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From Confrontation to Negotiation
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Insurrectionism and the Myth of Victory

Prior to its legalization, the ANC refused to believe that incrementalism could lead to the dismantling of apartheid. ANC intellectuals accepted that there had been some reforms but considered the liberal advocates of gradual reform to be dangerous detractors. Thus in 1989, at an ANC–Soviet Social Scientists’ Seminar in Moscow, Rob Davies warned: “The danger is that often those who speak of reforms seek to convey the image of a process which, by small incremental changes, will finally lead to the cumulative result of Apartheid being dismantled” (Proceedings of ANC–Soviet Social Science Seminar, p. 18). However, this was precisely the result of the reform process. Even when the de facto stalemate was admitted, this ANC strategist could only think of other options as a “means of exploiting the transfer of power in a situation of unfavourable balance of forces.” The idea of negotiation with an undefeated enemy was ruled out as a sellout.

The current ideological confusion and skepticism of black activists about the new politics of negotiation can be traced to such past indoctrination. The assumption was that the government would make no concessions unless absolutely forced to do so. But that regime almost outradicalized its opposition in adaptive political maneuvering.

As a result, many activists have manufactured a new myth to explain the contradiction: Pretoria had no choice but to capitulate at home because it has been defeated militarily in Angola and economically through international sanctions. At the July 1991 ANC conference in Durban, outgoing President Oliver Tambo received the loudest applause during his lengthy report when he said that the South African Defence Force “met their match” at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale. This reveling in an imagined victory was all the more remarkable since no ANC units were involved in the stalemated siege: the conference delegates were appropriating foreign heroism. Likewise, Andrew Clark, an analyst at the Ottawa North-South Institute, wrote that Pretoria suffered “a sobering military defeat at the hands of Angolan Cuban and SWAPO forces at the Cuito Cuanavale” (1991, 46). Similar assumptions are widely cited in European literature on the left as the main reasons for Namibian independence and the concessions by Pretoria.

Military defeat was also given as the reason for Pretoria’s willingness to negotiate by ANC stalwart Elias Matsoaledi, a former Umkhonto we Sizwe commander in Johannesburg: “The government mounted talks with the ANC because it had been ‘shaken militarily’ ” (Cape Times, April 12, 1990). Such explanations are sometimes combined with exhortations in support of military education: “To shoot down the enemy’s aircraft you need mathematical knowledge, so get into the classrooms and learn military science,” University of Cape Town students told their boycotting peers. Other adherents to the insurrection myth see the “armed struggle” as interchangeable with negotiations: “Whether we enter Pretoria with tanks, mortars and bazookas, or whether it is done via a negotiated settlement, the option is left to the enemy to decide.”[3]

Ironically, in the view of the state it was the military victory of the apartheid forces, rather than their defeat, that led to the policy changes and to negotiation with the adversary. “The military successes of the SADF in the late 1980s in Southern Angola paved the way for the political dispensation in South Africa,” declared Magnus Malan on the day of his demotion and reassignment (Argus, July 30, 1991). The former commander of special forces tells soldiers of a typical Dolchstosslegende (stab in the back): “You did not lose in Angola. You did not lose in Namibia. You were betrayed by politicians acting under foreign pressure.”[4] Obviously, for both sides the myth of victory seemed a crucial precondition for realignment. But both cannot be right, and the question remains, Who has the more credible claim? James Barber has appropriately commented: “Although South Africa did not lose the war in a strict military sense, after the stalemated battle of Cuito Cuanavale the cost of continuing the war was considered too high by all sides, including Pretoria.”[5]

The South Africans calculated that they could not afford to lose three hundred white soldiers in a full-scale assault on the newly reinforced Cuito Cuanavale. Although South Africa had lost air superiority in Angola, owing to the arms boycott, it is doubtful that “military realities in Southern Angola had been the single most important factor forcing the South African government to the negotiating table.”[6] Other developments, such as the increasing cost of the war in a declining economy, together with the end of the cold war and the less adversarial relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States on regional conflicts, would seem far more important causes for the shift. The war in Angola had long been unpopular among those on the far right, who viewed it as an American-inspired adventure. With the ANC weakened—cut off ideologically and financially by its disintegrating East European sponsors—the National Party saw a unique opportunity to gain global legitimacy, especially after the demise of the unpopular P. W. Botha after a stroke.

Cuito Cuanavale has thus been celebrated as the decisive battle that turned around the Angolan war and forced South Africa to give up Namibia. In the perception of the South African officials, however, particularly those involved in the protracted negotiations, quite different calculations tipped the scale. The South African government concluded that the only way to renewed world acceptance lay in improved relations with other African states. Namibia was seen as the major stumbling block to South Africa’s open entry into Africa. With respect to Namibia, South Africa was a colonial power, defying international law. A South African official remarked: “African leaders considered Namibia even more important than Apartheid.”[7] Kenneth Kaunda called it the South African “testing ground.” Getting rid of this liability became a priority of foreign affairs officials in their perennial competition with the militarists who would have liked to keep Namibia, despite the costs. By including the head of the military and intelligence services in the American-sponsored negotiations at all times, the diplomats coaxed their suspicious adversaries into gradual agreement and also secured the reluctant support of P. W. Botha for the Namibia solution.

