Who Killed Apartheid?

Was it the African National Congress' armed struggle that ended white rule in South Africa? Or was it nonviolent civic resistance?

Twenty years ago today, the South African government freed Nelson Mandela, a prisoner who had become the leading symbol of resistance to the segregationist system known as apartheid. Mandela, who led the revolutionary African National Congress, had spent 27 years behind bars for his efforts to overthrow the racist regime; his release was the beginning of the end for apartheid, which unraveled completely four years later. On May 10, 1994, Mandela was sworn in as president of the Republic of South Africa. The ANC, for three decades an illegal underground organization, was now in control of the country. Its years of armed struggle finally seemed to have paid off.

Or had they? As apartheid entered its dying days, a former ANC activist was studying the strategy the group had pursued since the early '60s. In Conscripts to Their Age, an Oxford dissertation completed in 1993, Howard Barrell concluded that the organization's orientation toward violent revolt had actually undermined its goals, as had the Leninist ideology that fueled that strategic approach. The activism that eliminated apartheid had largely been accomplished by other organizers working autonomously and nonviolently; the ANC's armed assaults had been a series of failures. Paradoxically, though, those high-profile operations had given the ANC a formidable reputation among the regime's opponents, making the group popular enough to negotiate a settlement with the white government.

Barrell, who had covered the ANC as a journalist even as he served covertly as an ANC operative, went on to edit the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian; today he is a senior lecturer in the School of Journalism, Media, and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. I interviewed him three days before the anniversary of Mandela's release.

Q: You attribute the ANC's strategy to "a purportedly scientific theory of social and historical motion, Marxism-Leninism." How did that get processed in the South African context?

A: It was a question of the time. When the ANC was considering embarking on armed struggle—we're talking about 1959, 1960, 1961—there had just been a revolution in Cuba. In the writings of people like Che Guevara and even more so a French sociologist called Regis Debray, it was reported that a group of armed men had arrived on the coast of Cuba in a tramp steamer and had within two short years managed to bring down the Cuban regime, in a way that suggested that political organization by political means was not necessary.

These writings were false. They write out of the history a whole set of political actors who were highly involved in mobilizing via political means in Havana and elsewhere.

Q: By "political means," you mean everything from boycotts to—

A: From boycotts to strikes to anything that does not involve concerted, organized application of violence.

If one looks at any vaguely serious armed struggle for political power, the challenge the people are taking on is to redress the immense imbalance there is between their own power and that of the state. There are various ways that this is undertaken, or not undertaken as the case may be. In the Russian Revolution of 1917, they took an insurrectionary approach: They mounted short, sharp combined assaults on the state. At the time, the state had been so weakened by World War I and other problems that the Bolsheviks were able to seize power in St. Petersburg and one or two other major metropolitan centers. And over time to consolidate it across the country. But they were able to do so because the state against which they were fighting was very weak at that point, and this was the result of political mobilizations and discontent that had been brewing for a long time.

One product of this is that the Russians—and the Communist International, which they set up—put across to its satellites and brother and sister movements around the world that this is how it's possible to bring about the collapse of the state.

There were various revisions of this strategy. Mao, followed by people like Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh and Amílcar Cabral, started looking again at the need to bring about some sort of balance in the ability of the insurgents and the state before the insurgents try to push for state power itself. But the ANC was totally caught up in this notion of the state as an entity that had to be overthrown. It was heavily influenced by the Soviet Communist Party of the time—the South African Communist Party was doctrinally very closely aligned to Moscow—and also by what was happening in Cuba. This resulted in a very militarist approach to revolution, at great cost to the ANC.

Q: One interesting argument you made in Conscripts to Their Age is that when the South African government banned the Communist Party, that had the paradoxical effect of making the Communists more influential.

A: "My enemy's enemy is my friend." If the state is saying all the time that any opposition to apartheid is Communist-inspired, and if apartheid is indeed an unjust system, then Communists will seem to be the bearers of the democratic hopes of people.

I speak for myself. I was brought up as a classical radical liberal. I mean liberal in the philosophical sense, not the American sense of social and economic interventions. I moved toward the Communist Party and became a fairly clear Marxist-Leninist, although I resisted joining the party for my own reasons. At that time, it seemed to any excitable intellectual who was opposed to apartheid that the way to overthrow it was by military means, and the South African regime identified the Communist Party as the source of the military means. The South African regime continually attacked the Communist Party as being the puppeteer behind any real militant or radical opposition. And it became very attractive. Militant liberals who were opposed to apartheid didn't seem to have a plausible strategy.

