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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Introduction

ENEMIES DEPEND UPON EACH OTHER to sustain their wars and, if neither is a clear-cut winner in that process, no less so if they make peace. This was so on February 2 1990 when President F W de Klerk acknowledged that his government could find no solution to South Africa's crisis unless the African National Congress, its foe for 30 years, was a partner in that search. De Klerk announced at the opening of South Africa's Parliament in Cape Town the unbanning of the ANC (and other, lesser organisations) and called for an end to confrontation over white minority domination in favour of negotiations.

The national crisis De Klerk wanted the ANC's involvement in solving was acute. The South African economy was in a parlous state. Although South Africa had successfully rescheduled its debts, there was a net capital outflow as the country struggled to meet huge foreign debt repayments with a declining currency. The growth rate was falling behind the population increase. Already dangerously high levels of unemployment, estimated at about 30%, were rising. New foreign investment had dried up and pressures for tighter international trade and financial sanctions against South Africa were growing.

The security situation was no less forbidding. The state had clearly established its military domination over the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and rolled back the insurrectionary tide which had risen in 1984. Yet social upheaval, labour unrest, revolutionary armed activity and apparently anomic violence appeared note merely endemic but likely to increase and subject to dangerous periodic surges. The militant black and left-wing opposition was regrouping for a new campaign of civil disobedience which had the potential to provoke slaughter. Sections of the black population which had formerly been compliant to the government, such as security force members in the bantustans, were becoming restive. Although the ruling National Party had won another convincing victory in a whites-only general election, fractures in the bedrock unity of white South Africans were deepening and some right wing elements were threatening final confrontation with black South Africans.

In this crisis neither the government nor the militant opposition appeared capable of realising their political goals using old methods. They were deadlocked in a sort of stable disequilibrium. On the state side, whatever its security forces' awesome firepower, applying this in a concerted campaign to crush opposition was now, in early 1990, politically, economically and diplomatically unfeasible. Reform, as promoted by President P W Botha and his security chiefs, which had been motivated primarily by counter-insurgency considerations, no longer satisfied the major Western powers. To retain the protection of these powers from tighter trade and financial sanctions, Pretoria had now to engage in reform on an altogether different scale.

Within the ANC, rhetorical habit asserted the need for armed struggle and held out the perspective of a seizure of state power by force. But an increasingly influential ANC faction doubted that armed struggle and revolution any longer offered any prospect of progress. Moreover, the process of collapse of communist governments in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe meant the erosion of the international (and African) network of states on which the ANC's armed struggle had depended for arms, skills training and rear bases. It also meant a change in both the balance of forces and atmosphere in southern Africa, neither of which favoured violent resolutions to regional disputes.

A new set of circumstances had developed. In it, there seemed no solution to either the government's or the militant opposition's strategic hiatus - save via a turn to the politics of negotiation in order to formulate a new socio-political contract in South Africa which reconciled the two sides to some degree within a new institutional framework.

That the ANC achieved a centrality in South Africa's affairs in both war and peace were remarkable outcomes. They were remarkable not merely because the ANC had been outlawed, exiled and forced to operate underground for 30 years. They were also surprising because the ANC's record as an armed revolutionary movement was such a poor one. Even a superficial examination of the ANC's operational activities as a revolutionary movement over the three decades between 1960 and 1990, particularly consideration of its armed struggle,1 shows the ANC seldom achieved what it set out to in its operations against the state. Indeed, the evidence invites the question: how did the ANC 'succeed' when it so evidently 'failed'?

That question is a central underlying concern of this dissertation. The 11-year period of ANC history chosen for this study, from 1976 to 1986, provides material for a curious and paradoxical tale of revolutionary struggle. The story shows that the ANC, in common with many other revolutionary movements, believed that intentions or strategies were important to outcomes. Yet, there were chronic discrepancies between what the ANC intended should happen and what actually did happen. Moreover, the ANC often recast old intentions once unintended outcomes had become apparent - the better to justify and explain its actions and shortcomings to itself, its members and others. The journey from 1976 to 1986 shows that the road to apparent revolutionary success may be paved with apparent failures.

This angle of approach may well throw some light on current developments in South Africa, although this is not my concern. Neither is this study concerned with how the ANC has come to wield its power and influence since 1990. Nor does it purport to provide a full history of the ANC's rise in the years to 1990, although it refers continually to the wider context. It has a narrower focus.

