The ANC, Communism and Umkontho we Sizwe

A veritable flood of articles has been published in the mainstream media in recent days on occasiom of South Africa's first black president, Nelson Mandela passing on recently. We want to take a look at a few aspects of Mandela's and South Africa's history that have not received as much attention as they probably deserve. Most of the world is understandably (and rightly) fawning over Mandela and his achievements, but the US state department had him designated as a terrorist until 1990 and for several decades regarded him as a communist sympathizer. Of course every feted revolutionary leader who has managed to vanquish the oppressors of his people was a 'terrorist' at some point in the past. Anyone who leads an armed revolt against a government is designated a terrorist by those he fights.


The ANC was (and remains) affiliated with the South African Communist Party (SACP). It is easy to see why: at the time Western colonialism was slowly winding down in Africa, the capitalist system had become synonymous with the oppressors in the eyes of native Africans. Many concluded therefore that their salvation was to be found in socialism. We can safely surmise that they were largely unaware of the socialist calculation problem. Furthermore, since the former colonies were a staging ground for cold war rivalries, Moscow offered generous support to African liberation movements, so alliances with communists were in large part also motivated by tactical and strategic considerations. Lastly, most of the native population were working class people, and as such were generally receptive to socialist ideas.

A few anecdotes from the transition period may be helpful in highlighting how the communist threat influenced events and how tenuous the ideological identification ultimately proved to be. It was probably no coincidence that South Africa's last white president FW de Klerk decided to embark on his reform agenda just as the Soviet empire was in the early stages of dissolution. In fact, de Klerk met with then Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze in Windhoek in Namibia in 1990, a meeting that received little media attention, but was probably a crucial event. Officially de Klerk was visiting Windhoek to attend a ceremony in connection with South Africa granting the territory its independence. Namibia had been run as a South African protectorate, a buffer zone between SA and communist Angola. It was the staging ground for the war waged by the SADF and UNITA against FAPLA and its Cuban 'military advisors' on Angolan territory (actually, thousands of Cuban troops supported the Angolan military and their advisors were Soviets).

The 90 minute long meeting between de Klerk and Shevardnadze was described as 'fruitful and necessary' (paraphrasing) by both, but it was never revealed what was actually discussed in detail. Shevardnadze later on the same day met with Nelson Mandela as well, who was reportedly miffed that he had spoken with de Klerk. Incidentally, US foreign secretary Baker also traveled to South Africa around the same time to meet with both de Klerk and Mandela.

Press reports on the meeting between de Klerk and Shevardnadze were generally tersely worded and very short (no wonder, as the meeting was kind of semi-official and there was nothing to report except that it had taken place). And yet, it was the highest level meeting ever between a representative of the Soviet Union and the South African government. We can make an educated guess regarding the meeting though. Very likely, de Klerk received assurances that the SACP's former sugar daddy in Moscow would no longer attempt to promote the establishment of a communist system in South Africa. Today people generally forget that this possibility was for a long time regarded as a big problem which ultimately provided one of the main justifications for keeping the apartheid system going for as long as it did.



Shevardnadze1Former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)



It should be pointed out by the way that de Klerk was long held to be part of the 'verkrampte' (conservative) rather then the 'verligte' ('enlightened') faction of the National Party. The first ever hint that there might be more to him than met the eye was when as minister of education, he visited the president of Zambia together with then foreign minister Pik Botha in 1989 without asking president P.W. Botha for permission. The media in South Africa at the time spoke of a 'constitutional crisis' and P.W. Botha resigned shortly thereafter. De Klerk's reputation as a conservative may well have helped to secure him the party leadership and presidency after Botha's resignation. He promptly surprised everyone by embarking on his reform course.



Frederik-Willem de Klerk and Nelson Mandela in 1990.

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)



The other anecdote concerns Nelson Mandela's first speech after his release from Robben Island. In this speech, he mentioned the alleged need to 'nationalize the commanding heights of the economy'. The de Klerk government issued a communique at the time that stated basically that one shouldn't worry too much about this remark, as Mandela obviously needed to be brought up to speed on the crumbling of the communist system all over the world. And so it was: Mandela never mentioned the idea again. In fact, after the ANC had come to power in 1994, it implemented the privatization of many of the companies that had previously been nationalized by the apartheid government.