Q: Though by your account, the ANC's activities in the decade and a half after it made this turn were simply a series of failures.

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  • ||

    Let's see if we can parse the lesson here:

    The people who work within the system to make change happen get nothing.

    The people with the guns get the lion's share.

    Have I got that right?

  • PIRS||

    Some systems are so evil they do not deserve to be worked within.

  • Suki||

    If you have no option of opting out you don't have much choice, do you?

  • PIRS||

    True, plus, in the case of that period of the RSA's history, black people could not vote.

  • .||

    Yes, and now that they can vote, they're living conditions have improved beyond all recognition...

    oh, wait....

  • PIRS||

    I am not one who believes the political process is the best way of solving problems.

  • Joe M||

    Threadjack until this gets posted as a new entry:

    Democrats suggest ways to curb companies' campaign spending

    We'll find a way to destroy the first amendment yet!

  • PIRS||

    What about labor unions with a least 20% of members who are not U.S. Citizens?

  • Suki||

    Their intentions are pure.

  • PIRS||

    Good Afternoon Suki!

    Yes, it all comes down to their intentions. As they suck the lifeblood out of our economy we must remember the results of their actions do not matter, only their intentions.

  • Suki||

    Good afternoon PIRS! Yea, that's the meaning I meant :)

  • ||

    PIRS, please don't encourage the JohnSukiBotWhateverTheFuckItIs. It already has enough comprehension problems as it is.

  • PIRS||

    ????? WHat???? I have never had any problems with SUki? Why do you call her a "bot"?

  • RCTL||

    Suki, don't listen to Epi. It's a vagina envy thing. :-)

  • PIRS||

    Could well be. Most of us here love Suki. (((Suki)))

  • ||

    Holy shit, that's it! RCTL, you've given me a House moment!

    JohnSuki is a hermaphrodite. This explains everything!

  • No, this explains everything||

    Episiarch|2.9.10 @ 3:02PM|#
    Until you make a woman out of me, I'm merely a schoolgirl in love.

  • MNG||

    I always like how unions get denounced around her for "sucking the lifeblood of the economy" for daring to push for better wages and conditions of employment. Is it an employees duty to work for the least wages possible thereby increasing overall productivity in "the" economy? WTF? Everyone should negotiate the best possible deals they can for themselves...

  • PIRS||

    The problem, MNG, comes when one side in the negotiating process is given political advantages over the other. This is the case with Unions in Michigan and many other states.

  • Johnny Longtorso||

    MNG's friends at work:

    Forced Unionization

    ...Patrick Wright, a lawyer for the Macknac Center, says the union was forced on the women after a certification election conducted by mail in which only 6,000 day-care providers out of 40,000 voted. Wright told me his clients, like Berry, say they were "shocked" to learn they were suddenly in a union....

  • PIRS||

    That is worse than even I thoguht! I am glad they have appealed and hope they win. This is one of the most absurd things I have ever read. But this whole country is becoming absurd now. Thanks, in part, to unions like these. The Unions are the new Mafia.

  • ||

    They do. Collectivists suck.

  • Mad Elf||

    Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) called for a ban on companies with more than 20 percent foreign ownership, government contractors and bank bailout recipients from participating in U.S. elections.

    Does this mean no incumbents will be allowed to run? They are employees of the U.S. government of which I'm pretty sure China owns more than 20%.

  • PIRS||


    Very good point!! I will use that in my next call to congress !!!!

  • ||

    Something must be done since Congresscritters are helpless to say no to campaign donors, so much that legislation is the only way to save them...from themselves.

  • Joe M||

    Wow you won the threadjack so fast. I bow to your skills.

  • Suki||

    I might not know that much about the financing end of businesses but I do know that bonds are not equity. Is there any recourse on government bonds that don't pay off? My best guess is no.

  • JohnA||

    Yes - Inflation

  • ||

    Apparently these geniuses forgot that the NYT has a substantial foreign owner now.

    They must have those cool red and blue Benjamin Franklin spectacles, that let them see the secret code in the Constitution:

    Congress shall pass no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press [except on companies with more than 20 percent foreign ownership, government contractors and bank bailout recipients].

    So, since many government contractors use union workers, does that mean that the unions are, effectively, government sub-contractors? What about SEIU, which contracts directly with the government? Will they be barred as well?

  • Suki||

    Bustin' out my mad psychic skills: 1) Yes, but not to the congress; 2) Yes, but not to the congress; 3) (easy) No.

    Outcome subject to change at the Supreme Court.