After it was outlawed in 1960, the ANC followed many other twentieth century insurgent movements in trying to orchestrate a number of different forms of struggle to achieve its ends. These included non-violent diplomatic, economic and moral pressures in addition to confrontational political and military operations associated with attempts at revolution. This dissertation has limited interest in the ANC's broad range of strategies. It hones in on the design the ANC sought to give to its domestic political and military operations, which the ANC regarded as the central aspect of its revolutionary struggle. This dissertation is a study of ANC operational strategy. It examines the kind of revolutionary war the ANC attempted to wage in South Africa.

Since it is concerned with strategy, the thesis is concerned in the first instance with organisational policy. The dissertation is, therefore, concerned mainly with those individuals, bodies and processes in the ANC that produced policy. This puts much of the focus on the ANC leadership, who were located in exile outside South Africa over the period of study.

That period of study is 1976 to 1986. It is easier to explain why 1976 is suitable as a starting point for this study than why 1986 provides an appropriate place to end it. For 13 years following the destruction of the ANC's and allied opposition organisations inside South Africa in 1963-64, the ANC was marginalised to exile. Its operational strategy over this period was, by and large, paper planning. The ANC seldom acted out strategy over this period; when it did, this often occurred outside South Africa, such as in then-Rhodesia or Mozambique in 1967-1968. Bar a handful of isolated units, mainly concerned with leafleting, the ANC at this time had no organised presence inside South Africa; and, despite its commitment to armed struggle, it managed to mount no domestic military attacks. The 13 years to 1976 are relevant to this dissertation mainly for the theoretical foundation the ANC laid for its operational strategy; the opening two chapters show how the ANC did so.

After the 1976 uprisings, however, ANC strategising became less speculative. To sustain its credibility with foreign supporters, the organisation was desperate to reassert itself inside South Africa and, as in the past, identified armed activity as the primary means to secure its international and domestic objectives. The ANC achieved this resumption of armed activity inside South Africa thanks to several developments, the most important of which was the influx into the ANC in exile of thousands of angry young black militants who had been the foot soldiers of the uprisings. As the ANC returned small numbers of these men and women to South Africa on military missions from late 1976, its marginalisation to exile was mitigated. The ANC registered some influence, initially mainly via the power of its symbols, inside South Africa. The year 1976 is generally considered a turning point in South African history; part of its significance lies in the transformation of the ANC that it initiated.

In late 1985, nine and a half years later, the ANC's name resonated through a series of localised insurrections which appeared to have brought South Africa to the brink of revolution. Uprisings which had begun a year earlier were spreading in veld-fire fashion across the segregated black townships and rural settlements. ANC armed activity, although it remained limited in its dimensions, reached unprecedented levels of efficacy. State controls and policing broke down in many areas and political divergences deepened among the white minority as they searched for the appropriate response. The South African economy was plunged into crisis in a bewildering series of setbacks in August and September of 1985 as foreign banks and creditors, anxious at developments and the lack of a government strategy for defusing the burgeoning crisis, refused to roll over the country's international debt just as a large portion of it became due for repayment. And the ANC, without a serious rival for the loyalty of black and left-wing militants, called directly for preparations for national insurrection.

But that revolutionary 'moment', such as it was, proved to be inconclusive. The ANC and, indeed, the entire gamut of South African political militants proved incapable of the decisive challenge to state power which they themselves and others expected of them. They failed, again, to seize a moment in which popular militancy, together with weakness and confusion within the apartheid state, was at unprecedented levels. Until then, within the ANC, no serious alternatives to a strategy of revolutionary confrontation had been advanced - not for many years. ANC leaders and members treated a negotiated path to change as a residual, or speculative option - and often derided it as dishonourable. But this attitude now began to change. Negotiations gradually became a plausible option within the ANC from 1986 - although the option was still some years from achieving respectability. In this sense, 1986 was another turning point, perhaps no less important than 1976, albeit less dramatic.

Whereas for 20-odd years to 1986, ANC strategy can be said to have been premised on the pursuit of violent revolution, thereafter it became increasingly confused. On one hand, the ANC stressed the centrality of maintaining revolutionary pressures; on the other, an increasing share of its leadership's energies was devoted to exploring the option of negotiation. The two paths were not necessarily divergent, and ANC intellectuals went to some lengths to argue that they could be complementary. But the ANC did not succeed in narrowing this bifurcation.

