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Who Killed Apartheid?

Was it the African National Congress' armed struggle that ended white rule in South Africa? Or was it nonviolent civic resistance?

Jesse Walker
February 11, 2010

Twenty years ago today, the South African government freed Nelson Mandela, a prisoner who had become the leading symbol of resistance to the segregationist system known as apartheid. Mandela, who led the revolutionary African National Congress, had spent 27 years behind bars for his efforts to overthrow the racist regime; his release was the beginning of the end for apartheid, which unraveled completely four years later. On May 10, 1994, Mandela was sworn in as president of the Republic of South Africa. The ANC, for three decades an illegal underground organization, was now in control of the country. Its years of armed struggle finally seemed to have paid off.

Or had they? As apartheid entered its dying days, a former ANC activist was studying the strategy the group had pursued since the early '60s. In Conscripts to Their Age, an Oxford dissertation completed in 1993, Howard Barrell concluded that the organization's orientation toward violent revolt had actually undermined its goals, as had the Leninist ideology that fueled that strategic approach. The activism that eliminated apartheid had largely been accomplished by other organizers working autonomously and nonviolently; the ANC's armed assaults had been a series of failures. Paradoxically, though, those high-profile operations had given the ANC a formidable reputation among the regime's opponents, making the group popular enough to negotiate a settlement with the white government.

Barrell, who had covered the ANC as a journalist even as he served covertly as an ANC operative, went on to edit the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian; today he is a senior lecturer in the School of Journalism, Media, and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. I interviewed him three days before the anniversary of Mandela's release.

Q: You attribute the ANC's strategy to "a purportedly scientific theory of social and historical motion, Marxism-Leninism." How did that get processed in the South African context?

A: It was a question of the time. When the ANC was considering embarking on armed struggle—we're talking about 1959, 1960, 1961—there had just been a revolution in Cuba. In the writings of people like Che Guevara and even more so a French sociologist called Regis Debray, it was reported that a group of armed men had arrived on the coast of Cuba in a tramp steamer and had within two short years managed to bring down the Cuban regime, in a way that suggested that political organization by political means was not necessary.

These writings were false. They write out of the history a whole set of political actors who were highly involved in mobilizing via political means in Havana and elsewhere.

Q: By "political means," you mean everything from boycotts to—

A: From boycotts to strikes to anything that does not involve concerted, organized application of violence.

If one looks at any vaguely serious armed struggle for political power, the challenge the people are taking on is to redress the immense imbalance there is between their own power and that of the state. There are various ways that this is undertaken, or not undertaken as the case may be. In the Russian Revolution of 1917, they took an insurrectionary approach: They mounted short, sharp combined assaults on the state. At the time, the state had been so weakened by World War I and other problems that the Bolsheviks were able to seize power in St. Petersburg and one or two other major metropolitan centers. And over time to consolidate it across the country. But they were able to do so because the state against which they were fighting was very weak at that point, and this was the result of political mobilizations and discontent that had been brewing for a long time.

One product of this is that the Russians—and the Communist International, which they set up—put across to its satellites and brother and sister movements around the world that this is how it's possible to bring about the collapse of the state.

There were various revisions of this strategy. Mao, followed by people like Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh and Amílcar Cabral, started looking again at the need to bring about some sort of balance in the ability of the insurgents and the state before the insurgents try to push for state power itself. But the ANC was totally caught up in this notion of the state as an entity that had to be overthrown. It was heavily influenced by the Soviet Communist Party of the time—the South African Communist Party was doctrinally very closely aligned to Moscow—and also by what was happening in Cuba. This resulted in a very militarist approach to revolution, at great cost to the ANC.

Q: One interesting argument you made in Conscripts to Their Age is that when the South African government banned the Communist Party, that had the paradoxical effect of making the Communists more influential.

A: "My enemy's enemy is my friend." If the state is saying all the time that any opposition to apartheid is Communist-inspired, and if apartheid is indeed an unjust system, then Communists will seem to be the bearers of the democratic hopes of people.

I speak for myself. I was brought up as a classical radical liberal. I mean liberal in the philosophical sense, not the American sense of social and economic interventions. I moved toward the Communist Party and became a fairly clear Marxist-Leninist, although I resisted joining the party for my own reasons. At that time, it seemed to any excitable intellectual who was opposed to apartheid that the way to overthrow it was by military means, and the South African regime identified the Communist Party as the source of the military means. The South African regime continually attacked the Communist Party as being the puppeteer behind any real militant or radical opposition. And it became very attractive. Militant liberals who were opposed to apartheid didn't seem to have a plausible strategy.

Q: Though by your account, the ANC's activities in the decade and a half after it made this turn were simply a series of failures.

A: The paradox is that the more it focused on armed struggle, the less well-equipped it was to actually conduct an armed struggle. It's all a question of the political base.

