People’s War and Its Impact on the Past, the Present, and the Future

Written by: Dr Anthea Jeffery The African National Congress (ANC) has always depicted its liberation struggle as a just war, fought by just means.  But in fact the ANC’s struggle, in its last decade from 1984 to 1994, took the form of a ruthless people’s war...

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Written by: Dr Anthea Jeffery

The African National Congress (ANC) has always depicted its liberation struggle as a just war, fought by just means.  But in fact the ANC’s struggle, in its last decade from 1984 to 1994, took the form of a ruthless people’s war that was primarily aimed at giving the ANC domination over the new South Africa, rather than at liberation. This was especially the case from 1990 onwards, when the door to democracy had already been thrown open and there was no need to batter it down.

People’s war does not depend for its success on the clash of competing armies, which helps explain why it mattered so little that the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, had no capacity to defeat the South African army.  It rests in part on bomb attacks, but these play only a small part in the overall strategy. People’s war has many facets, but all of them fall into two main areas of struggle: the political struggle and the military struggle. Together, these constitute the hammer and the anvil between which all adversaries are crushed.

In this kind of conflict, as the ANC was taught during a visit to communist Vietnam in 1978, no distinction is drawn between combatants and civilians. Instead all individuals living within the arena of conflict are regarded as weapons of war (hence the term, ‘people’s war’). This makes them all expendable in the waging of the war, in the same way as arms and ammunition are expendable in a conventional conflict. It also means that children are just as expendable as adults, and that there is no bar against using children either as combatants or as targets for attack. On the contrary, there is significant advantage in using children: as a combatant, a child may be more willing to take risks, while as a victim of violence the child has much greater value in subsequent propaganda.

In South Africa, the political struggle took many forms: meetings, marches, rent boycotts, school boycotts, economic sanctions, stayaways, and strikes. But the most important element in the political struggle was the propaganda campaign. This involved the constant repetition of certain themes by the ANC, the allied organisations it helped to create, and many in the media. This constant repetition, endorsed from a host of seemingly diverse quarters, soon had enormous impact on public perspectives. A false version of events became accepted as the truth, while contrary views were brushed aside as mistaken and uninformed.

The political struggle was vital because it reinforced the impression of a society in ferment. This gave cover to physical attacks which would otherwise have seemed too brutal to be condoned. Among the key targets for attack were black local councillors and black policemen living in various townships, for one of the aims of the people’s war was to make South Africa ungovernable by creating anarchy in these areas. The objective here was to drive out local government, limit attempts at policing, and create semi-liberated areas under the control of street committees, civic associations, and people’s courts.  Combat units, called self-defence units, were also formed to ‘defend’ these areas and bring the local population under further revolutionary control through a mixture of agitation, intimidation, and terror.

As anarchy and violence spread, the economy stuttered, poverty grew, the security forces frequently resorted to draconian methods, including the killing of Mathew Goniwe and other activists  – and fresh grievances were created to spur on the ANC’s people’s war.

The underlying aim at all times was not simply to rob the National Party (NP) government of its remaining will to rule, but rather to weaken or destroy the ANC’s black political rivals. This last was vital if the ANC was to dominate the new South Africa and then use its power to push forward with the second stage of its revolution. It also helps explain why the great majority of the victims of the people’s war were black rather than white South Africans. In addition, most of the black people killed were those who supported the ANC’s black rivals in the Black Consciousness (BC) movement or Inkatha.

In 1984, when the people’s war began, the most important of the BC organisations was the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo), which had successfully resisted various attempts to bring it within the ANC fold. From 1985 attacks on Azapo accelerated, beginning in the eastern Cape and spreading to Soweto, where a pamphlet headed ‘Mayihlome’ (‘A Call to War’) was found circulating in 1986. The pamphlet called Azapo a ‘reactionary third force’, urged ‘the young lions’ to assist in its destruction, and said: ‘We must not rest until we have hunted down each and every member of Azapo from Sekhukhuneland through Port Elizabeth to Langa’ (in the Western Cape).

The United Democratic Front (UDF), the ANC’s internal wing in the 1980s, blamed the government both for this pamphlet and for the wider UDF/Azapo conflict. But township residents knew better who was responsible, according to Azapo secretary general George Wauchope. However, both they and the journalists who could have named the perpetrators were too ‘paralysed by fear’ to do so. Hence, when Azapo supporters were necklaced, when Wauchope’s Soweto home was torched in a fusillade of petrol bombs, and when Azapo supporter Fana Mhlongo (14) was abducted, tortured, and shot through the head, terror prevented people from speaking out. It also encouraged township residents to join the UDF, prompting another Azapo activist to say, ‘The UDF’s game is fear and that’s why they’re in the majority.’