The National Party, the author of the apartheid system, which often presented itself as the lone defender of capitalism in Africa, was essentially nationalist socialist in its outlook. As an Afrikaner nationalist party, it was originally founded in opposition to British rule. Although the South African Union established after the Boer wars was no longer a British colony, it was also not a fully independent country. At the time, the right of the white descendants of Europeans to rule the country was not really disputed by anyone. The major political fault line was actually between English and Afrikaans speaking whites in South Africa. Regarding the oppression of black, colored and Indian South Africans both Afrikaans and English-speaking whites were largely of one mind. When the Herenigde Nasionale Party (Reunited National Party) under D.F. Malan's leadership together with its allies, the Afrikaner Party of N.C. Havenga, won a razor-thin majority of five seats in South Africa's parliament in 1948, Patrick Duncan, the son of a British governor-general wrote:


“English South Africans are today in the power of their adversaries. They are the only English group of any size in the world today that is, and will remain for some time, a ruled, subordinated minority. They are beginning to know what the great majority of all South Africans have always known – what it is to be second-class citizens in the land of one's birth.”





D.F. Malan, leader of the Herenigde Nasionale Party in 1948

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)



The two Afrikaner parties then merged into the NP in 1951. Although the NP institutionalized and deepened apartheid, both blacks and Indians had been subject to steadily increasing oppression already well before its rule commenced, mainly for economic reasons (see further below). Countless segregationist laws had been instituted between 1856 and 1948. It would be erroneous to think that apartheid was the NP's idea – it simply continued a policy that had been in force for a century already.

The ANC (African National Congress) was founded in 1912, amalgamating  various organizations that were fighting for the rights of black natives. For a long time it espoused a distinctly non-violent approach. Chief Albert Luthuli, who assumed the leadership of the ANC in 1952 (Nelson Mandela became deputy president the same year), was a devout Christian and well-known for his strong support of non-violent resistance. Luthuli actually won a Nobel peace prize in 1960. Critics warned Luthuli of the ANC's increasingly obvious leftward drift, but as government suppression increased, it was difficult for him to keep an eye on what other ANC leaders were up to. Political bans confined him to his rural home throughout his presidency due to his support of the 1952 defiance campaign. During the campaign some 8,000 people were arrested for minor infringements of apartheid laws. Moreover, Luthuli was of the opinion that it didn't matter what political ideologies ANC members supported, as long as they worked for the organization's overarching goal of establishing an inclusive democratic society.

Luthuli tacitly acknowledged that his non-violent approach had failed after the infamous Sharpeville massacre in 1960. Numerous ANC-led campaigns against the ever stricter apartheid laws had failed to succeed, aside from raising the organization's profile and sharply increasing its membership. When the ANC repositioned itself as an organization that represented all races and no longer solely spoke for black natives, Robert Sobukwe split from it to found the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). A peaceful demonstration against the widely hated pass laws organized by the PAC led to the shootings at Sharpeville and Langa township in the Western Cape.

The government's response to these events included the declaration of a state of emergency, as well as the banning of the ANC, PAC and SAPC, leaving the liberation movement in tatters. As a result, the idea of moving from passive resistance to armed resistance gained more and more support. Nelson Mandela then presented the idea of founding an armed wing of the ANC at a working committee meeting. Moses Kotane, then the secretary-general of the SACP still disagreed at the time, reportedly saying “there is still room for the old methods if we are imaginative and determined enough”. Kotane was however persuaded to let the proposal be presented to the national executive of the ANC.

Mandela's biggest worry at the time was that he would be unable to persuade Chief Luthuli, for whom non-violence was an important principle that had guided his political activity throughout his life. However, Luthuli surprisingly agreed to the formation of the armed wing, as long as it was operating as a separate, autonomous entity to allow the ANC itself to continue to maintain its non-violent policy and so as to not endanger any of the not yet banned political organizations allied with or sympathetic to the ANC.




Chief Albert John Luthuli, the ANC's president from 1952 to 1967. "If anyone thinks I am a pacifist, let him try to take my chickens, and he will know how wrong he is!"  In spite of these combative words, Luthuli was well-known for his commitment to non-violence, which only wavered after Sharpeville.

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)



Mandela and Joe Slovo of the SACP (he was at the time married to its treasurer Ruth First and would become general secretary in 1984) were picked to head the new organization, named Umkontho we Sizwe ('Spear of the Nation'), or MK for short. There was a debate with representatives of the Indian Congress, the Colored People's Congress, the South African Congress of Trade Unions and the Congress of Democrats in Durban, during which a number of members argued against adopting armed resistance. Luthuli reportedly said that even though the ANC had in principle endorsed the decision to resort to violence, "it is a matter of such gravity, I would like my colleagues here tonight to consider the issue afresh”.  At the end of the day, Mandela's arguments won out though.