A study of ANC operational strategy from 1976 must address this divergence, as this dissertation does towards its end. But an account of how this divergence worked itself out, of how the ANC came to suspend its pursuit of revolution in favour of negotiated change in 1990, and of the train of events towards a negotiated settlement in South Africa is subject matter for a second dissertation.

Since this dissertation is about strategy, it is about intentions. For, whatever else a strategy may be, it is, in conception, a programmatically formulated intention. This focus on intentions does not imply that I believe that we can explain the pace, direction or outcome of a political or revolutionary process by concentrating on the actors' intentions (or strategies) - common as this view may be among revolutionaries, including the ANC. Intentions are dubious guides to understanding outcomes. Indeed, the primary theme of this dissertation is the strange, and often paradoxical, relationship between the ANC's intentions and the actual outcomes of its actions.

I am similarly sceptical about attempts to explain revolutionary struggles by appeal to generalising theories of revolution - in which the antagonists are usually presented as being (at best, only partially self-conscious) bearers of structurally defined interests and forces moving inexorably towards a predeterminable end. This kind of thinking was prevalent in the ANC, particularly within its influential incorporated ally, the South African Communist Party (SACP), between 1976 and 1986; and, as this dissertation will show, it had a considerable effect on ANC operational strategy.

To have any value, a general theory of revolution would have to be able to predict revolution with some precision - under what conditions it would occur and when, as well as where, it would not occur. Moreover, it would have to be able to provide the reasons for either outcome -before revolution occurred or manifestly failed to do so. To provide such reasons would require us to have identified firm regularities or 'laws' of historical development.

Developing such laws requires us first to choose instances from which we can derive regularities or generalisation, or against which to test a theory. If our instances concern the experience of countries, are any two countries's histories or political and economic experiences sufficiently similar to allow comparison of like with like? I suggest not. Moreover, generalisations which claim to state minimum necessary conditions for revolution are scarcely more valuable than theories purporting to explain revolution. They, too, depend on the notion that there are persistent regularities, or 'laws', of human motion; and that these can be identified and applied to predict, if not what will happen, then what will not happen, and why.

Just as this dissertation does not advance a theory of revolution so, too, it does not evaluate different theories of revolution or engage in essentialist arguments about what a 'revolution' is or is not: whether or not it necessarily involves displacement within the organs of state of one class by another; whether or not it necessarily entails the forcible overthrow of an existing regime; or whether or not revolution is necessarily an act of the political Left, whereas the Right can lay claim only to mounting 'counter-revolution' or 'reaction'. 'Revolution' is used throughout to mean what an insurgent movement like the ANC would customarily mean by it - the forcible and fundamental reconstruction of the political relations of a country. What is relevant in this regard, however, is how the ANC viewed revolution and how this influenced its strategic thinking and behaviour. Our approach will be narrative.

Little of value has been made public about how the ANC's inner councils tried to shape ANC political and military operations inside South Africa between 1976 and 1986, probably the 11 most crucial years in the ANC's advance. What has been said publicly has often been rendered bland by the requirements of security or been coloured by the needs of propaganda. There is a pressing need to go behind these distortions and return with a version of what happened. Others will provide different accounts. In this early phase in the recovery of secret South African histories, narratives must be the priority - even though these narratives will contain many implicit assumptions and unresolved arguments. Self-conscious attempts to organise argument over causality, and the choice between the accounts provided by different narratives, can come later. The most valuable contribution I can make now is to tell a story. Ideas and theories are considered as they form an integral, indeed central, part of the narrative.

The focus of this dissertation is operational strategies and tactics. These are condition-specific phenomena: strategies and tactics are neither chosen in abstract nor can they be assessed in abstract. It is, therefore, necessary to examine the development of ANC strategic policy within its unfolding context.

Much changed in the 1970s and 1980s. The southern African region experienced five armed revolutionary struggles - in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. South Africa itself went through many political, security and economic changes. All were in some degree relevant to the ANC's elaboration of strategic policy. My primary story line is what ANC operational strategic policy was. Since strategy changed, I trace these changes, suggesting reasons for them, and describing the processes by which they occurred.