  • easy come easy gone||

    Can you believe Cage blew all that National Treasure money? I still can't get over the bankrupt part.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    'Twas also the same day Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson.

  • greenish||

    Q: Your dissertation is just a series of paradoxes. I'm not sure there's any point at which anyone on either side, the ANC or the government, achieves an objective by actually setting out to do it.

    A: It's the ultimate vindication of the fuckup theory of history.


  • ||

    The ANC may have ended white rule, but they were and are violent thugs. Under their rule South Africa has devolved into low-level tribal conflict, the cities have become trashy ghettoes (have you seen Johannesburg lately?) even in the high-rise downtowns, and Big Man politics rules everywhere. They've been murdering whites and stealing their farms, just like in Zimbabwe. Eliminating apartheid was righteous, but its replacement looks even worse.

  • Slap the Enlightened!||

    Hey - it's the thought that counts!

  • PIRS||

    Sounds kind of like Chicago.

  • Johnny Longtorso||

    At least w/ Apartheid over, no more shanties in the UT West Mall. Unfortunately, that means no more running Cushman 3 wheelers into them, placing toilets in them, etc.

    Ah, college in the 80s.....

  • Tim Starr||

    White rule was also ended in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and peace also broke out in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse in Mozambique. Did they have any equivalent to the ANC? I know they had armed resistance groups.

  • Jesse Walker||

    White rule was also ended in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and peace also broke out in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse in Mozambique. Did they have any equivalent to the ANC? I know they had armed resistance groups.

    I had to cut it for reasons of space, but Barrell had some interesting comments about Mozambique and Angola -- not in the '90s but in the '70s. Might as well stick that exchange here:

    * * * * *

    Q: I know this is outside your immediate area of study, but: To what extent were those revolutions armed successes, and to what extent were they just a byproduct of the left-wing takeover in Portugal?

    A: The struggles that were waged by FRELIMO in Mozambique and the MPLA and other insurgent groups in Angola were major factors in what induced the coup in Portugal. Portugal was a relatively poor country in Europe, and it had this overseas empire of colonies that, aside from Guinea-Bissau, were far, far larger than Portugal itself and potentially far wealthier. I think Portugal had exhausted itself. These wars are very substantially attritional, and any state will tend to find it very hard and extremely expensive to fight a long war. Most doctrines of conventional war are based on achieving victory as quickly as possible, because it is so expensive. Whereas on the side of the insurgent, time is one of the ways in which one creates space for oneself, in Maoist doctrine, and space engenders time in which to organize. I don't think the campaigns waged in Angola and Mozambique were at the point where they could decisely contend for state power in those two colonies, but they were definitely moving incrementally in that direction. It really was a case of Portugal being exhausted at the center.

    What also had happened was that the Communist Party in Portugal, and some of the other left groups, had managed remarkably successfully to infiltrate the upper reaches of the Portugese military. For example, a senior member of the Communist Party was at the head of the Navy. This is something I've never seen dealt with by a serious historian—it might have been done in Portugese, but not in English.

  • Nidal Malik Hasan||

    "What also had happened was that the Communist Party in Portugal, and some of the other left groups, had managed remarkably successfully to infiltrate the upper reaches of the Portugese military."

    Interesting idea. Something to consider for future planning.

  • Jesse Walker||

    The context of that quote, by the way, was discussing how the revolutions in Angola and Mozambique helped the ANC, since they now coud have bases in countries bordering South Africa.

  • ||

    Oh,come on. Armed struggle and civic disobedience against a system that controlled everything and had all the weapons? Apartheid ended with the single-handed decision of F.W. De Klerk who declared that this deplorable situation had to stop. The whites could have held out forever. HE decided that they were not going to. Mandela did the rest, after he was released from prison.
    Let's at least get the history right.

  • Jesse Walker||

    And why do you think De Klerk made that decision, and why do you think the South African ruling class backed him up? It wasn't because their hearts suddenly melted with compassion.

  • Slap the Enlightened!||

    Probably they figured that, as they were fighting a losing battle, leaving the kennel to Lassie would be their best revenge. If so, time has certainly proved them right.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    Incredibly good point that I was unaware of when this was actually going on. If I had known more I may have had a differing attitude than the one you are responding to.

  • ||

    White South Africa was tired of being isolated and ostracized. This was a really big deal, particularly with respect to sport. South Africa had been excluded from the Olympics since 1960, an action applied to no other country. But did they have their backs to the wall by 1990? Not at all.

  • Don Olsen||

    A lot of these folks and do-gooders seem to be real full of themselves!


  • ||

    Yeah, South Africa is the apogee of liberty and respect for the dignity of the individual.

