Are there parallels in the universe and can we learn from history?
In 1989 I was deployed as an intelligence operator with the mission of monitoring up close, what was happening in Eastern Europe. There were two national security issues dominating the agenda at that time, after the Battle of the Lomba had blunted Russian Cold War aspirations and shown the folly of the Cuban military intervention in Angola.
Those two strategic issues were as follows. Firstly, could we possibly negotiate a viable constitutional solution to the protracted conflict that had engulfed our nation for decades? Secondly, what role would Russia play as a possible spoiler in that negotiated settlement, given their dominance in the regional conflicts during the Cold War?
I consequently found myself, deployed as part of a deep penetration small team, capable of operating for protracted periods of time without logistical support from base. The central focus of my specific mission was to determine, as accurately as possible, whether the Russians would continue to be a dominant force in the face of what was then a disintegrating USSR, and in line with the military defeat they suffered in Afghanistan. Here I define defeat as the inability to successfully execute their mission objectives, because their withdrawal was orderly.
Now the reader needs to appreciate that within the dynamics of that moment in time, just before the dawn of the last decade of the 20th Century, certain things were widely accepted as being inviolable.
We can call those things the myths of the time, because with the benefit of hindsight, we now know that they were a lot more fragile than they were then perceived to be. One of those myths was the impenetrability of the Berlin Wall, and another was the ubiquity of communist party rule in Eastern Europe.
I found myself a lone operator, literally watching the Iron Curtain fall before my very eyes. In Poland, the emergence of the trade union movement Solidarity swept the communist party from power. In the German Democratic Republic, soviet-styled strongman Eric Honecker was deposed in a deluge of mass uprising so powerful, that the Berlin Wall could not be sustained, and people crossed from East to West without a shot being fired.
In Romania, a country in which I took a special interest, a defiant Nicolae Ceauşescu was swept from power after a popular revolt, initially triggered in Timisoara, involving his son and a Porsche motor vehicle. Nobody would ever have guessed that these hard-core communist states would crumble in the face of a concerted popular uprising, but they did.
Ultimately, they were all based on an unsustainable myth. Like dominoes they fell, and I was hard pressed keeping up with developments in these three geographic areas. Further afield, but also in my area of operations, was Czechoslovakia, where a softer approach emerged. This became known as the Velvet Revolution, and it stood out in stark contrast against the rest.
Let me home in onto this factor, because I immediately see a parallel emerging in contemporary South Africa, currently in the grip of the very same sort of popular uprising that unseated Honecker and Ceauşescu, leaving a Russian intelligence operator named Vladimir Putin alone in Potsdam, facing an angry horde and without any orders from head office.
You see, Vlad and I both served in the same theatre of operations, at the same time. Both of us witnessed the same series of events, but probably interpreted them differently. Both of us were intelligence operators, deployed in the final days of the Cold War, and both of us were overwhelmed by what we were witnessing – the innate fragility of a myth in the face of forces unleashed by society that had been alienated by the shenanigans of the filthy rich elite, controlling the communist parties of their respective countries.
There we both learned that the communist party is merely a means to an end, that end being self-enrichment of the elite through the control of the levers of patronage flows into their support base.
And that is the parallel that I see playing out today in South Africa. The myth of ANC legitimacy, once described by Jacob Zuma as being so potent that it would rule until the second coming of Jesus. Words from an alienated ANC/SACP political elite, projected with the same brash confidence shown by Honecker, even as he faced the rolling mass action that became known as the Leipzig Option, unable to comprehend the reality before his eyes.
The identical disbelief displayed by Ceauşescu, even as he was being tried by military tribunal, refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the court, and announcing the imminent arrival of the Securitaté that would release him and place the military officers under immediate arrest.
Both events displayed the fragility of the myth of communist party rule. Both leaders were biased by their unshakable belief in the legitimacy of their own actions, that they failed to recognize the rising tide of popular discontent that was about to sweep them into oblivion.
Both fell into the trap of believing the same myth they were propagating – the inviolable legitimacy of communist thinking and rule. This is where the Velvet Revolution comes into the picture, because the softer approach taken there, was more enabling of a peaceful transition from the bondage of a failed ideology, to the liberation of a vibrant democracy that the Czech Republic has become.
It is time for us to take a bite from that same reality sandwich. Yesterday I instinctively knew that we were witnessing a profoundly important event, so I engaged and recorded what I could. In this process I have been propelled back to my time as a covert operator, observing the forces of change collide with the myth of state invincibility.
What I saw playing out in KZN was nothing short of remarkable. A popular uprising, triggered by the inflammatory rhetoric of a race war, inciting the masses to mobilize against an ethnically defined minority, to destroy all vestige of so-called white monopoly capital (WMC), was met with an equally potent spontaneous emergence of local militia.
The resultant wave of angry humanity was captured on video, now streaming into the world media, hungry for stories. It showed the paper-thin veneer of legitimacy based on a racially defined enemy, by portraying the “real ANC” as being a revolutionary force that has somehow been captured by the purse strings of WMC.
