and takes out of context) a single sentence from the book. He then ignores all my other points about the covert role of the security forces in detentions, torture, and extrajudicial executions in the 1980s, in particular.
In this period, the police (including Vlakplaas commander Colonel Eugene de Kock) had unofficially been mandated to ‘take out’ Umkhonto operatives intent on infiltrating the country, along with the people helping them to do so. They had often also implicitly been authorised to eliminate the internal activists seen as responsible for necklacings and other acts of violence intrinsic to the people’s war. All of this is set out in this abridged version – and analysed far more fully in the original book.
Gordin further claims that my description of the people’s war in the early 1990s is ‘off-target’ because it overlooks the ‘third-force’ role in the rampant violence at that time. He suggests that the third force – ‘particularly... the covert units of the military and police’ – was largely responsible for the upsurge in violence at this time (or ‘at least until 1992’, when the ANC, he says, began to ‘gain the ascendancy’).
However, despite the enormous efforts put into finding this, there is little credible evidence that covert units were busily stoking violence in the negotiations period. De Kock’s story (as told to Gordin and recorded in their joint book) does not support this. Nor does Anthony Turton’s description of political violence in Shaking Hands with Billy, for this is often mistaken on key events and fails to provide any credible support for Gordin’s analysis.
There are other important weaknesses in the third-force theory. Covert security force units and the IFP had the means and possibly the motive to stoke violence in the early 1990s, but they gained nothing from doing so. On the contrary, the more the violence accelerated, the more President FW de Klerk was likely to lose the credibility he had gained through his bold liberalisation moves in February 1990. The same applied to the IFP (and its leader, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi), which was sure to lose the major support it had already garnered in KwaZulu/Natal and on the Reef.
The third-force theory was also unable to explain the killing in the early 1990s of roughly 1 000 policemen – many of whom were lured into ambushes by fake emergency calls and then shot dead. Nor could the theory account for the deaths of thousands of IFP supporters and hundreds of IFP leaders, often in targeted assassinations.
As my book points out: ‘A third force that killed a small number of its own supporters to stir up hatred, foster conflict, provoke counterattack, and try to derail the negotiations process might have some logic behind its actions. But a third force that killed so many hundreds or thousands of its own supporters made no sense at all.’
By contrast, the ANC had significant means with which to wage a people’s war. Its capacity to do so was also greatly boosted by the return – under the cover of the negotiations process – of some 13 000 of its trained Umkhonto operatives, whom it then refused to disband or disarm. That capacity was further increased via Operation Vula, which succeeded in smuggling large quantities of arms into the country from its start in 1988 and remained in place right through to the 1994 election.
The ANC also had the necessary motive, for its avowed policy was to talk peace while waging a destabilising covert war. As Giap had taught it, the ANC was intent on using negotiations as an ‘additional terrain of struggle’ in an intensified people’s war.
In addition, the ANC was the only organisation to benefit from the upsurge in killings, using this to weaken and discredit the IFP, undermine De Klerk, control the negotiations process, and attain what SACP chairperson Joe Slovo called ‘a famous victory’ on the interim constitution and other agreements reached.
This victory, says Slovo, was gained by using negotiations as a terrain of struggle – and then massively increasing the pressure on all the ANC’s rivals in the final months and days of the talks. As The African Communist adds, it is this which enabled the ANC alliance to score ‘16 out of 16 on its strategic objectives’ in this sphere.
The people’s war also gave the ANC the ‘prime prize’ of the ‘state power’ it needed to implement the NDR in the post-apartheid period. Major progress in advancing the NDR has been made since 1994, as the book outlines. Moreover, the NDR has not been derailed in recent years, as Gordin suggests, but is steadily proceeding in its ever more dirigiste policy interventions.
To name but three examples out of many, it is the NDR that underpins current pressures for expropriation without compensation (EWC), the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank, and the introduction of ‘prescribed asset’ rules for pension funds.
These policies are being introduced to advance the ‘radical second phase of the NDR’, which offers ‘the most direct route to a socialist South Africa’ – as the SACP stated at its 14th national congress in 2017. Moreover, there is significant evidence to suggest that President Cyril Ramaphosa is not really a ‘new dawn’ reformer, but rather endorses and promotes the NDR.
My book is not, as Gordin claims, ‘a one-dimensional approach to a multi-faceted continuum of events’. Instead, it takes care to trace key developments in all their complexity. But it also focuses strongly on exposing what has for too long been discounted and ignored – the ruthless violence of the people’s war, and the NDR threat to political and economic freedom in South Africa.
As the book notes – and Gordin at times acknowledges – the struggle ‘myths’ the ANC has long fostered remain so strong that most South Africans continue to be blinded by them. Many are thus ‘baffled’ as to why the ANC, with its supposedly high moral standing and deep concern for the well-being of the people, should be implementing an NDR so profoundly damaging to the country’s best interests. For those who understand the duplicity and self-serving ruthlessness of the people’s war, however, the NDR becomes far easier to grasp.
My book seeks to build that understanding by telling the untold story of the people’s war. In doing so, it also aims to retrieve a vital part of the country’s recent history from the Orwellian ‘memory hole’ to which the ANC – and many other commentators – have so assiduously and successfully consigned it.
Dr Anthea Jeffery, Head of Policy Research at the IRR and author of People’s War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa, now available in all good bookshops and as an e-book in abridged and updated form