By the time the people’s war began, Inkatha’s claimed membership had risen to close on 1m. The ANC had tried to bring Inkatha under its control via a meeting in London in 1979 between Oliver Tambo and Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, but Inkatha had declined to subject itself to ANC authority. In 1980 the ANC declared Inkatha ‘an enemy of the people’ and thereafter its invective against it became increasingly sharp. Buthelezi was described as ‘a junior partner in Gestapo repression’ and ‘a snake that is poisoning the people of South Africa and needs to be hit on the head’.

By mid-1986 the number of Inkatha leaders and supporters shot or hacked or necklaced to death had risen to more than 100. By the end of 1989, the conflict between the UDF and Inkatha in KwaZulu-Natal had cost some 2 400 lives, Inkatha bearing the bulk of the fatalities. But this was overlooked in a flurry of accusations from the UDF and others that Buthelezi’s ‘impis and warlords’, helped by the police, were solely to blame for the violence.

Source: Sowetan Live
Source: Sowetan Live

By this time, the overall death toll in the people’s war had reached around 5 500. But the Berlin Wall had also fallen, indicating that the Soviet Union was now in trouble and would be less able to keep supporting the ANC. The state president, FW de Klerk, seized the opportunity to unban the ANC and its allies and embark on what he hoped would be a peaceful process of negotiations for a new democracy.

But the ANC had no intention of ending the people’s war when negotiations began. Rather, it planned to use the talks as an ‘additional terrain’ of the multi-faceted political struggle. At the same time, it planned to intensify the military struggle as well. It also knew that it would be much easier to achieve an upsurge in mass action and political violence with some 13 000 of its armed and trained Umkhonto combatants back inside the country – this time by legal means and with the government’s consent.

The ANC’s strategy, in short, was a variant on the Trojan Horse one. By professing a commitment to peace, the ANC could secure the lawful return of Umkhonto as part of the negotiating process. This would bypass the great difficulty the organisation had always faced in infiltrating its insurgents illegally in any significant number.

Propaganda, as ever, was vital to conceal the truth. Hence, as Umkhonto combatants returned and violence began to surge, so the ANC and its supporters increasingly blamed the killings on a sinister Third Force, comprising elements within the police and the IFP. De Klerk was implicated too, for the constant accusation made was that the state president had a ‘dual strategy’ of talking peace while using the Third Force to wage a low-level war against the ANC.

This propaganda campaign soon had huge impact. This was partly because the same message came from so many quarters: not only from the ANC and its many allied organisations, but also from journalists and monitors of violence who seemed to be politically independent yet consistently endorsed the ANC’s perspective. Much of the impact came from Nelson Mandela’s repeated allegations that De Klerk was ‘fuelling the killing of innocent people’, with Buthelezi as his willing surrogate. Given his iconic status, Mandela’s accusations gave enormous credibility to the Third-Force theory.

Behind the cover of the propaganda campaign, the targets of the military struggle remained much the same as in the 1980s. Black local councillors in many townships again came under attack. From 1990 to 1994, more than 800 policemen were killed: many of them ambushed and shot when they were responding to fake emergency calls. There were more attacks on Azapo and the Pan-Africanist Congress (which had also been unbanned in February 1990). In the first seven months of 1990, no fewer than five Azapo or PAC activists were killed in unexplained car accidents, prompting an Azapo spokesman to ask: ‘We need to know what has suddenly gone wrong with the cars in this country that they are killing all the activists.’

Inkatha, now re-organised as a political party, the Inkatha Freedom Party or IFP, was again the main target of attack. Hundreds of IFP leaders were killed. So too were thousands of IFP members or supporters. To give but a few examples:

  • In April 1991, Joseph Khumalo, mayor of Diepkloof (Soweto) and chairman of the IFP branch in the area, received a telephone call late one night asking him to attend an urgent meeting. As he was driving to the appointed meeting place, a hand grenade was thrown at his car. The vehicle slewed to a halt and Khumalo was shot dead by waiting gunmen;
  • Early in 1992, Winnington Sabelo, a prominent IFP leader in Umlazi (Durban), was gunned down in his shop by two men who posed as customers and then opened fire on him at point-blank range;
  • In August 1992, gunmen dressed in fake army uniforms forced an IFP induna (headman) named Fana Nzimande in Patheni (near Richmond) to line up against the wall of his kraal with his wife and their six children, all of whom were then gunned down as if by firing squad (two of the children survived, but with major injuries); and
  • In March 1993, six children of known IFP supporters on their way to school in the Table Mountain area were killed when gunmen ambushed their bakkie, forced it a halt, and then sprayed it with AK-47 rifle fire for some ten minutes.