It clearly re-racialized the ruling ANC, which now alienates it from the traditional foreign support base that sustained it during exile. But more importantly, it also injects into the ANC, the corrosive issue of tribalism.
You see, the “real ANC” is actually the Zulu faction controlled by Jacob Zuma and a cabal of corrupt gangsters in key positions of authority. This is about Zulu hegemony and the financial power that accrues to the cabal of warlords and criminal syndicates that sold the country to the Guptas. The question this raises is how legitimate is the ANC as a racially defined party, but under the control of a tribally defined criminal elite? But it is also about the essence of the ANC, the oldest political party in Africa.
A party with deep roots in the legitimacy of aspirations of freedom from the debilitating servitude of colonialism. This is a party with credibility across the globe, so in marketing terms, the brand has intrinsic value. Is the “real ANC” the ethnically defined version that the Zulu faction would have us believe is now the only true force of liberation from the evils of WMC?
But more importantly, if this is so, then what of the “other ANC”? The ANC that we can call the “reformers” for purpose of this analysis. If the “real ANC” is now flexing its muscle, to purge itself of the imposters posing as “reformers”, of which President Cyril Ramaphosa is the legitimately elected leader, does this challenge not fall under the category of treason or sedition?
Let us dwell for a few moments on these questions, in the context of the myth I encountered on deployment in Eastern Europe during the last days of the Cold War. Firstly, Jacob Zuma has clearly defied the ANC constitutional principle of being a non-racial party, free of all hints of tribalism. The “real ANC”, once ensconced in the Union Buildings, will be nothing more than the logical conclusion to the Mfecane, that swept across the savannah of southern Africa from 1815 to 1840.
The same event that saw the rise of Shaka as a brilliant military commander, subjugating the Ndwandwe at the decisive Battle of Gqokli Hill in April of 1818, but also using the forest of Nkandla as a safe refuge for the non-combatants and their cattle.
The “real ANC” is nothing more than a surrogate for Zulu hegemony, denied by the British at the Battle of Ulundi on the 4th of July 1879, so it is as mythical as the unicorn. By playing this card, the “real ANC” sycophants have also set themselves up for the criminal charges of sedition and treason. It is a desperate last stand, which is why it is so important that we understand it for what it is, rather than the myth it claims to be.
How can the ANC be rebranded as a tribal party, and survive a free and fair election in a multi-cultural society? How can it be rebranded as a racially pure party, and survive in an international trading milieu where economic sanctions would be imposed on its leadership, and the country would be shunned as a pariah?
You see, this is the myth of the “real ANC”. It is simply illogical and unable to withstand reasonable scrutiny by rational people. One cannot defend the indefensible, and Zulu hegemony simply opens too many old wounds left dormant from the Mfecane, while the ethnic cleansing needed to meet its stated objective of destroying the white minority leave it out in the cold.
To truly enable Zulu hegemony, the ANC would be transformed into an approximation of the Interahamwe, a political force closely associated with the genocide in Rwanda. This would destroy all political capital embedded in the ANC brand. By adopting it as a strategy, the ANC elite would unleash a scorched earth policy, never to return to the moral high ground it once occupied as the darling of the world in 1994.
But there is another myth that has also been exposed in the last 48 hours of popular uprising. This is the myth that the ANC, however one might choose to define it – real or reformist – is actually in control of KZN province. What has been patently obvious in the recent past has been two key elements. The first is the total absence of government presence, or control, in the hotspots of KZN.
Nowhere has there been any cabinet minister calling for calm. Nowhere has there been any visibility of the police, or the army. Instead, where present, the police have been embattled, often inside their own stations, fearful of going out, mostly woefully equipped in terms of skills, hardware and tactics.
Sure, in some places the police have been seen to be making arrests, but more often than not, they have done so behind a shield created by the spontaneous emergence of militia in various forms. Some have been active as community policing forums, where the police and society have created formal structures, but in equal measure, many have simply emerged spontaneously.
This morning, when attempting to drive into Port Shepstone, I was denied access to the town by civilian militia without any police presence in sight. Where control has been gained, its typically as the result of militia activity.
Video evidence of various militia activities has often shown tactical discipline and credible leadership, mostly in the face of a concerted attack by an angry mob. Yesterday, during the chaos caused by a power vacuum in KZN, it was local militias that rose to fill the void.
Last night, it was a local militia protecting a mall in the Durban area, that was numerically overwhelmed, but still stood firm in the face of an aggressive enemy. This morning, it is local militia that are blocking the movement of looters, using tactics developed spontaneously, but often under the control of veterans of the South African Bush War.
I therefore suggest that while the notion that the ANC will be in control, as Zuma put it – until the second coming – is nothing but a myth, but so too is the notion that civil society is incapable of organizing itself rapidly as the need arises.
On the contrary, even as KZN looting was at its peak, Jesse Duarte held a presser to report back on an NEC meeting. Against the backdrop of images of wholesale looting, using forklift trucks and involving container loads of large screen TV’s, Duarte’s attempt to project authority failed.
