David Africa
David Africa

No new light, just recycled trash: Anthea Jeffery’s People’s War

Anthea Jeffery commits 634 pages to a study of the “people’s war” in the South African context in an attempt to debunk what she claims to be a false conception of how the ANC gained power, the nature of the political violence that characterised South Africa from the 1980s up to 1994, and a special attempt to whitewash the Inkatha Freedom Party from its role in fomenting and carrying out large-scale violence against black South Africans. Jeffery, acclaimed for her “meticulous and objective approach”, manages to rewrite history and in the process expose a fraud of monumental proportions: one in which the ANC, internal political opposition, the media, liberal organisations (except her beloved SA Institute of Race Relations of course) connived to effect the overthrow of the apartheid government, destroy the democratic black opposition (aka Inkatha) and establish itself as the supreme political movement in South Africa. And of course the Russians plotted the whole thing, assisted by their devious yet able local lackeys the SACP! Her central thesis is that the ANC’s “people’s war” was imposed on an unwilling populace and that the current dominance of the ANC flows from its bludgeoning of all opposition into submission through the “people’s war”. Those who continued to defy the logic of “people’s war” were unjustly ostracised and labelled “enemies of the people”.

A thorough read of Jeffery’s book, painful as it is, reveals very quickly how she constructs this scam. For purposes of brevity I will only deal with a few of the many flaws in this “meticulous and objective” book. Firstly Jeffery paints the apartheid regime as a relatively benign organism, though with some obvious shortcomings. In particular she attempts to create the impression that the post-Voster apartheid regime was one committed to a negotiated settlement and the general improvement of the lot of the black population. As evidence for this she cites Botha’s Rubicon speech claiming that he intended an even more enlightened speech than the one he delivered, and that in any case that he basically pronounced the death of “grand apartheid” during this speech. She also refers to the government’s commitment to broadening the political representation of blacks by extending the authority of black local councils that would have powers akin to their white counterparts. Other decisions by the regime such as allowing the establishment of student representative councils at all black schools (though they would not be allowed to affiliate to organisations such as the United Democratic Front or the Congress of South African Students) are evidence of its increasing openness and commitment to change. In Jeffery’s world, black local councillors and police officers were charitable public servants, not crucial elements of the regime’s national security management strategy which permeated all levels of government and what the primary instrument through which the Botha regime executed its “total strategy” against the democratic movement.

Some critiques of Jeffery’s book deny the role of “people’s war” or moderate its actual effect on the political dynamics of 1980s South Africa, and its centrality in ANC thinking. I would argue that “people’s war” was both a necessary and crucial element of ANC strategy and that it is in fact the implementation of this strategy, refined after the ANC study tour to Vietnam in 1978, that brought about the possibility for change towards the end of the 1980s. Jeffery distorts the whole concept of “people’s war” by quoting supposedly independent experts which were in fact members of the US administration engaged in Vietnam, members of the apartheid regime and others with very explicit political agendas. Quoting General Viljoen, Lennox Sebe and others as if they are impartial observers betrays Jeffery’s own bias when looking at “people’s war” and the history of the South African struggle. “People’s war” is portrayed as a war in which the entire populace (of course special mention is made of women and children) are machines in the armed struggle, to be used and disposed as such. The concept of “people’s war” as practised by both the Vietnamese and South African liberation movements cannot be further from this distortion.

In Jeffery’s world all major decisions of the ANC were imposed or initiated by Soviet communists or their local henchmen in the SACP. Evidently the non-communist natives were in no position to decide for themselves their mode of struggle, and in this narrative serve as mere pawns of the communists. The move to armed struggle was a joint decision of the ANC and SACP and the initial training of Mandela and other commanders of Umkhonto weSizwe took place in Algeria, not the Soviet Union. The fact that the Soviets supported the ANC while Western governments continued to enjoy cosy relations with the apartheid regime until the late 1980s does not enter the “objective” narrative of Jeffery’s. ANC president Oliver Tambo’s affinity to Western European social democracy is well-documented, and the attempt to portray the ANC as a pawn of the Soviets is patently false. In fact much of her book is a complaint about the fact that the ANC chose armed struggle in the face of overwhelming violence, the banning of the organisation and the widespread arrest and imprisonment of its leaders. Her preferred option was the route followed by Inkatha, which, whatever you think of them, is definitely not responsible for the fact that black South Africans now have the right to vote and other basic human rights denied to them under the apartheid government. While claiming anti-apartheid credentials Jeffery would have much preferred an ANC that accepted its banning and responded to the apartheid government’s violence with petitions and marches, notwithstanding the fact that black leaders have been petitioning their rulers since the early 1900s and the state’s response to peaceful marches was laid bare for all to see in Sharpeville and Soweto.

All in all this work is a deliberate and cheap distortion of the anti-apartheid struggle, and one meant to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the post-apartheid political order. The thesis that the ANC came to power on the back of a great deception (people’s war) is popular one amongst liberals of Jeffery’s ilk. How painful it must be for them that their favourite blacks did not come to power … that is assuming they are happy with blacks having power at all.