Sars Wars: Comrades in arms against apartheid are now at one another's throats
South Africa’s embattled finance minister Pravin Gordhan has come under attack from two colleagues in government. The public attack has made headlines because all three men serve in government as members of the African National Congress (ANC). In addition, they all served in the ANC’s military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe. Gordhan was, and is, very much the two men’s senior. Co-operative governance minister Des van Rooyen and military veterans’ affairs deputy minister Kebby Maphatsoe inferred at a media briefing that Gordhan’s refusal to present himself to the country’s elite police unit, the Hawks, was because he had something to hide. Politics and society editor Thabo Leshilo asked political scientist Keith Gottschalk to unpack what the incident says about tensions in the ANC.
How important was MK in the liberation struggle and what significance does it have today?
Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was the armed wing of the then underground ANC. While it could never physically block apartheid soldiers from entering any “liberated zone”, its importance was threefold.
First, it electrified millions of oppressed people to mobilise internally in the United Democratic Front, trade unions and a host of civil society organisations and their campaigns “to make South Africa ungovernable”.
Second, it gave the ANC credibility internationally as the dominant resistance movement against the apartheid regime, in a way that for example, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, the Azanian People’s Organisation and the Unity Movement could never claim.
Third, its activities compelled the apartheid regime to extend conscription successively during the 1970s and 1980s.
Conscription was instituted in 1962 in the form of nine months of service for all white males between the ages of 17 and 65. Conscripts became members of the South African Defence Force or the South African Police. They were used to enforce the government’s stance against liberation movements, anti-apartheid activists and the “communist threat”.
In 1972, conscription (national service) was increased from nine months to one year. After completing the year, they were called up annually for 19 days for five years as part of the Citizen Force.
By the middle of 1974 control of northern Namibia was handed over to the South African Defence Force from the South African Police, and in 1975 the army invaded Angola. To keep up with operational demands, Citizen Force members were then required to complete three-month tours of duty.
In 1977 conscription was once again increased, this time to two years plus 30 days annually for eight years.
The state was also forced to pour funds into the Armaments Corporation of South Africa (Armscor), building six atomic bombs and a long-range missile to threaten neighbouring states that were providing rear bases to MK. All this was a crippling financial burden which contributed to bring down the apartheid state, as did the emigration of white professionals to avoid conscription.
What role did Gordhan play in MK?
Gordhan was in the MK intelligence network operating in KwaZulu-Natal during the 1980s. He was under the ultimate command of (now South African President) Jacob Zuma who was based in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital.
Gordhan was responsible for setting up a number of MK units operating in what was then southern Natal. He was closely involved in the mobilisation process and recruitment of young guerrillas in that area to undergo military training inside South Africa. This was part of Operation Vula, one of the ANC’s major offensives towards the end of apartheid. Gordhan was one of nine senior ANC members charged with terrorism by the apartheid state. In 1991 they were indemnified by the government.
What is the status of MK today?
MK veterans are not a political force per se. But they are mobilised by rival factions within the ANC. For example, the smear attacks by Maphatsoe against former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils are part of his defence of President Zuma. It is unlikely that his smears represent the views of most veterans, or that he has even consulted them.
These contestations will continue until Zuma’s successor has been chosen by the ANC. This should happen in 2017 when the ANC is due to hold its national conference to elect a new president and national executive.
What does the attack on Gordhan by two colleagues tell us about the ANC?
ANC disagreements, like those of the British Labour Party, are more often in public than is the case with their rival parties. For example, it is many years since then Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille publicly dressed down a (black) DA elected representative for saying that the party’s former parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, was not black enough.
But when cabinet ministers and deputy ministers criticise each other in public, as both Van Rooyen and Maphatsoe have done with Gordhan, it shows that even the top leadership is seriously divided on important issues.
What does it all mean going forward?
What this means for the future is that divisiveness between ANC factions in national and provincial structures will continue or even deteriorate all the way in the run-up to its 2017 conference.