The ANC was facing a highly sophisticated state with very good communications and infrastructure, a state that was also substantially indigenous, a state comprising officials and military commanders and police commanders who knew the terrain at least as well as the insurgents did. In addition to that, the ANC could not rely upon the promise of safe contiguous bases in neighboring countries. Under those circumstances, there was a massive need for the ANC to embark upon whatever program was necessary to develop an internal political base. Yet the way the ANC in exile operated—up until about 1978, 1979—was that the military struggle was its primary objective. It sent most of its resources into armed struggle, ignoring the need for political organization.

It would later derive some benefit from the fact that it patently had the will to engage the apartheid regime in armed struggle. But that will was evident more in the ANC's failures than in any military successes.

Q: Your dissertation is just a series of paradoxes. I'm not sure there's any point at which anyone on either side, the ANC or the government, achieves an objective by actually setting out to do it.

A: It's the ultimate vindication of the fuckup theory of history.

Q: You mention three or four circumstances that altered the ANC's position in the mid-'70s.

A: There's the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement, led by people like Stephen Biko and Barney Pityana. These were young black students who in the late 1960s and early 1970s became convinced that what was necessary was a psychological liberation of black people. Black people needed to understand that they were oppressed only insofar as they remained compliant in their own oppression. I knew Biko quite well. Pityana I got to know later. They were highly gifted individuals. They managed to do the kind of mobilization at a political level that the ANC had not embarked upon once it started its armed struggle. This created an amazing ferment.

At the same time, there was a group of young white intellectuals who, feeling alienated by the Black Consciousness Movement, which was exclusively black, decided to go organizing black workers. And at the same time, a number of ANC people who had been on Robben Island for some years began to be released, and they started organizing in a sort of rudimentary way in some of the main centers around the country.

The main thing was the uprising in Soweto in 1976, when young black students refused to be taught in Afrikaans, a language associated with the apartheid government. They clashed with police, the black kids were unarmed, and the police opened fire. Hundreds were killed. Other parts of the country exploded with rage at that, and hundreds more were killed. As a result of that, many thousands of young black students, some of them just children, went into exile. So for the first time since the 1960s, the ANC had a generation of people who could fight. Combat soldiers have to be of a certain age, and the ANC's military wing were getting rather aged and decrepit. This influx of highly militant, strong-willed young blood was a major gift for the ANC, which allowed it to resume some sort of armed struggle inside the country.

But that armed struggle—and this is where the turning point comes—was not actually getting anywhere. Some of the more far-sighted and intelligent people in the ANC leadership started asking some serious questions. As a result of that, a decision was taken: If we don't know what to do, why don't we go talk to the people who just apparently defeated the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese regime? They might have some good advice for us.

On that basis they arranged with their Communist allies to consult with elements of the North Vietnamese operational leadership from the time of the Vietnam War. This was 1978. It was an astonishing and shocking encounter. They gave the Vietnamese a fairly lengthy briefing, and the Vietnamese response was: This is ridiculous. You guys aren't ready to conduct an armed struggle at all. You should still be mobilizing people politically.

They were suggesting that the ANC should be present in all forms of political struggle, whether it was operating within the law or outside of the law. There seemed at that time to be an absurd view that the only form of action against the regime that was valid was organizational action that took place outside of the law. Whereas there always had been semi-legal political space that was there to be exploited.

Also at that time, an extraordinary individual who is not given the credit which I think he's due—Mac Maharaj, a South African of Indian extraction, in my thinking the genius of the latter half of the South African struggle—had been put in charge of political organization in the ANC and had been making exactly this argument for some time. The Vietnamese gave him the backing of doctrinal authority.

That really was the turning point. Maharaj had a way of relating the external ANC to largely autonomous organization by people who were very sympathetic to the ANC but had had no contact with it. He had a way of listening to ideas for initiatives and forms of action which these people had developed on their own, and he was able to give them the imprimatur of the ANC's approval.

Q: What did the ANC contribute to all this autonomous protest, other than the ANC brand name?

A: The ANC branding was very important. People like Maharaj realized that it was impossible to plan tactics from abroad for a struggle inside South Africa. A good line of communication for an activist in, let's say, Johannesburg—which is quite near the northern border—and a group of ANC people in a neighboring state would take two or three days to get there, two or three days to get back. There's absolutely no way under those circumstances that people outside the country can make a serious contribution on tactics. Maharaj developed a group around him that were good listeners—and I think listening was the key here—and as a result the ANC's brand became important. And also the ANC's broader strategic line of march became important.