In addition, the South Africans were very impressed with the changed attitude of the Soviet Union at the negotiations, which contradicted the image of the communists as the masterminds of the total onslaught. On the contrary, the Soviet Union counseled its Cuban and Angolan allies to steer a course of compromise and flexibility. In the estimation of most participants in the negotiations, a Namibia agreement would not have been reached without the Soviet tutelage of its clients and the new Soviet relationship with traditional adversaries.[8]

Not surprisingly, there exists a substantial psychological block against recognizing that the South African anti-apartheid transformation is presently taking place with the willing cooperation of the former supporters of apartheid. After all, if they “made it happen,” this would taint the undeniable sacrifices made by activists. To ignore the decisive impact of the decade-long mass mobilization, or to consider it ineffective, would render all the attendant suffering meaningless. As Farid Essack observes: “Many of our activists are understandably resentful of the way those sacrifices are now rubbished or dismissed as insignificant in the dismantling of Apartheid” (Cape Times, January 4, 1991).

If all the changes were a result of mobilization from below, with the help of some hard-won external pressure, then there is no reason why the ruling class should be rewarded for reluctantly bowing to the inevitable. In this view, the easing of sanctions “to encourage the movement underway” would be counterproductive. Instead of speeding up the final abolition of apartheid, it would slow it down, since it would lessen the outside pressure that is construed as crucial to change. When ANC grass-root activists, therefore, stubbornly insist on maintaining sanctions and mass mobilization, this is not only a device to reserve veto power for the organization at whatever cost to the opponent, but a strategy that rests on a particular view of the causes of the historical change.

In order to present a leadership that was in fact engaged in compromise as a militant vanguard, the public resolutions adopted by the ANC used the strident language of the past and denied that any relevant changes had taken place. Thus in December 1990, a full ten months after the ANC was legalized and was operating freely in the country, the ANC National Consultative Conference resolved: “We unanimously and unequivocally rededicate ourselves to the four pillars of our revolutionary strategy, believing that there have been no fundamental changes in the political situation which would require a departure from our strategy.” At most, the conference conceded, “the regime has its own agenda, that of retaining white domination in a new form.” Even though the organization was hardly in a position to resume the suspended (“but not terminated”) armed struggle after the return of exiles, the conference issued the threat that “our patience with this regime is running out” for “the transfer of power.” The weaker the ANC is, the more it has to present the changes in Pretoria as the result of “the struggle of our people” that has “succeeded in forcing the apartheid regime” to make concessions.

It may be important to psychological equality in negotiations to speak of Umkhonto as “victorious.” But the illusion of victory also hampers any predisposition to compromise, inasmuch as it denies the reality of stalemate. By emphasizing the forced “transfer of power,” albeit to all South Africans in a democracy and not to the ANC alone, the ANC does not truly prepare its constituency for power sharing. Since power sharing will nonetheless be the inevitable outcome of negotiations—which otherwise would be superfluous—the resulting compromise will necessarily be considered a sellout, especially when compared with the notion of a victorious transfer of power. Thus, by acceding to the illusionary rhetoric, the ANC’s leadership also unwittingly undermines its own long-term negotiation strategy. The short-term need to appear militant cannot but backfire, imperiling the legitimacy of a negotiated compromise.

In the light of the widespread popularity of armed struggle among the youth, the negotiating ANC leadership now has to deny that it ever aimed at the military defeat of its opponent. While the leadership never had illusions about the eventual fate of its guerrilla war, it nevertheless had to uphold the myth of military victory—the very myth that it is now demolishing. Thus, “on behalf of the ANC,” Terror Lekota reinterprets the goals of the “armed struggle” in terms quite contrary to the mobilizing slogan of “Victory or Death”: “When the armed wing was set up it was not because the ANC was in search of a military victory. No, Umkhonto was merely to pressure the government to respond to the demands of the people” (Cape Times, May 3, 1990). Against the ANC Youth League, which argued that the ANC did not start the armed struggle in order to trigger negotiations, Lekota insisted on the primacy of political solutions: “Those organisations which demand a military victory of the ANC have misunderstood the approach of the ANC in the first place.”[9] Even the popular Chris Hani openly admitted that his MK troops were not in a position to destroy apartheid. When asked whether MK could have won the war, Hani said, “MK alone without the Mass Democratic Movement would not have caused problems.” Although he stressed the ANC’s capacity, ultimately “to destroy the will of the government to continue with Apartheid,” he added realistically, “but it would have taken a very, very long time” (Monitor, December 1990).

