by Benjamin Pogrund
The success of the African National Congress in ending white minority rule in South Africa nine years ago is one of the epic stories of our time. It is known as the “South African miracle” not only because of the fact of it but because it was achieved relatively peacefully. Negotiations between whites and blacks brought agreement for a democratic and nonracial country.
The negotiations came about only after brutal conflict and centuries of discrimination against blacks. The government grew increasingly violent as it tried to maintain white domination - shooting demonstrators, using detention without trial on a mass scale, plus torture and assassination. The ANC was the leader in the battle against apartheid. Armed struggle was one of the methods it used. The South African government branded it a “terrorist organization” and threw the full weight of repressive laws against it.
Meeting Johnny Makatini
At the height of apartheid, and while on a visit to New York, I interviewed Johnstone “Johnny” Makatini, recently appointed as the African National Congress-in-exile representative at the UN.
For privacy, we met in the plush room of my 5th Avenue hotel - a surreal setting for the bitter and violent emotions that poured out of him. For two hours he raged against South Africa’s whites and especially the Afrikaners who had developed the policy of racial apartheid (separateness). Whites were cruel, despicable, he said; they deserved no mercy; force was all they knew and understood; if they would not yield power, they had to be killed or driven into the sea.
The strength of Makatini’s feeling was relevant to the time at which we met, late in 1976. On June 16 that year, a peaceful march by schoolchildren in Soweto, the ghetto township for blacks outside Johannesburg, to protest against the greater imposition of the hated Afrikaans language for their lessons, had ended with the police opening fire and killing one of them, Hector Pietersen. That set off a countrywide mass challenge to government authority by black schoolchildren. It became known as the “children’s rebellion.” They paid a heavy price from the guns of the police and army. During the next six months, the official death count was 500 to 600. In fact, it was perhaps twice as many or more. To this day, the exact figure is not known.
Hopes and Policy
I knew Makatini and he did not usually talk in such harsh, unforgiving terms. It shook me, and left me drained and depressed about the prospects for South Africa’s future. Let’s go and have a drink, I said when I could take no more. We went downstairs to the bar and, drinks in hand, continued talking. After a few minutes, Makatini looked over his shoulder to make sure no one was near, leaned close to me and said softly: “Listen man, don’t you think that when the chips are really down, the Afrikaners will accept us and there will be peace in our country?”
That was not only Makatini the human-being speaking from the heart, expressing his deepest hopes, but he was also articulating the policy of the African National Congress. For nearly 50 years since its creation in 1912, the ANC had adhered to non-violence, asking and begging the ruling white minority for equality for the black majority. The government consistently rejected the pleas and violently suppressed protests. Then came the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960 - precipitated by protest action by the ANC’s rival, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) led by Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe: The police killed 68 blacks taking part in a peaceful demonstration. The biggest protests in the country’s history followed, and the government banned both the ANC and PAC.
Fourteen months later, the underground ANC, led by Nelson Mandela, took the fateful decision that nonviolence had been tried and had failed and there was no alternative but to turn to armed struggle. On December 16, 1961, its new military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), set off the first bombs.
Violence Against Property, Not People
The armed struggle was founded on two fundamental principles: First, violence should not be directed against civilians but against property and military targets. This derived from the ANC’s history of non-violent protest, and its belief in the principle of non-violent political action to effect change as preached and practised by Mahatma Gandhi in fighting British rule in India. (Gandhi was an admired figure: He had lived in South Africa early in the century and led nonviolent protests against racial discrimination; his precepts were carried forward by an ANC ally, the South African Indian Congress).
Second, not killing whites was a pragmatic strategy aimed at keeping the door open for them to change. The argument was that violent and indiscriminate attacks would so frighten whites about their future that their determination to resist change would be deepened. Giving this approach even greater depth was the fact that whites were members of the ANC, and some occupied high leadership positions, alongside black, colored and Asian South Africans.
Religion was an added dimension. Christianity was strongly rooted among many blacks. Oliver Tambo, the ANC’s president in exile, was a devout Christian and nonviolence was part of his creed. Dr. Tom Karis, the eminent American authority on South African political history, has described it thus1: “The ANC was fundamentally opposed to any form of terrorism because such action would subvert its popular appeal among all racial groups and its legitimacy in a future government. In particular, the ANC’s policy on racial cooperation placed a high priority on facilitating the growth of white groups within South Africa that would be prepared to cooperate with it. It was genuinely anxious not to exacerbate racial bitterness, thus jeopardizing the goal of a nonracial society. Furthermore, counteracting the “terrorist” image propagated by the South African government was important for the ANC’s standing in many Western countries. It also recognized the need for whites to stay if South Africa’s advanced economy was to be maintained.”