The biggest problem MK had in the beginning was that its members knew nothing about combat or sabotage. In fact, they didn't even have weapons. Joe Slovo wrote that "this venture into a new era of struggle found us ill-equipped at many levels. Among the lot of us we did not have a single pistol. No one we knew had ever engaged in urban sabotage with home made explosives”.



slovo plus wifeMK co-leader Joe Slovo and his wife Ruth First. First was assassinated by means of a letter bomb while in exile in Maputo in 1982.

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)



In the first six months of its existence, MK set up its membership and organizational structures. A former Abyssinian campaign veteran named Jack Hodgson reportedly taught them how to make home-made bombs with permanganate, potash and powdered sugar. Thus instructed, MK members began a campaign of sabotage with home-made bombs, which was largely concentrated on inflicting property damage, while attempting to minimize injuries and deaths. Mandela then left South Africa in 1962 to receive military training in Algeria, courtesy of the Algerian National Liberation Front.

This early rather amateurish version of MK soon ran into major trouble – a large part of its leadership was captured after South African police raided a farm in Rivonia, following a tip-off by an informant (a disgruntled MK member who became witness for the State in the subsequent trial and unfortunately for the MK leadership turned out to have a photographic memory).

Mandela himself was not caught in the raid, but was linked to the Rivonia MK headquarters due to evidence found there. This was the trial that ended with the imprisonment of Mandela and many of his MK colleagues on Robben Island (eight of the ten accused were convicted, namely Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Denis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni. Lionel Bernstein and James Kantor were acquitted). Two of the originally captured MK members, Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe, managed to escape by bribing a prison guard and later escaped to Swaziland dressed as priests.

The trial received a lot of international attention and although the State initially demanded the death penalty for the accused, the eight that were found guilty received life sentences due to international pressure and some deft maneuvering by the defense team. As a side note, it should be mentioned that Mandela in his three hour long speech at the trial inter alia pointed out that while the ANC was allied with the SACP in its struggle against apartheid, he personally preferred a market economy to a communist system.




Nelson Mandela during the Rivonia trial in 1964

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)



In the remainder of the 1960s, MK found it rather difficult to operate from its bases abroad, but that changed as more and more African countries became independent, allowing it to set up bases much closer to South Africa. In the late 1970s there was a huge influx of new members in the wake of the 1976 Soweto riots. MK was no longer the amateur organization of yore. From the 1970s until the mid 1980s it attacked a great many military installations and police stations, as well as enacting sabotage acts against high profile industrial targets. However, from the mid 1980s onward, it increasingly also attacked civilian targets, setting off car bombs and limpet mines in establishments such as shopping malls, restaurants and casinos. After the government declared another state of emergency in 1986, the ANC's avowed goal became to make the country 'ungovernable', and MK increasingly attacked targets of opportunity rather than engaging the security forces directly as it had done earlier.




Umkontho we Sizwe logo



The Economic Backdrop of Apartheid

As noted above, the NP government's racist policies didn't just drop from the sky. Rather, it continued what had been set into motion at a much earlier date. The rights of blacks, coloreds (the designation used for people of mixed race in South Africa) and Indians were taken away bit by bit, and in almost all cases one can identify economic reasons behind the legislation. Chief Luthuli's first political engagement was helping black and Indian sugar cane growers to maintain their livelihood when regulations designed to dispossess them in favor of Europeans were passed.

It is interesting to trace the development of labor legislation in this context. The Mines and Works Act of 1911 reserved skilled work at mines for whites and coloreds only. The Industrial Conciliation Act of 1924 excluded Blacks from membership of registered trade unions and prohibited registration of Black trade unions. The Minimum Wages Act of 1925 further promoted job reservation in favor of whites. Certain trades become 'white only'. Then in 1926, the government felt compelled to introduce the amended Mines and Works Act (a.k.a. 'Color Bar Act'). The 1911 Act has reserved skilled work to whites only. Mine owners reacted to this by 'de-skilling' jobs and giving more and more work to blacks to save on costs, as their wages were about one tenth those of whites regardless of what work they performed. In 1922 there was a strike due to this policy. The 1926 Act provided for 'certificates of competency' for skilled work, while excluding Indian workers entirely. Blacks were simply legislated out of the market. This was followed by the 'Wage Amendment Act' of 1930, which aimed to raise the wages of semi-skilled workers to a 'civilized' level. Ironically, this was the result of the government realizing it had to fix higher minimum wages for black workers if it wanted to protect the wages of white workers against their competition.

A lot of legislation was aimed at successively disenfranchising people. For instance, Indians lost the municipal franchise in Natal in 1922 on account of the 'Durban Land Alienation Act'. With the 'Boroughs Ordinance' of  1924, they lost the vote in boroughs across Natal as well. The 1923 'Class Areas Bill' proposed compulsory residential and trade segregation for Indians throughout South Africa.