In light of these realities one can only be amazed by the claims of foreign academics that “the popular movement in South Africa complements its already broad and impressive range of political tactics with a growing military capacity.”[10] When John Saul fantasizes that “the regime itself has nightmares,” he reveals a view of South African politics that seems to underlie, albeit in less dogmatic forms, many Western activists’ accounts of why the apartheid regime has finally embraced reform.

South African commentators often warn that the accelerating slide into endemic violence seems to be following the pattern seen in Angola. In the opinion of Gerald L’Ange, for example, “Once the objective of ousting the Portuguese had been achieved in Angola, the liberation movements began to fight among themselves for a new objective: political power in "liberated’ Angola” (The Star, September 25, 1990). However, the analogy is misleading for three reasons. First, the whites have not been ousted from South Africa, nor are they likely to depart. They constitute a permanent force that, even as a small minority, has the economic and military power to ensure that its needs are accommodated and to guarantee a minimum of coercive stability in the country. South Africa is not a colonial situation. Second, the postindependence conflict in Angola cannot be divorced from the larger cold war context. In 1974, when revolutionary Portugal and the Soviet bloc adopted the MPLA as the only legitimate force, in contravention of the Algarve agreement that promised elections, the United States and South Africa responded by supporting Unita as a counter to Soviet influence in the region. With the cold war over, local South African antagonists will be hard put to find international sponsors for continued warfare. Third, the external pressures for a political settlement, rather than a proxy war, deprive the South African factions of access to the heavy arms that sustained the Angolan fighting. Unlike the Angolan liberation movements that fought the Portuguese inside the country, the armed struggle of the ANC was hardly ever more than a propaganda weapon.

In the absence of the East bloc’s sponsorship of the ANC, the South African government maintains a monopoly on the instruments of coercion. The official suspension of the armed struggle by the ANC merely acknowledged its relative military powerlessness (in contrast to the situation in Angola or Mozambique). Winnie Mandela may appear in battle fatigues and threaten “to return to the bush” if negotiations fail but, unlike Savimbi or Frelimo, Winnie Mandela and most South African activists have never experienced bush warfare in the first place—and there is no “bush” in South Africa to fight from. The difference in context belies any facile comparisons with liberation struggles elsewhere in Africa. South Africa remains a unique case, not only because of its level of economic development and mutual interdependence, but because it is qualitatively different from the peasant economies of Angola and Mozambique. As Tertius Myburgh once observed, the diversity of South Africa makes victory impossible for any party, and therefore makes compromise inescapable for all parties.

The concept of a self-limiting revolution was developed by the intellectuals of the Polish Solidarity movement because of the threat of Soviet intervention. Solidarity could have seized power, but had it done so, it would have risked almost certain occupation. In South Africa, by contrast, although the ANC shares the same widespread legitimacy as Solidarity, the option of seizing power simply does not exist, except in the rhetorical fantasies of ill-informed activists. That makes a power-sharing coalition of national unity a matter of necessity in South Africa but of choice in Poland. In the Polish case, the historic compromise resulted from the strength of the opposition; in South Africa it has emerged from the mutual weakness of the antagonists.

John Carlin of The Independent has judged that “the ANC’s arrogance, as much as its naiveté, blinded it to the fact that the scales were tipped heavily against it.” Indeed, the myth that a cunning adversary has finally been bludgeoned by sanctions, armed struggle, and mass action to negotiate a deal for the transfer of power lies at the heart of the ANC’s false triumphalism. The ANC has failed to realize that the release of political prisoners, the return of exiles, the normalization of politics, and even the end of formal apartheid were not the real issues at stake. Apartheid would have had to go anyway, with or without the ANC. In the eyes of the dominant enlightened Afrikaner establishment, the political incorporation of disenfranchised subordinates had clearly become the only way for the government to retain power and regain international legitimacy. Contrary to the ANC’s belief that “we initiated negotiations,” as Chris Hani would have it, the Afrikaner liberals and corporate planners had long prepared themselves for this historical inevitability. By not acknowledging the real causes of the change—by attributing it to the opposition’s own efforts, with some small assistance from “de Klerk’s integrity”—the ANC has deceived itself into overrating its own power. An organization with such a crucially flawed political orientation must also fail to understand that the skewed economic order established under apartheid will essentially remain intact long after apartheid itself is gone. In this respect the militant slogan “Victory is certain!” more accurately characterizes the other side. But la lutta continua cannot offer a suitable guide either, unless the ANC, once in power, wants to turn the struggle upon itself while it is simultaneously constrained by the duties and responsibilities of office. The Maoist dream of a permanent revolution ignores the truth that officeholders necessarily turn into bureaucratic functionaries, despite their past activism. Initially, the ANC has undergone the painful process of resocializing exiles to South African realities. In so doing, it has changed the sociopolitical environment and itself at the same time, its strident rhetoric about the legacies of the past notwithstanding. Liberal democrats can only hold their breath, hoping that the ANC does not become internally ungovernable during the volatile transition.


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From Confrontation to Negotiation
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