In 1993 Buthelezi told the press that close on 300 IFP leaders and many more IFP supporters had been killed since 1985. He queried why this death toll was ‘of no consequence’ to the media and the broader society.  He also asked how negotiations could proceed or a fair election could be held when ‘people were being shot for belonging to the wrong political party’. He repeatedly demanded that De Klerk disband Umkhonto and strip it of its weapons. But both De Klerk and Buthelezi had been so demonised for their alleged role in the Third-Force violence supposedly to blame for all the killings that De Klerk was reluctant to take such steps. Buthelezi withdrew from negotiations in protest and was dismissed as nothing but a ‘spoiler’.

As Buthelezi had noted, the continual attacks on the IFP were given so little media attention that most quickly faded from public memory. In addition, a key purpose of the repeated attacks on the IFP was to goad its supporters into over-reacting, the more massively the better. Moreover, when IFP anger at the onslaught against it did in fact boil over into major attacks, ANC propaganda was quick to seize on these to condemn the Inkatha and support the Third-Force accusation.

This strategy is well illustrated by the notorious Boipatong massacre in the Vaal Triangle in June 1992. Here, IFP supporters from the KwaMadala Hostel launched a night attack on the residents of Boipatong, in which some 45 people were killed. The attack was carried out in revenge for the necklacing of three IFP supporters shortly beforehand, and a string of earlier attacks on those living in KwaMadala – almost all of whom were refugees from ANC violence. However, most people did not know about the earlier assaults on the IFP, while the deaths of 45 black civilians at IFP hands – a classic example of over-reaction – drew world-wide condemnation. It also greatly buttressed the Third-Force theory because the ANC persistently but falsely claimed that the police had helped the IFP to carry out the attack.

The Boipatong massacre was a huge propaganda victory for the ANC. So too were various other massacres on the Reef for which the IFP was widely blamed, despite a lack of proof. To cite one telling example, in September 1993 there was a massacre in Wadeville (Germiston), which was carried out by two groups of attackers. The first group of about six men opened fire with handguns on commuters who were queuing for taxis in the early evening. As the gunfire cracked out, six people were shot dead and the commuters fled down the street with the gunmen close behind them and firing all the way. When they reached the first cross road, the commuters dived behind a wall that they hoped would shield them from the gunmen chasing them. But the second group of gunmen had already taken up position in this cross road, and the people behind the wall were now within easy range of their AK-47 rifles. As the Sunday Times put it: ‘The commuters ran headlong into a killing zone under the muzzles of the second group.’ Some 25 people were killed, and another 25 were injured. No one knew who had carried out this attack, but the ANC immediately blamed the IFP and so too did many in the media, prompting further fury at Inkatha.

If the IFP was not in fact to blame for this massacre, who then might have carried it out? Some of the Umkhonto operatives back inside the country clearly had the necessary weapons and training to do so. The ANC was also intent on discrediting and weakening the IFP, and was engaged in a people’s war in which civilians were regarded as ‘expendable’. In addition, the ANC was the only organisation which drew advantage from these killings, which further demonised the IFP and helped secure the withdrawal of the supposedly ineffective riot police, so facilitating further ANC attacks on the IFP. However, such is the power of ANC propaganda that the accusation against Inkatha seems readily acceptable, whereas most people would consider it unthinkable even to query whether the ANC might in fact have been to blame.

As the April 1994 election approached, the ANC accused Buthelezi of seeking to ‘rise to power on the corpses of black people’ and the IFP of wanting to ‘drown democracy in blood’. By the time the deeply flawed election took place, the IFP had become the equivalent, as one commentator put it, of ‘the Jew in Nazi Germany’. In addition, the PAC and Azapo had been neutralised, the National Party and the Democratic Party had been barred from canvassing in black areas, and De Klerk had been thoroughly discredited.

The 1994 election was so chaotic that no accurate result could be computed. Hence, its final outcome was essentially the product of negotiation. The ANC was accorded 63% of the vote, which probably exaggerated its support.  Some opposition parties initially wanted to challenge the validity of the election, but in the end they chose rather to accept it. For to question the outcome or demand a re-run of the poll was to risk throwing the country into the vortex of the people’s war once again – and few people had the stomach for that. Most South Africans preferred to take comfort in the notion of a miracle transition and to hope that this would bring about the bright new future the ANC had long been promising.

