About this site

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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The Leipzig Option

According to Brian Pottinger, a senior Sunday Times joumalist, the Bisho march was "the communists long-cherished ideal of a 'Leipzig Option"'. The article's headline repeats the point: "The march on Bisho was the Communist Party's 'Leipzig Option' turned sour" (Sunday Times, 13/9/92).

Virtually all the main-line South African newspapers tried to cast the march and massacre in similar terms. The march was supposed to be a communist conspiracy. And in trying to make this argument many referred, like Pottinger, to Leipzig. "Hardline Communists hijacked the march on Bisho in a classic eastern European-style attempt at takeover" is theheadline over the Sunday Star's (13/9/92) assessment of the Bisho massacre.

In the body of the Sunday Star story (written jointly by Jon Qwelane, John MacLennan, Peter De lonno and Brendan Seery) a "risk analyst", Wim Booyse, is quoted. Booyse sees "the rise in radicalism in the ANC in the 'Leipzig School', which takes its cue from the success of mass protests bringing down discredited regimes in eastern Europe."

According to the same Sunday'Star article, critics of the SACP "see. similarities between the methods of those who led the march and the man they still revere - Lenin."

The sleight of hand in all of this is fairly obvious. While paying lip service to the "right to mass protest" these journalists are all trying to deprive mass action of any legitimacy. So they establish a chain of equations which goes something like this: the Bisho march = mass action; mass action = the Leipzig option; Leipzig is in eastern Europe; eastern Europe conjures up communism; communism = Lenin and insurrection; therefore the Bisho march was an evil communist plot.

In the light of all these negative references to the "Leipzig Option" it is interesting to go back to 1989 and see what the main-line news-papers in South Africa were saying about the real Leipzig option as it was unfolding in the former German Democratic Republic.

Well, of course, it was an altogether different story then. You see, the mass action in Leipzig in 1989, far from being a "nasty commie plot" was actually directed against what these very newspapers were then calling a "hardline communist regime". All their present qualms about Leipzig-style mass action were nowhere in evidence.

In fact, they positively cooed at the rolling wave of mass action that engulfed the GDR. Rapport led the way: "More and more news is coming through: Protest demonstration after protest demonstration in East Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden", writes Coenie Slabber in Rapport (12/11/89). "The waves of protests in eastern Europe have hardly been going for five months, and in the process one communist government after another has fallen... and now the East German government has fallen before the surge to freedom of its people." (Rapport 12/11/89).

"The East Germans learnt not to be afraid. The resignation of Erich Honecker and the dissolution of his cabinet as well as the politburo by his successor, Egon Krenz, was the direct outcome of the daily and uncompromising popular rejection of the GDR regime." (Leopold Scholtz, Rapport 12/11/89). And so it went on. Anybody could be forgiven for thinking that our mainline newspapers were actually in favour of the "Leipzig Option".

The difference

So what's the difference between Leipzig in 1989 and Bisho in 1992?

On the day following the Bisho massacre the Business Day, in its main editorial ("At the abyss"), saw fit to spell out what it considered to be the difference:

"Comparisons with the mass uprisings which toppled totalitarian governments in eastern Europe are not valid. No negotiations were in prospect there; Mandela, De Klerk, Gqozo and Mangope have all been part of the negotiation process designed to bring about a peaceful, democratic settlement." (8/9/'92)

Leaving aside the completely false implication that the whole question of freedom of political activity in and the reincorporation of bantustans was all about to be amicably settled at CODESA, there is another major falsehood in this editorial.

Once again, to uncover the falsehood, all we have to do is to go back to 1989 and read how the self-same Business Day was covering events in the GDR.

On October 18 1989, for instance, the Business Day reported (under the headline, East Germans are losing patience) that:

"New protests for reforms, crowned by a big march through Leipzig, showed East Germans' patience with their Communist rulers was wear-ing thin, diplomats said yesterday.

"The diplomats...said many of the country's 16,6 million people were unimpressed by East Berlin's decision last week to offer controlled dialogue and to consider limited reforms.

'The longer the talking goes on without any results, the more dangerous the situation becomes', one said after returning from Leipzig, where 100,000 people chanted for reforms as they marched peacefully round the city...

"The talks started a week ago to ease tension following the riots. The crowds acknowledge the Politburo's gesture, but they see the offer of dialogue as an offer to talk on the party's terms, not on society's terms, another diplomat said."

Throughout the rest of October and into the first week of November, as events came to a head in the GDR, the Business Day carried similar reports.

Leipzig & negotiations

When it came to Leipzig they were perfectly capable of understanding that mass action, rather than being something absolutely opposed to negotiations, could actually help to speed up and transform the character of the negotiations. The newspaper had no difficulty grasping that incumbent regime's are always tempted to prolong talking without real concrete progress being made on the ground, unless, of course, they are encouraged by pressures, including mass action pressures.

The prospects of negotiation, far from dampening the resolve to engage in mass action in Leipzig, and other east German cities, actually led to its intensification. The Business Day had no difficulty understanding and supporting this simple reality back in 1989.

But of course those weren't "our" masses. They were someone else's masses.

When it comes to the Leipzig option, distance, like absence, seems to make the heart grow fonder. A

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.