The red and the black

Armchair comrades: The cover of External Mission: The ANC in Exile shows Mao Zedong in audience with the SACP’s Yusuf  Dadoo and Vella Pillay during their visit to China.

Armchair comrades: The cover of External Mission: The ANC in Exile shows Mao Zedong in audience with the SACP’s Yusuf Dadoo and Vella Pillay during their visit to China.

EXTERNAL MISSION: THE ANC IN EXILE by Stephen Ellis (Jonathan Ball)

Pallo Jordan, writing recently in Business Day, disavowed the ANC’s traditional hostility towards liberalism, ­noting that it had embraced the constitutional values that flowed from the Codesa settlement. That kind of liberalism would have been recognisable to Dr AB Xuma in the 1940s when he led the ANC, and Jordan would like us to see that it has long been part of the ANC’s “broad church” of opinion.

That may be so, but Stephen Ellis’s book shows how, in exile, which is to say the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the South African Communist Party (SACP) was pretty much the dominant influence on the ANC — politically, ideologically and organisationally — and this meant that liberal was a dirty word.

Jordan, in fact, was responding in his piece to the almost parodic denunciations of the liberal-neoliberal agenda, as regularly produced by Blade Nzimande (for whom they seem to mean the same thing). Such sentiments are part of communism’s DNA, going back to Marx’s scorn for parliamentary democracy (later withdrawn by Engels, admittedly) and the Bolsheviks’ forced closure of Russia’s constituent assembly in 1917.

But Ellis’s book is not an argument like those of the old white regime about how many communists there were in the ANC’s national executive. There were usually an awful lot of them, but Ellis builds this into a comprehensive history of the ANC’s exile years with all their vicissitudes, and he does so with a wealth of detailed information about what happened “on the ground”, as it were — especially the ground of Umkhonto ­weSizwe’s (MK) Angolan camps in the 1980s, in which dissent was brutally crushed.

This is something Ellis has written about before. With a pseudonymous ANC-SACP dissident, he wrote Comrades against Apartheid: The ANC and the South African Communist Party in Exile (1992). That book was of course decried by SACP leaders, who promptly displayed precisely the quality Ellis had accused them of and that Jordan had called, as far back as 1990, “a spirit of intolerance, petty intellectual thuggery and political dissembling”.

Comrades against Apartheid is obviously the template for External Mission, but the new book is immeasurably richer and broader. Much new information has become available since the early 1990s; for one thing, the former East Germany opened its Stasi files. This is important because the Stasi trained the ANC-SACP security department in the 1980s and impressed upon its operatives a very ideological perspective, so that complaints about corruption at a high level in the ANC, for instance, were seen as treachery to the movement. The concern with the “enemy within” meant that paranoia ruled in the ANC and SACP in exile and many innocents suffered for it.

Blurred lines
Ellis shows how factionalism was always a factor in the exiled movement, as well as how dubious figures such as Joe Modise withstood repeated accusations of corruption and self-interest over the years. The much-detested Modise controlled the smuggling routes in and out of the frontline states, which gave him considerable power. It also meant that it was hard to see what aspects of such operations benefited the movement and not just individual members; the line between legitimate underground activity and outright criminality was blurred.

Ellis goes back to the beginnings of the move to armed struggle, when the SACP’s Yusuf Dadoo and Vella Pillay went to China to visit Mao Zedong and get his blessing. (A hitherto unseen photo of the meeting graces the cover of the book — another instance of Ellis’s sterling research.) Later, of course, the Sino-Soviet split meant the SACP and ANC had to choose sides and they went with the Soviets. This part of External Mission clarifies what has long been a rather murky area: the precise origins of the armed struggle.

That struggle was pretty much stillborn, of course, despite the ongoing insistence (well into the negotiations period) that the revolution would be won militarily. The early MK initiatives were disastrous; the Wankie campaign, for one, ended in tragedy probably because Modise, as military commander, had done little or no preparation for it and lied about what he had done.

Ellis marshalls all this information convincingly. Best of all, he weaves it all into a densely patterned history that combines local detail and broader context — and still comes out as a very readable narrative. Once begun, External Mission is hard to put down. Some may see it as tendentious, given Ellis’s general hostility towards the SACP and its machinations, but there is nothing here that is not factual and Ellis is fair to all sides.  

There is too much in the book to take account of here. I have barely touched on what it contains, let alone the ramifications of this story on the profile of the ANC today. If you read only one work of history in the coming year, this should be it.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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