An intended path of action may, or may not, be acted upon. In the case of the ANC, strategies which it decided upon were frequently not acted upon. That is the first discrepancy this dissertation demonstrates. It was most evident in the ANC's attitude to military forms of struggle. Over the entire 1976 to 1986 period, the ANC viewed armed struggle as the central and supreme feature of its operational strategy. The ANC leadership, nevertheless, took a number of decisions to lessen the supremacy of armed struggle over other forms of non-violent, political struggle and to bring them into a closer, or a symbiotic, relationship. Yet decisions along these lines were seldom implemented.

There is a second, important sort of discrepancy on which this dissertation focuses. A strategy may, or may not, achieve its goals, whether of a short-, medium- or long-term kind. ANC operational strategy seldom achieved its goals. There were chronic disparities between, on the one hand, what the ANC set out to achieve operationally, and, on the other hand, what it in fact achieved or what incidentally happened.

Between 1976 and 1986, the ANC was merely one actor in the South African conflict. A range of other actors and factors influenced of developments. Some were domestic to South Africa, others were regional or international. Some constraints were sociological or economic, some were topographical.

This dissertation can only allude to, but does not provide a full account of, this broader context. Much historical work remains to be done on its various elements. For example, we still lack a scholarly account of the rise of militant opposition to apartheid inside the country in the 1980s, best expressed in the emergence of United Democratic Front (UDF) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).2

In its elaboration of operational strategic policy, the ANC self-consciously sought to be rational. It based this policy upon its analysis of conditions at any one time. In any set of circumstances the ANC identified, it detected the presence or absence of possibilities for advance. It then tried to develop strategies and tactics which it believed could best secure its progress. Usually, in its formulation of operational strategy, the ANC was guided by a purportedly scientific theory of social and historical motion, Marxism-Leninism. It also drew on strategic derivatives of this theory developed in China, Cuba, Vietnam and Russia. ANC strategists endorsed this theory's claim to be able to factorise comprehensively the total equation bearing on the outcome in South Africa, indeed anywhere. This claim extended to being able to anticipate the broad line of march of forces opposed to revolution.

The theory prophesied as inevitable the outcome the ANC sought: armed revolution. Moreover, ANC strategists accepted the injunction of this body of theory that their task was to read 'correctly' the constellation of factors bearing on the outcome in South Africa and to act in ways which fostered or hastened the pre-determined outcome. To ensure a 'correct' reading of history's entrails, the ANC produced its own South African variant of the Marxist-Leninist theory of revolution in Strategy and Tactics of the ANC in 1969. Seven years earlier, its integral ally, the South African Communist Party (SACP), had done the same with The Road to South African Freedom.

When it was confronted with evidence of the chronic failures of its political and military operations between 1976 and 1986, the ANC never fundamentally revised operational strategy. It would concede that it had made mistakes, but it deemed these to be mistakes made merely at the margins: they were errors of technique, or failures to ascertain 'correctly' the stage reached in the unfolding revolution or the 'correct' measures required to hasten the process along. Throughout the 1976-1986 period, in the making of operational strategy, the ANC remained trapped in the same set of assumptions - assumptions about particular means producing particular sorts of outcomes, and about particular outcomes requiring particular sorts of means. Changes to operational strategy, far from abandoning these assumptions, actually re-asserted them. The more ANC operational strategy seemed to change, the more it seemed to stay the same.

For the ANC, strategy was not only, or even mainly, about intentions for the future. Strategy was also as much concerned with making sense of the past. Making operational strategy was a process in which the ANC re-ordered or justified past actions and recast past failures into milestones on the road to victory in order to reconcile the ANC's contemporary predicament with its hoped-for future.

The remainder of this dissertation comprises a note on sources, nine chapters and a conclusion. The first two chapters outline the development of ANC operational strategy to June 1976. Chapters Three to Nine tell the story of the development of operational strategy within successive periods between 1976 and 1986. The conclusion summarises the set of arguments making up the thesis and demonstrated in this dissertation.

By the end of the period with which this dissertation is concerned, 1986, conditions were evidently changing to the ANC's advantage in South Africa. Where this was so, however, this change was not necessarily of the ANC's making. The change was often a consequence of developments or actions independent of the ANC. Where this change was of the ANC's making, it was often only paradoxically or incidentally so. The ANC's most evident failures often, ironically, engendered its greatest successes; and the ANC's non-involvement in political developments in which it would have preferred to be a determining influence often wrought developments highly favourable to it in the long term. A central underlying question of this dissertation thus is: How did the ANC apparently succeed when it so evidently failed?

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.