As she droned on about the same old boring stuff that apparently occupies key decision-makers agendas, probably to instill a sense of normality, it was totally at odds with the reality playing out in KZN. Instead, it projected the big myth that there is no distinction between party and state, and the ANC as party is in firm control as government.
We now know two falsehoods being projected there – namely that the ANC is a single united party and that it is in full control of the government. In reality, South Africa had no government for 48 hours, and where calm was restored, it was only because of the appropriate actions of militia.
Which brings us back to that moment in 1989, when as a covert operator, I saw the unthinkable happen in Eastern Europe, because again I see history repeating itself before my very eyes. The myth of ANC unity is now up for debate, just as the ubiquity of their rule is no longer a foregone conclusion. If the ANC is in control, then how will it deal with the challenge of the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) element, claiming to be the “real ANC”, with high profile leadership blatantly committing criminal acts of sedition?
How do I see things playing out from here?
I see three important dynamics now in play. The first is the dilemma arising from the myth of ANC unity. If the ANC is truly united as a party of constitutional government, then how will it deal with known criminal elements that will inevitably be brought before courts of law?
More importantly, if it is united, then how will it deal with the Zuma affair, and the challenge by his faction – most notably Carl Niehaus and Ace Magashule – but including Gwede Mantashe, Nomvula Mokonyane, Tony Yengeni and Mosebenze Zwane?
Will they be charged as appropriate to the crimes known to have been committed by them? If yes, then the ANC will retain some legitimacy, and probably be able to repair the damage it has sustained of late. If no, then they will continue to hemorrhage legitimacy as brand ANC becomes irretrievably tied to the criminal activities of its leadership.
The second is the emergence of an engaged and savvy civil society. The role played by the militia in stabilizing KZN, in the absence of a police and military capability, means that they have now become important actors on the stage of South African politics. This has certainly been their finest hour. They are unlikely to relinquish that position of credibility to a blatantly weak state, but will probably be willing to work with legitimate law enforcement agencies. This is likely to see an invigoration of community policing forums as each militia is strengthened from within. But simultaneously, cooperation between these militia, already being championed by members of veteran associations across the country, will strengthen the hand they have been dealt in this new game of poker. This will balance out the strong ideological bias against an ethnic minority, and might once again create the illusion of inclusion for the embattled white citizens.
The third is a re-energizing of the gun debate. The rapid emergence of the militia was only possible because they have in their possession, a wide arsenal of firearms. Most are legal, but not all. Clearly attempts by the state to remove firearms, have been unsuccessful, and will continue to be resisted with increased vigour.
In fact, a significant element of the militia has been the use of weapons that do not require licensing, but are potentially lethal in the hands of a competent user. I will say no more about this, for it is a sensitive issue, that will be debated with considerable energy over time. It might even trigger legal reform, so that is a separate discussion to be had in the future.
In summary, within the smoldering ashes of the KZN economy, lies a germinating seed. This is the seed of cooperation based on confidence and integrity. A split ANC is unlikely to command sufficient majority to rule unopposed, and we are likely to see the emergence of a Moderate Middle. Part of that can be the ANC reformists, taking the oldest political party in Africa, to new levels by aligning itself with common values shared by others.
Those values are likely to include the rejection of tribalism, and hence an outright rejection of Zulu hegemony at national level, but also a renewal of the discussion of a more federal structure. This will provide the Zulu population a degree of autonomy, while retaining the sovereign integrity of the state.
It will prevent the balkanization of South Africa, and avoid the lesson of Biafra, Eritrea and Tigray. More importantly, it will also create the opportunity to provide a place of safety for the white minority, increasingly demonized and fearful of the ethnic cleansing inherent to the rhetoric of the mythical “real ANC”.
President Ramaphosa was deeply involved in CODESA and has great insight into the dynamics of negotiation and consensus-building. This makes him the ideal leader of an invigorated but reformist ANC, reaching out to include engagement with the Moderate Middle that is starting to coalesce around the desire to free itself from the shackles of past prejudice and outdated ideologies, by providing a truly non-racial inclusivity, welcoming of foreign direct investment as a key to future economic rejuvenation.
From the smoldering ashes of KZN, we see the potential green shoots of a better future in which all can reach their full potential, irrespective of the historic past over which none had any direct control. You see, there are parallels in history, because neither Honecker nor Ceauşescu believed they could ever be swept from power, but both were unable to resist a popular uprising.
When it really mattered, the mighty Iron Curtain was not impenetrable, and ultimately incapable of withstanding the overwhelming force of a rising tide of discontent. The very same uprising that is now being driven by the militia of KZN as they respond to the unreasonable claims of legitimacy needed for Zulu hegemony within the “real ANC”.
Will President Ramaphosa find guidance in the experiences of the Czech people, as they dealt with the demands of change, through a negotiated solution? The same solution that we developed during CODESA, that brought us the hope of a better future in the democracy of 1994.
© Dr Anthony Turton 2021