Many laws were thinly disguised methods to confiscate property by designating certain areas as reserved for particular races. Indians were always quite successful in business, and their competition was also legislated away. As an example, the Rural Dealers Ordinance of 2924 and the Transvaal Dealers Ordinance of 1925 were designed to cripple Indian trade by putting obstacles in the way of obtaining licenses and preventing Indian ownership of premises and land in white areas. The Liquor Bill of 1926 stipulated that Indians and Africans could no longer be employed by liquor license holders and were not allowed to be present on licensed premises and liquor supply vehicles. An estimated 3,000 Indians employed in the brewery trade lost their jobs as a result.

We could list a great many more ordinances and laws along similar lines that were enacted between the 1850s and the NP's victory in 1948. Things however took a decided turn for the worse after the National Party implemented its even stricter version of apartheid. While the previous plethora of racist ordinances and bills still made it possible for many people to find loopholes and workarounds, the NP's major new pieces of legislation made short shrift of such attempts to get around  various prohibitions.

For instance, the Group Areas Act of 1950 dealt a blow to all sorts of traditional property rights. It  led to the evictions of thousands of Blacks, Coloreds and Indians. The Indian community was affected the most, as Indians were forced out of the central city areas where they had previously operated their businesses. The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953 developed the concept of unequal allocation of public resources, formalizing that things like toilets, parks, beaches and so forth had to be racially segregated. This naturally created quite a bit of resentment. Signs indicating which people were allowed to use and enter what facilities began to be displayed across the country.



Apartheid signage at a beach

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)



Most of the laws enacted from 1948 onward were only formally repealed in 1990, after the release of Nelson Mandela and the beginning of negotiations between the ANC and de Klerk's government. However, many laws had effectively broken down already, as they had simply become unenforceable. For instance, the Group Areas Act or the 'Immorality Act' of 1950 (which prohibited inter-racial sexual relations) were de facto no longer enforced by that time.

The main point though remains that most of the racist laws in South Africa were due to economic reasons – misguided as they were. Ironically, the ANC has implemented 'reverse discrimination' laws that are supposed to hasten the righting of past wrongs. One of the results is that a burgeoning bureaucracy has been created, the inefficiency of which is by now legendary (this method has been copied from the National Party, which used its years in power to get as many Afrikaans-speaking whites as possible into the civil service, as a kind of 'make work' program to advance the prospects of what it regarded as an economically disadvantaged group. English-speaking South Africans on average enjoyed a far higher living standard at the time the NP came to power).

As for Nelson Mandela, instead of returning from prison a resentful man, he instead preached reconciliation. With that, he probably contributed more than anyone to a peaceful transition. People all over the world had long been convinced that South Africa's apartheid government would eventually be violently overthrown and that it would all end in a giant bloodbath (to this it should be noted that the Western media tended to exaggerate the likelihood of this particular endgame). Mandela, whose stature had grown immensely while he was imprisoned, not least among his own people, was undoubtedly the main architect of the peaceful outcome that was realized instead. It became his obsession to transform South Africa into the kind country originally envisaged by Albert Luthuli: a place where all races would enjoy the same rights and live peacefully side by side. May he rest in peace.




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Dear Readers!

You may have noticed that our so-called “semiannual” funding drive, which started sometime in the summer if memory serves, has seamlessly segued into the winter. In fact, the year is almost over! We assure you this is not merely evidence of our chutzpa; rather, it is indicative of the fact that ad income still needs to be supplemented in order to support upkeep of the site. Naturally, the traditional benefits that can be spontaneously triggered by donations to this site remain operative regardless of the season - ranging from a boost to general well-being/happiness (inter alia featuring improved sleep & appetite), children including you in their songs, up to the likely allotment of privileges in the afterlife, etc., etc., but the Christmas season is probably an especially propitious time to cross our palms with silver. A special thank you to all readers who have already chipped in, your generosity is greatly appreciated. Regardless of that, we are honored by everybody's readership and hope we have managed to add a little value to your life.


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2 Responses to “A Few Reflections on Nelson Mandela and Apartheid”

  • vfor:

    Neither I had a clear view of Mandela other than that he was a man of principles and absolute values. This is the stuff giants are made of.

    Great to see the site up again. It was a few pale weeks while this lone voice of reason was put to silence, It should not happen again. Let’s give Pater & Co. a Christmas gift so they can do the work we treasure.

  • No6:

    Fascinating stuff. Changed my view somewhat.

    (Great to see the site back up)

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