The people’s war updated

Charles Nqakula begins his memoir, The People’s War: Reflections of an ANC Cadre (2017), not with the usual chronological details, from his birth and how he came to join the struggle for liberation; instead, the reader is introduced to a Charles and Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula at the ANC’s June 1985 consultative conference in Kabwe, Zambia.

In these opening chapters about the debates and the generations of ANC’s activists at the conference, the discussions that set the tone for the themes that were discussed in Kabwe and afterwards reflect an image of an organisation that was reacting to the fast-changing terrain of the struggle “where people all over the country were rising up against the apartheid state”.

As Nqakula argues, it was clear in the 1980s that “apartheid structures were rendered ineffective, crumbled, or tottered on the brink of collapse”. In many ways then, the discussion about the “people’s war” that Nqakula highlights in the Kabwe meeting was about how the ANC should keep up with the masses in South Africa.

Nqakula was born in Cradock and observed the leadership of the likes of Reverend James Calata, and his own political journey shows us that the battle against apartheid was not won by a few men and women trained in military combat in various countries but rather by the spirit of the people in churches, labour movements and schools, who refused to be silenced and won the day and the war.

The Nqakulas’ sustained work in the ANC underground, especially in the formation of the United Democratic Front in the Eastern Cape, sheds light on the important contribution of the ANC underground that is often undervalued but was a crucial aspect of the political and military struggle — it passed on information about the conditions at home to those outside, and facilitated the escape to exile of those inside.


This book builds on Raymond Suttner’s work on the ANC underground and demonstrates Suttner’s argument that it is important that the various strategies of the liberation movements should not to be looked at in isolation but should be understood as overlapping and even blurring.

The book also makes an important contribution in challenging accepted ideas about the particular “inzile” and “exile” culture that are often used to makes sense of the different styles present in the ANC in power.

The Nqakulas went into exile in 1984, already well known for their underground work, and received military training that was specifically to prepare them to continue that work once they were infiltrated back into the country.

Nqakula’s own fascination with the discussion about the people’s war strategy in Kabwe is because his recent experience inside South Africa informed his belief that “elements of the people’s war were already in place inside South Africa”.

The Nqakulas’ experience defies the simplistic categorisation that those who participated inside the country were democratic and the exiles possessed an authoritarian leadership style.

In his book External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990 (2012), Stephen Ellis builds on his 1992 book with Tsepo Sechaba (Oyama Mabandla), Comrades against Apartheid, to argue that the ANC leadership in exile was authoritarian, criminal and punitive, traits that today shape the ANC’s governing style in the party and in government.

In Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and Swapo (2009), Paul Trewhela argues that the ANC leadership is shaped by “two different styles of leadership within the ANC, the one — of the ‘external’ leaders — deriving from three decades of closed, autarchic, command society in the camps … the other, of ‘internal’ leaders, from the more open and pluralistic culture developed in the trade union and civic associations within the country during the 1970s and 1980s”.

This story of the Nqakulas, who became deeply embedded in the struggles inside and outside the country, shows us, as Hugh Macmillan argues in The Lusaka Years: The ANC in Exile and in Zambia (2013), the dangers of a homogeneous view of “exile culture”, and points out that the inziles “were [also] not homo-genous, and that the two groups overlapped”.

How Nqakula writes about women in the armed struggle, specifically Mapisa-Nqakula’s role in the underground, in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and in the women’s movement is also an important contribution. The reader gets a picture of two people who were fully committed to the struggle but who had their own unique roles.

That said, it would have been interesting for the author to interview Mapisa-Nqakula about her reflections on her contributions instead of simply telling the reader of the facts of the operations that she participated in.

Another woman leader who features prominently in this book is Thenjiwe Mtintso, a former journalist at the Daily Dispatch with Nqakula and a fellow MK combatant. Nqakula’s portrayal of Mtintso’s leadership role in the formation of the Union of Black Journalists in the Border region and her central role in the ANC/MK underground in Lesotho and Botswana, provides a solid description of women’s foundational role in the armed struggle and the struggle for liberation more broadly.

It provides an important counter-narrative to the dominant public representation of women combatants as having been perpetual minors to their male counterparts. As Mtintso and Judy Seidman wrote recently in the Mail & Guardian, it is important to write about women’s roles in the liberation in ways that address women’s “agency, our commitment, belief and actions, as liberation fighters”.

Nqakula ends the book by reflecting on the meaning of the December 2017 ANC elective conference and its implication for the party’s commitment to the attainment of genuine people’s power. He recognises that this meeting, which falls on the 56th anniversary of the MK, “has become the biggest threat to the movement’s unity”.

As the ANC settles into a new century, it will be interesting to see whether this conference will be remembered as the time when the party lost sight of itself and lost the people in the process.

Dr Siphokazi Magadla is a senior lecturer in the political and international studies department at Rhodes University

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Siphokazi Magadla
Siphokazi Magadla
Dr Siphokazi Magadla is a Senior Lecturer in the Political and International Studies department at Rhodes University. She joined the department in 2011. She worked previously as a research consultant for the Security Sector Governance programme of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, focusing on the role of women in peace and security. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political and International Studies and Journalism and Media Studies, and Honours in Political and International Studies from Rhodes University. She holds a Masters Degree in International Affairs from Ohio University, USA. She is a Fulbright Scholar. She graduated with a PhD in 2017 at Rhodes University. Her PhD examined the state assisted integration of women ex-combatants into civilian life in post-apartheid South Africa.

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