Now, the ANC was often more of a complication than it was worth. Because it enjoyed such authority and legitimacy, if someone claimed to know the ANC "line," then his or her word prevailed. And if you had two or three people who claimed to have the ANC's line, and those lines were in conflict—as they often were—it created more problems than it provided solutions. It was the late 1980s before one really had a mature leadership inside the country who were able to explain and articulate the ANC's broad line of march, and were able to agree to some tactics within that line of march and reject others.

Q: In the mid-'80s, when there's another surge of protests, it didn't sound like the ANC had any more to do with instigating them than it did in Soweto in '76.

A: No. But what happened was that arising out of the visit to Vietnam, the ANC drew up a strategy document which became known as the Green Book. One of the things the Green Book called for was the creation of a broad front of organizations operating in the legal and semi-legal sphere inside South Africa.

Now, what emerged in 1983—this is one of the paradoxes I think you were referring to—was a broad front inside the country called the United Democratic Front, which did, in a sort of crypto way, align itself with the ANC, but which owed nothing to the ANC's decision to form this broad alliance of legal and semi-legal organizations inside the country. It's one of those paradoxes in which something happened that served the ANC but happened autonomous of the ANC.

Q: I feel like the real lesson here is that if you want to take power after a revolution, you should spend your time building your brand and let other people do the work.

A: (laughs) One of the statements that got me in a lot of trouble in the ANC was once, in a moment of extreme frustration, saying, "The ANC is a good idea but I'm not sure it's anything fucking else." The idea was perhaps more important than ever the ANC was, except the ANC seemed to patent the idea.

The idea was: "We don't want this government. It's a bunch of professionally and aggressively miserable people." And they really were. It was an awful system. And here was an organization that came along and said, "Look, we can all be part of this country. We want a democratic society, and we've laid out what we want as a democratic society." There's this document called the Freedom Charter that lays it out, and it's a very eloquent document—it's one of the few documents that rivals the eloquence of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The ANC was always a broad front. The Communist Party, to its credit, supported that approach. So here you have an organization that's basically willing to accept anybody who wants a normal liberal democratic society. The ANC had a way of drawing them under the umbrella of its purposes.

Q: Imagine that there had been no ANC. How do you think the struggle against apartheid would have progressed? If it didn't exist, was it necessary to invent it?

A: Either we would have succeeded in inventing it or we would have had a very unfortunate dénouement at the end of the 1980s. There were a number of groups that were very good at posturing seemingly more radical positions than the ANC, but whose actions and activities reflected no seriousness at all. People were making blood-curdling noises and calling for this and that form of retribution, which wouldn't have helped the situation at all and certainly wouldn't have brought even the minimal advances that black people have enjoyed over the past 10, 15 years. We probably would have an awfully divided society, and we would not have come to the relatively peaceful outcome that we did come to in the 1990s. Or we would have a civil war going on at the moment.

I think there's a lesson here for the Israeli government, actually. The ANC in 1990 was strong enough, notwithstanding these other black groups, to deliver its constituency to a settlement. My thesis starts off saying that enemies need each other as much in war as they do when they decide to make peace. Well, when the South African white apartheid government came to its senses—and credit to them for doing so—they were fortunate in having an organization which was powerful enough to deliver the other side to the talks.

Q: Do you know Kurt Schock's book Unarmed Insurrections?

A: Yes, I do.

Q: He suggests that the last three decades have seen a general shift away from revolution via Guevarist or Giapist or Maoist "people's war" to revolution via Gandhian "people power." Another way of putting that would be to say that there's been a shift from the sort of revolt the ANC expected to the sort of revolt that actually did apartheid in.

A: There's a lot of support for Kurt Schock's thesis, particularly the revolutions in Eastern Europe that brought down the Communist regimes. South Africa would certainly provide a substantial amount of support to Schock's thesis. I think Iran did likewise. And of course there are other places—the Philippines, Indonesia—that back up what he's saying. There has indeed been a trend.

One factor is the power the media has, or did for a while, to create a capacity to exert political pressures on a government that is mistreating its population. This was on a scale that I don't think we'd ever seen before in this world. And also the growing economic interdependence, which mirrors the interdependence that existed towards the end of the 19th century among the economically active powers. It created a kind of sensitivity—economies, polities, cultures, media, international organizations—which meant the costs of not settling increased massively for governments who had the power to move toward settlement with insurgents and other disgruntled groups. So there are grounds for saying that Schock is right.

I think, though, that we're also seeing insurgencies with a new kind of doctrinal origin. Mainly Islamic insurgencies, and disparate and anomic insurgencies in places like Nigeria. They are reliant on military struggle, but they have developed important capacities for political organization by religious means, religious organization by political means, or some combination of those two forms of mobilization. They bear remarkable similarities with Marxist/nationalist insurgencies of the past, but there are one or two important tactical differences which become formative in the shape these insurgencies take.

Q: What are you thinking of?

