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.