People’s War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa
4th December 2009
On Friday 27th November 2009 the Mail & Guardian published an attack on Anthea Jeffery’s new People’s War book. Her response (see below) was sent to the newspaper on Monday 30th November 2009 with a request that it be published with the same degree of prominence as the attack. Instead, the newspaper has failed to publish it at all.
Drew Forrest’s review of "People’s War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa" is an unconvincing parody of my book. For Forrest seeks to explain away 540 pages of evidence about the ANC’s people’s war on the simplistic basis that my alleged ‘dizzy romance’ with Inkatha lies behind my supposed determination to ‘stretch the facts to fit my preconceptions’. [‘Polemic pretending to be history’, Mail & Guardian 27 November 2009]
His review is also an extraordinary perversion of the truth, for he asserts that the ‘people’s war’ was ‘largely a figment’. He thus ignores:
- the ANC’s visit to Vietnam in 1978 to learn the formula for people’s war;
- its decision to adopt that formula, reflected in the ANC document The Green Book: Lessons from Vietnam;
- the determination made clear in The Green Book that the ANC would now embark on ‘a protracted people’s war’ in which opponents would be overcome via ‘a combination of political and military action’; and
- a host of subsequent ANC broadcasts and publications further exhorting people’s war and, in time, praising the achievements of this strategy.
Forrest also implicitly asserts that the struggle was simply ‘a mass movement of ordinary South Africans’, led by the United Democratic Front (UDF), in which the ANC was largely confined to ‘cheering from the sidelines’. But this ignores the fact that:
- the UDF was a puppet of the ANC (24 of the UDF’s 25-strong national executive committee being members of the ANC underground);
- the ANC was unbanned and back inside South Africa when the people’s war intensified in the early 1990s and the death toll in political violence rose three-fold from what it had been in the 1980s.
To explain away this sudden surge in violence after political liberalisation, the ANC and its allies developed the Third-Force theory, which Forrest endorses too. According to this theory, state president F W de Klerk had a ‘dual strategy’ of talking peace while waging war: of pretending a commitment to negotiations while using the police and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) to destabilise the ANC.
The obvious involvement of both the police and the IFP in political violence lent significant support to this theory. But the theory also has many weaknesses:
- no credible evidence of De Klerk’s duplicity has ever been found, despite assiduous endeavour;
- more than 800 policemen were killed in the early 1990s, many in premeditated ambushes, while thousands of IFP office-bearers and supporters were killed in similar ways; while
- a Third Force that killed so many of its own made no sense at all, especially when neither the police nor the IFP drew advantage from the killings but were instead discredited and weakened by them.
By contrast (all of which Forrest overlooks):
- the ANC had a declared ‘dual strategy’ of persisting with its people’s war after negotiations began for it saw the talks as nothing but ‘an additional terrain of struggle’;
- the ANC had little compunction about attacking black civilians, including its own supporters, for the formula for people’s war draws no distinction between combatants and others and regards all civilians (irrespective of their political affiliation) as expendable in conflict;
- the ANC had a motive to unleash violence, for it wanted to create enough mayhem and unrest either to spark an insurrection or to weaken its opponents to the point where it could triumph in negotiations;
- the ANC had the means to unleash violence, for the peace process allowed it to bring back into South Africa some 13 000 armed and trained combatants whom it then refused to disarm or disband; and
- the ANC was the only organisation to draw benefit from the 15 000 political killings that took place in the early 1990s (after all major apartheid laws had been repealed), for it used these to:
2. stampede negotiators into giving it what Joe Slovo called ‘a famous victory’ in negotiations, and
3. put great pressure on the first all-race election, while making it unthinkable for anyone to demand a re-run of the deeply flawed April 1994 poll in which it was accorded (no accurate count being possible) some 63% of the vote.
Forrest also suggests that Inkatha was the principal villain in violence and that the book seeks simply to obscure this. But this ignores one of the most important of the lessons from Vietnam – that people’s war can be used not only against an incumbent government but also against all other rivals for power. Moreover, such rivals must be so weakened by the time of the transition as to give the insurgents hegemony and pave the way for the further stages of the revolution.
Against this background, it is not surprising that most of the violence was directed against Inkatha, which already had a million members in KwaZulu/Natal and on the Reef when the people’s war began and so posed the greatest obstacle to the ANC’s determination to dominate a post-apartheid South Africa. The IFP also bore the brunt of the casualties, for the police were correct in their analysis that ‘the ANC was waging an aggressive war’ against the IFP ‘by military means’ and that the IFP was ‘disadvantaged in its resistance’ because it ‘lacked the quantity and sophistication of the weaponry available to the ANC’.
Forrest also overlooks the violence directed at many other groups, all of which were targets for attack under the formula for people’s war. From 1984 to 1994, there was violence between the ANC and black councillors; between the ANC and the police; between the ANC and the Azanian People’s Organisation; between the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress; between the ANC and the locally influential Labour Party in Port Elizabeth; between the ANC and alleged ‘vigilantes’: in fact, moderate blacks tired of being coerced to take part in the ANC’s campaigns of mass action. Always it was the ANC that was the common denominator in the conflict.
To all of this, Forrest turns a determinedly blind eye. It is thus not my book but his review which is ‘a shallow polemic’. His real gripe is doubtless that the book succeeds too well in piercing the veil the ANC has drawn across our recent past.
- Dr Anthea Jeffery. Jeffery is Head of Special Research at the South African Institute of Race Relations and author of "People’s War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa", recently published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.