Mandela at his Trial
Karis quoted Mandela as saying during his trial in 1964, in which he was sentenced to life imprisonment: “We believed that, as a result of government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalize and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism, which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of the country which is not produced even by war.”
Mandela also explained that the ANC had adopted sabotage as a policy because it, “did not involve loss of life, and it offered the best hope for future race relations.” Umkhonto members, he noted, were given, “strict instructions ... that on no account were they to injure or kill people.”
So deep did this outlook go that the ANC became the first liberation movement to sign the protocol of the Geneva Convention on the “humanitarian conduct of war.”
During the succeeding years, Umkhonto carried out many acts of sabotage: Some were spectacular in attacking government plants and electricity installations but overall they did only limited damage to the economy. “Armed struggle” was really no more than “armed propaganda.”
Nonviolence did not extend to what the ANC viewed as legitimate targets - armed or uniformed combatants, police officers, perceived informers and collaborators, and white farmers in border areas who formed part of military structures. But even this was limited: According to police statistics of the time, from 1976 to 1986, in a population of 30 to 35 million, about 130 people were killed by “terrorists.” Of these, about 30 were members of government security forces and 100 were civilians, of whom, in turn, 40 were whites and 60 were blacks.
Intense Internal Debate
Within the ANC, there was intense debate about the nature of the struggle: Should the priority be guerrilla warfare by soldiers trained in African and other countries (and by the PLO, too) and sent back into South Africa? Or should the focus be on political mass action inside South Africa?
The issue, noted Karis, was resolved in the late 1970s after a visit by Tambo and others to Vietnam to study its revolutionary experience. Henceforth, the “armed struggle” was considered “secondary” and the “main task” was “to concentrate on political mobilization and organization.” That, through the 1980s, was achieved through alliance with new organizations at home that worked in the open - the United Democratic Front and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
Equal Truth and Reconciliation
In due course, after the end of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee investigated not only the human rights abuses perpetrated by the white minority government but also the ANC’s behaviour. Some thought this rankly unfair in that it could constitute a moral equivalence between the evils done in the name of apartheid and the ANC’s struggle for freedom. But the TRC did investigate the ANC and where actions directed at legitimate targets had resulted also in civilian deaths and injury, these were held to be gross violations of human rights for which the ANC bore responsibility.
The worst bomb attack perpetrated by the ANC was outside a military headquarters in the capital, Pretoria, in 1983. The bomb exploded downtown during the afternoon rush hour, killing 21 people and injuring 217. The ANC explained that the bomb had gone off “prematurely.” When a bomb intended for a military convoy in the eastern coastal city of Durban caused civilian casualties, Oliver Tambo said the bombers had been “inexcusably careless.” At one stage, the ANC laid anti-tank mines in rural areas near the country’s northern and eastern borders. The mines were aimed at army patrols but also caused the death of civilians, including black laborers. The ANC abandoned the mining campaign.
Yet the commitment not to harm civilians was never perfect or wholly consistent. In the mid-1980s, as the struggle against the government spread, the black townships experienced the horrific phenomenon of “necklacing” - killing alleged collaborators and suspected enemies by using gasoline-filled tire tubes to burn them to death. There was, admittedly, a blurring of the division between people using this tactic who identified themselves with the ANC and disciplined ANC members. The ANC leadership in exile seemed uncertain how to deal with the atrocities and was slow to condemn them. When it did, necklacing came to a halt.
Worse was to come. As apartheid crumbled the government lashed out ferociously. Violence was endemic. The ANC became locked in a power struggle with Inkatha, the Zulu nationalist party led by Chief Gatsha Buthelezi. It had begun as a movement cooperating with the ANC in seeking freedom for blacks but its aims narrowed to build power for the Zulus, the country’s biggest single tribal group. Government security forces not only continued killing but also stoked the fires by working as agents provocateurs, setting one group against the other. Inkatha was in secret cahoots with the government and received training for hit squads. The last three years of apartheid rule saw the murder of an estimated 12,000 people, virtually all of them blacks.
In the first democratic elections, in 1994, the African National Congress proved its popularity by winning nearly two-thirds of the seats in the new parliament. Holding the elections was only possible because the white minority agreed to yield their tyrannical rule. That followed negotiations over several years: Secret discussions with Mandela, while still a prisoner, began as early as 1985. Whites were persuaded to concede because they accepted that the ANC, speaking for the black majority, did not harbor ideas of revenge for the past and wanted whites to play their role in a new South Africa. The adherence to nonviolence paid off.
Johnny Makatini did not live to enjoy the fruits of his tireless work for freedom. After representing the ANC at the UN for about eight years, he became head of the ANC’s department of international affairs. He died in Zambia in 1988.
1) Memorandum on the African National Congress by Thomas G. Karis, New York, May 22, 2002