People's War, fake news, and the dogs that failed to bark

John Kane-Berman writes on the updated and abridged version of Anthea Jeffery's study

The Battle of Waterloo, so we were told at school, was won on the playing fields of Eton. The Vietnam war, we learnt sometime later, was lost not in the skies above that country, or on the ground below, but on the television screens of America.

What then of the "People's War" here in South Africa? It was won by the African National Congress (ANC) less in the urban townships and rural villages of this land than in the newsrooms of the world. How that came about you will discover by reading the updated and abridged version of Anthea Jeffery's study of the people's war.

Let me give you a clue. It is well known that many members of the ANC went for military training in the Crimea, or studied in Moscow or in some of the Soviet Union's colonies in Eastern Europe. But among the men who have had the most influence on the fortunes of this country is one of whom few people have heard, but to whom Oliver Tambo, Thabo Mbeki, Joe Slovo, Moses Mabhida, and others paid a visit in October 1978, and from whom, in the words of Mr Mbeki, they learnt how to "intensify our struggle for liberation". The man was General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander in chief of the People's Army of North Vietnam.

From him and from others during their study tour, the leadership of the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP), and Umkhonto we Sizwe learnt how to wage a people's war. This was directed against their key black rivals as well as against the National Party government and its formidable security forces. Equally important, they also learnt how to combine political with military struggles.  

The strategy was set out in a handbook entitled The Green Book – Lessons from Vietnam that was published in August 1979. It was merciless, as well as comprehensive. It included not only the use of terror, but also wooing Afrikaner and other white opinion leaders, weakening the black consciousness movement and Inkatha, setting up front organisations, tactical downplaying of the ultimate socialist objective, unscrupulous and cynical manipulation of the entire constitutional negotiating process, and capturing the largest trade union federation.

When the ANC delegation went to Vietnam, Cyril Ramaphosa was just getting going as a trade unionist. But few people were more adept than he at applying some of the lessons set out in The Green Book. We have read plenty about Mr Ramaphosa's negotiating skills, but very little about how he and Nelson Mandela used the formula for people's war to win by menace what they could not win by argument at the negotiating table. They were also both superbly gifted at spreading what is today known as "fake news".

One of the victims was Mangosuthu Buthelezi. There was a terrific hue and cry in the media over the traditional weapons that his supporters carried, but largely silence over the AK47s that the ANC absolutely refused to discard. Another victim was FW de Klerk. The then state president said he would never agree to hand over power to a transitional government, or that the new constitution should be written by an ANC-dominated constituent assembly. I watched in amazement as the NP abandoned both these bottom lines in the face of an onslaught of violence accompanied by an onslaught of fake news.

But the spread of fake news by the media is only half the story. The other half is what they did not print, and why they did not print it. This is reminiscent of the story in Sherlock Holmes about the "curious incident" of the dog that did not bark in the night. This book will help you understand why the media was so selective in its presentation of news.

We at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) knew what was not being printed and why. Dating back to the mid-1980s, when the people's war was launched, we published as much as we could. Unfortunately, we could not prevail over the ANC and its allies in the media, in the churches, in foreign embassies, among slideaway liberals, and in various violence monitoring agencies.

Raymond Suttner of the SACP once wrote of the need to win the propaganda war about violence. There is no doubt that the ANC and its allies won it. This book is a unique contribution to setting the record straight – and to a deeper understanding of the nature of the party that is ruling us, and of the lengths to which it might go to retain power. And finally, nobody reading this book will be in the least surprised at how the ANC has behaved in recent years.  

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. This article is the text of his remarks at the launch in Johannesburg and Pretoria last week of the IRR's latest book, People's War – New Light on the Struggle for South Africa by Anthea Jeffery, published by Jonathan Ball. The book will be launched in Cape Town on Thursday 13 June. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.