A: I'm thinking of suicide bombing. In any concerted operation in the old days, probably 60 or 70 percent would be taken up with planning the escape or the space into which the insurgents could disappear, whether that was geographic space or political space, the support base of people. But where you have insurgents who don't have to concern themselves with that anymore, because people are not just prepared to die but looking to die, that has far-reaching consequences for both sides.

I don't know how long-lived these insurgencies are going to be and how successful they're going to be. But they might well play havoc with Schock's argument. We'll have to wait and see.

Q: When did you get involved with the ANC yourself?

A: I had always been anti-apartheid. I had objected on political grounds to serving in the South African military in 1970, and got very badly treated indeed. When I recovered I became a journalist and covered a lot of political trials. I became more and more convinced—there was no doubt in my mind—that at some point I was going to find myself fighting against apartheid in a literal sense.

I started reporting on the ANC from inside the country, which was not that easy. And I managed to manipulate for myself a job with the largest South African newspaper company, which was then called the Argus Group, in neighboring Zimbabwe, which had just become independent, with a specific brief to report on the exiles. At that time, the ANC had just resumed its armed struggle, so the ANC was emerging as news.

I was married at the time, and my then-wife joined the ANC. I held back a little while, because I was unsure I could do my journalistic work with the freedom I needed if I was a member of the ANC. And there were obvious ethical questions which arose as well. But eventually I did join, went back into the country, and worked in the underground doing propaganda and intelligence. I eventually had to leave the country in '84. So I started working for the ANC in exile, and also continued work as a journalist.

The important thing was to keep reporting. That's what people needed. I was providing news being distributed in the legal press. It was difficult, because one had to be extremely careful about how one reported things. One could seldom quote specific ANC leaders, because they were "listed," which meant they couldn't be quoted legally inside the country. And also the organization was banned, so it was a crime to do anything that was construed as furthering the aims of the organization. It was a very delicate semantic exercise. But we managed to create a lot of legal precedent over time for getting things published. And as it became easier, the ANC was getting more entrenched inside the country, so it became more and more legitimate for there to be a flow of dispassionate news about the organization.

But I also became involved in intelligence work and propaganda work. So while I was doing legal reporting I was also involved in illegal pamphleteering and things like that, and gathering basic intelligence on military installations and things like that.

Q: So when did you join and when did you leave?

A: I joined in 1982. I remained an active member until about '88, when I started studying and recognized that, although I supported the organization, I could no longer be part of it.

Q: So you started working on the thesis, and in the course of that you came to reconsider your position?

A: Yeah. I'd always imagined myself as a rational human being, and as I began to uncover our assumptions I was quite horrified to find just how quasi-religious my thinking had become. A lot of what I was believing and thinking was reliant on prophecy and nonsense. The absurdity of Marxism-Leninism is the idea that one can so privilege oneself intellectually and politically that one can become an oxymoronic entity: a conscious instrument of an historic inevitability. It's a crazy set of ideas.

I started reading Karl Popper, the Anglo-Austrian philosopher of science who developed the idea of the open society. I read three or four of his texts, and I was convinced that I had needed to believe what I believed in order to maintain the passion that I needed to do what I'd done. I was now deprived of that passion. And I began, in the light of that, to examine the ANC in a fresh way. I was able, all of a sudden, to look at it from the outside, and to look at it in a way that was extremely uncomfortable for me. And extremely uncomfortable for the ANC. But it convinced me I couldn't be part of this process anymore.

I must tell you that I only came to these conclusions when I was studying at Oxford. I had been an arch-militarist up until that point. It's not as though I was one of the clever guys. I was always saying Blow the bastards up! Unless we have 160 armed attacks next year we might as well pack up and go home! That was the way I was thinking. It was only when I started reading Popper and other people, and then started interviewing some of the more thoughtful people in the ANC, that my eyes began to open. Many of the critical insights that I rely on in the thesis, as I try to make clear in the acknowledgments, are insights that come from very thoughtful people in the ANC, some of them at the top.

Q: What was the general reaction within the ANC once your thesis was completed?

A: Two publishing houses wanted to publish it, and I decided not to publish. I felt completely alienated. There were some idiots in the ANC who couldn't handle criticism—they were too ill-informed to know that much of what I said was becoming standard belief in the upper levels of the ANC. But liberation movements, and exile movements in particular, are like that. There are tremendous insecurities, and people stick to certainties. And if someone rattles the certainties, it causes huge problems.

I was so sick to death of the innuendo and aspersions that I decided I'd had enough of it. The thesis is there, people can look at it, and if someone's got a good counterargument they can put it. But it's the best that I can do and I think it's as near as dammit to what actually happened as is possible on the basis of the information that I had.

Q: And after you'd read Popper and the others, where did you land?

A: Back in my classical liberalism. The least worst option around.

This interview first appeared at Reason.com.


Jesse Walker is Senior Editor


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