Polemic pretending to be history

People’s war: New light on the Struggle for South Africa by Anthea Jeffery (Jonathan Ball)

Anthea Jeffery’s latest book is a tract masquerading as history. And what makes it additionally depressing reading is its musty odour of déjà vu.

Far from shedding “new light” on South Africa’s pre-transition upheavals, it is a restatement of the ideological fixations of the South African Institute of Race Relations in the 1984-94 period and particularly its dizzy romance with Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Jeffery and the institute’s John Kane-Berman—who writes the book’s preface—will no doubt go to their graves muttering imprecations against the United Democratic Front, an organisation (if one could call it that) that has been dead for almost 20 years.

The pervasive feeling that we have all been here before starts with Jeffery’s central thesis: that the South African struggle was a “people’s war”, modelled on Vietnam, with the ANC Svengali tweaking all the strings from exile.

This is a refinement of the standard international communist conspiracy theory that became fashionable among apartheid securocrats in the 1980s. Jeffery should read Peter Harris’s In a Different Time: on page 168, she will find it set out word for word by the commander of the Natal Midlands security branch, Brigadier Jac Buchner.

On this view, the IFP, which Jeffery tells us “stood for a peaceful end to apartheid [and] pragmatic economic policies that encourage growth and jobs”, was the intolerably provoked victim of ANC violence, designed to decimate black opposition.
Ag shame!
Where the Zulu movement’s role in violence cannot be denied it is presented as purely defensive. In one account of carnage after another Jeffery’s mantra is: “IFP supporters hit back ...”, “IFP supporters retaliated ...”

Reinforcing such special pleading are endless disavowals and finger-pointing by Buthelezi, by far the most liberally quoted politician in the book.

Jeffery’s determination to absolve the IFP of historical guilt forces her into some extreme contortions. She offers, for example, the ludicrous thought—for which even she concedes there is “no clear evidence”—that the ANC might have carried out the 1990 Denver train massacre to discredit its opponents.

The simple test in such cases is balance of convenience. Who had most to gain from destabilisation and most to fear from all-race elections and a unitary South Africa—the ANC or Inkatha and the white right?

The constant sense is of facts being stretched to fit preconceptions. A further example is the South African Defence Force’s secret training of Inkatha fighters in the Caprivi Strip in the late 1980s, where Jeffery parrots the state’s defence of “VIP protection”. Why nine months of training under such deep cover in such a remote location? Why training in offensive weaponry and sabotage?

But, in any case, the IFP’s extensive secret dealings with the apartheid security establishment are well documented. If you sup with the devil—Caprivi, Inkathagate, the state’s multimillion-rand “contra-mobilisation” strategy, all unmasked by the Mail & Guardian — you should expect civilised people to damn you.

Jeffery’s biggest problem is that few South Africans now share her view that the IFP is a defamed pacifist movement. And that is not because of a propaganda onslaught by the ANC and its media lackeys, as she claims. It is because of the lived experience of thousands of ordinary black people in KwaZulu-Natal and on the Reef.

What is absent from her book, which is almost exclusively based on official pronouncements and press reports, is the view from the bottom. Scores of witnesses have told of the intimate working relationship on the ground between the security forces and IFP amabutho (regiments). Jeffery should have taken the trouble to interview former youth activists about how this unholy alliance worked in the Durban townships, for example.

The fact is that Jeffery’s “people’s war” is largely a figment. What really happened was closer to Iran than Vietnam: a chaotic insurrection, driven by liberation fever, that engulfed South Africa’s tiniest and most far-flung settlements.

The upsurge was in the ANC’s name and to some extent fuelled by ANC “armed propaganda”. But far from being the puppet master, the exiled movement was largely confined to cheering from the sidelines.

The climax of Jeffery’s argument is that ANC violence was designed to cheat the IFP at the polls and that it succeeded in slashing the latter’s majority in 1994 in KwaZulu-Natal. In reality, the mediated outcome appears to have given Inkatha a leg-up.

Nowhere does she explain why, amid declining violence in the democratic era, the IFP’s electoral fortunes have steadily worsened. This probably indicates that as voters have become less fearful they have felt more able to turn their backs on Buthelezi and what he is seen to represent.

There is an unquestionable need for an authoritative history of the watershed 1984-94 period, but Jeffery’s shallow polemic suggests it will not be written while the past is so much with us.

It should proceed from the premise that there was no grand conspiracy hatched in Lusaka, Moscow or Hanoi. There was a real people’s war, waged at enormous cost by a mass movement of ordinary South Africans.

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