    It is a racist cesspool. Crime is rampant. Corruption abounds. The productive folk are fleeing.

  • History Buff||

    Yes but how can you hope to initiate change without a paradigm shift of the very fundamental behaviors that led to this situation?

  • ||

    when the USSR failed, that gave the whites the courage to end it. Before that they were afraid of a communist takeover. Otherwise, they would have held on longer.

  • ManikMonkee||

    completely true

    The ANC could have ended it years earlier if they didn't ally with the left.
    It was a complete miscalculation on their part and showed a complete inability to understand the psychology of the enemy.
    The Afrikanners are some of the most deeply religious christian sects. The whole basis of the formation of the Afrikanner states was that the British states weren't religiously conservative enough. After the red terrors experienced in other nations after communist revolution, where religious persons were massacred combined with the previous genocide of Afrikanners at the hands of the British governement there was not a chance they would work with a leftist inspired organization.

    If they adopted a christian conservative argument for equality a la Dr King things could have worked out for the better much sooner.

    As it happened they didn't give up until the threat of communism ended.

    PS South Africa rocks, great place to live, awesome people, great weather don't believe the negative propaganda

  • Augustus Freeman IV||

    To ask “Was it the African National Congress' armed struggle that ended white rule in South Africa? Or was it nonviolent civic resistance?” seems ridiculous to me. It might serve in some romanticizing of one “side” or another, but the reality is that just like in the United States, disparate parties contributed to the disruption of this white supremacist system. The "either/or" setup is useless and unfortunate.

    As a beneficiary of their work, I have no difficulty recognizing the value of people like King, Bayard Rustin, and Ella Baker just as I do people like T.R.M Howard, Robert F. Williams and the Deacons for Defense. In the US, I don’t view the celebrated “nonviolent civic resistance” as so removed from those who are not given that label in the mainstream caricatures of those who have fought white supremacy.

    There was value in the existence of the ANC and the Black Consciousness Movement among others. As Howard Barrell said in this interview, if there had been no ANC, South Africans would “have succeeded in inventing it” or they “would have had a very unfortunate dénouement at the end of the 1980s.” The ANC made a contribution in the ongoing struggle in South Africa; it’s silly to pretend otherwise if we dislike or disagree with them for one reason or the other. Even with his thoughtful criticism of the ANC, from the interview it does not appear that Howard Barrell has made this error even if Reason did.

  • ||

    "Che Guevara is an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom, we will always honor his memory." --- NELSON MANDELA

    * = Commie

  • ||

    Given the fact that the Soviets tried to derail the Civil Rights movement (as told by the Mitrokhin Archive), maybe they gave the ANC bad advice on purpose?

  • Tim Starr||

    Color me unconvinced. Anti-Communist dictatorships all over the world fell after the Soviet collapse, which is why there aren't any more of them in Latin America (for example). The global sequence of events seems to be: Soviets bankrupted by Reagan's Cold War policies, stop funding terrorism, insurgency, & client dictatorships; terrorist & insurgency campaigns get mopped up, client regimes fall to democratic ones, & Soviet Union collapses; anti-Communist dictatorships fall to democratic regimes, as the Commie threat they were predicated on goes away.

    The only Cold War proxy dictatorships that seem to have survived have been the ones that either weren't Soviet clients in the first place (e.g., North Korea), or were Soviet clients that found new sponsors (MPLA switched to the West, Castro switched to Venezuela, Taliban got support from Pakistan/Saudi Arabia), or had large internal supplies of oil or some other commodity in high global demand (Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Angola, etc.)

  • ||

    Timothy Burke thinks it was the determination of black folks at the local level to be ungovernable that broke the system. That the ANC guerilla stuff may have meant a little, and the boycott may have mean something, and the Ghandi-nonviolence types may have made a little difference, but-

    Day in, day, out, average black folks would not obey cops. Would not play by local bureaucrat rules. etc.

    And that this is SA's big problem now- how to convince a generation of refuseniks that things are different now, that constant protest isn't normally the best way to improve things.

    Burke blogs at 'Easily Distracted'. His phrasing is better than mine.

  • Tim Starr||

    I should add that I am sympathetic to the argument that the outcomes are better if there is a significant peaceful opposition movement. I just believe that the space for peaceful opposition often has to be created/protected by armed opposition. IOW, the "good cop" needs the "bad cop" to win; the "bad cop" may not need the "good cop" to win, but may need the "good cop" to make victory worthwhile.

  • rioca smith||

    mandela is the best African president,
    I think no one else could have stopped the apertheid


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