South African history
The good guys were often bad
How the conspiratorial past affects the present day
Jan 12th 2013 | from the print edition
Nationalist poster boy
External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990. By Stephen Ellis. Hurst; 384 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
THE real message of Stephen Ellis’s history of the African National Congress (ANC) in exile—painfully and palpably obvious between the lines—is how the conspiratorial past affects the ruling party to the present day. It makes uncomfortable reading, for it goes some way towards explaining why President Jacob Zuma, a former head of the ANC’s intelligence service in exile, and his comrades now running South Africa find it so hard to embrace the notion that a diversity of opinion and tolerance of dissent must be at the heart of any functioning, decent democracy.
Mr Ellis holds the Desmond Tutu chair at the Free University of Amsterdam and has long scrutinised the ANC. In the late 1990s he was a researcher for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which looked mainly into the multiple abuses by the apartheid regime but was notably less keen to examine human-rights violations committed by the ANC against its own people during its exile, especially in its guerrilla camps in Angola, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.
“External Mission” is an exhaustive survey of the ANC’s ideological and tactical twists and turns. It begins in 1960, when the ANC was outlawed and driven into exile, and ends in 1990, when Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years behind bars and was drawn into negotiations with South Africa’s white rulers that culminated in the black majority taking over under the ANC’s aegis in 1994.
Whereas Mr Mandela brilliantly handled the transition between his release and majority rule, the ANC’s sporadic and generally feeble guerrilla efforts had almost no role in eventually bringing down apartheid. Labour strikes, home-grown street protests and the refusal of banks such as Chase Manhattan to roll over South African debt were far more effective.
The ever-evolving relationship in exile between the ANC and the South African Communist Party was a constant source of friction and intrigue. Many of the exiles were members of both. South Africa- watchers, such as Mr Ellis, have endlessly sought to identify such allegiances. Mr Mandela, he makes clear, was co-opted onto the Communists’ central committee, yet his chief loyalty was to the ANC. Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mr Mandela as president in 1999, likewise wore both hats; his father, Govan, was a leading and ardent Communist. But Thabo, though a master at handling the ANC’s Russian backers, never put the Communists first. Both he and Mr Mandela veered into the nationalist (ie, non-Communist) camp, once in power. In 1962 Mandela, still a free man, set off from South Africa to Algeria, Egypt and Ghana to solicit international backing for the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the nation”), also known as MK. He returned home in July of that year. Mr Slovo is said to have complained that “we sent [Mandela] off to Africa a Communist and he came back an African nationalist.”
Mr Ellis insists that the high command of MK, came under the direction of the Communists’ central committee. Mr Zuma, a major figure in MK, however, was apparently never a Communist. But he would not have been immune to the sense of paranoia and mistrust that permeated the entire organisation.
Two aspects of the book are particularly disturbing. The first is the extent of violence, including torture, imprisonment (often in solitary confinement), beatings and executions in the ANC guerrilla camps, along with a perhaps understandable reluctance of the party after 1994 to acknowledge, let alone apologise for, such things. As late as 1984, the ANC executed seven of its guerrillas by firing squad and sentenced another eight to death in Angola’s Pango camp. For sure, the apartheid regime did manage to infiltrate such places with informers; Mr Ellis reveals that several leading lights in the ANC in exile had indeed been turned round by the regime’s intelligence services, and some met mysterious deaths on their return to a free country. But most of the trouble in the camps was caused by the refusal of ANC bosses, especially those who were also Communists, to tolerate dissent.
The other worrying disclosure by the rigorously dispassionate Mr Ellis is the manner in which the ANC’s security and intelligence services, during and after the party’s takeover back home, co-opted many of the hard men of the apartheid era’s criminal gangland, both black and white, together with some of the nastier security agents of the white regime itself, including some of the shadiest sanctions-busters. The ANC’s first post-apartheid minister of defence, Joe Modise, was plainly a big-time crook. A culture of corruption clearly permeated sections of the ANC in exile. Back home, with the party in power, it is sadly still rampant. Mr Ellis goes some way to explaining why.
from the print edition | Books and arts