By the time of the April poll, the death toll in political violence since September 1984 had risen to some 20 500. About 5 500 of these deaths, as earlier noted, had taken place in the first five years of the people’s war, from 1984 to 1989. However, the great majority of these fatalities, numbering some 15 000, or three times as many, had taken place in the negotiations period from 1990 to 1994. This tripling of the death toll, in short, had taken place when the government’s determination to end apartheid and usher in a non-racial democracy was clearly apparent.

Some of the people killed were policemen or local councillors. Some were members of Azapo, or the PAC, or of the ANC itself. Many more were supporters of the IFP. Almost all of the victims were black. The great majority were ordinary people with no particular political involvement. They had nevertheless all been treated as expendable weapons in the people’s war, as pawns in a power-game – a struggle for ANC domination over the new South Africa.

Understanding the people’s war is vital in comprehending the past. It is also very important in understanding the present, for at least the following five reasons.
First, a lack of knowledge about the people’s war has helped to give the ANC an underserved moral legitimacy. For 22 years, the ANC has played down the ruthlessness of the people’s war and the way it used this to destroy its black rivals. The ANC also constantly repeats the false claim that it alone was responsible for ending apartheid. On this flawed basis, it repeatedly demands that black people must support and vote for it. If more people knew the truth about the people’s war, these false claims could not gain traction in the way that they do now.

Second, the people’s war gave South Africa a sham democracy from the start. We have the outward trappings of democracy, but because the IFP, in particular, was so weakened, there was very little prospect, for at least 20 years, of the ANC being voted out of power. This made the country a one-party dominant state in which a change of power at the ballot box – the most important guarantee of democracy and good governance – was absent.

Third, the people’s war and the manipulated outcome of the 1994 election gave the ANC control over the final negotiating process and hence over the content of the final constitution. Key safeguards against the abuse of power were thus weakened, as was the guarantee of property rights. Socio-economic rights were added, while the executive was given control over a new super-attorney general (the National Prosecuting Authority) and the process for judicial appointments. This has further weakened both the rule of law and necessary checks and balances on power.

Fourth, the 63% majority the ANC was accorded in the 1994 election gave it the dominance needed to press ahead with the national democratic revolution (NDR). This was always the key underlying goal of the people’s war, while the key objective of the NDR is now to take South Africa, with its predominately free market economy, into socialism and then communism.

Fifth, the NDR is now well in train. It’s not possible here to describe this process in any depth, but the critical point is this: The transition from a widely endorsed free-market economy to socialism and then communism would be very difficult to achieve if the economy was thriving, if joblessness was low, and if most South Africans were succeeding in building better lives for themselves through their own hard work and individual initiative. It is only because millions of black people remain mired in joblessness, and attendant poverty and inequality, that the value of the free market system is increasingly being questioned.

Hence, counter-intuitive as this seems, many of the ANC’s policies are aimed at hobbling the economy, adding to unemployment, and increasing dependency on the state. We see this in various spheres:

  • in the labour laws that price the unskilled out of jobs and encourage prolonged and often violent strikes, so deterring investment and employment;
  • in the employment equity and BEE laws that give the government ever more control over business and also inhibit fresh investment;
  • in the land reform process which is hobbling the agricultural sector and giving the state ownership of ever more land in a process of creeping land nationalisation;
  • in the mining legislation which has put an end to the private ownership of mineral resources, given the state absolute control, and made mining companies fearful of being seen to oppose ever-escalating BEE and other requirements;
  • in the Expropriation Bill and many other threats to property rights, which are also scaring off investors and helping to cripple the economy; and
  • in the way the ANC has built dependency on the state via social grants and the wider social wage.

Since the Polokwane national conference which brought Jacob Zuma to power, the ANC has also been intent on using mass action as a key element in the NDR. Strikes have thus intensified, with peak years in 2010 (with 14.6 million mandays lost to strikes) and 2014 (with 11.8 million mandays lost in this way). Demonstrations have also grown strongly, and are becoming more violent.

Increasingly, these demonstrations are also aimed at the ‘correct’ targets, from the NDR’s perspective: not at corrupt ANC local councillors but rather at DA-run municipalities, the companies listed on JSE, the Chamber of Mines, and now many universities. Against the background of this increasing ferment, the propaganda campaign against ‘whiteness’ is growing, as is the demand for the ‘decolonisation’ of the country and the ‘disciplining’ of ‘white monopoly capital’. The mine nationalisation demand is back too, along with claims that skewed land ownership is the key reason for poverty and inequality when various other factors provide the real barriers to upward mobility.

Anthea Jeffrey with her book, People's War
Anthea Jeffrey with her book, People’s War.

It is difficult fully to grasp the current mass action strategy and the way it is playing out. There’s such a rapid swirl of events that it’s hard to keep up or put it all into perspective, especially as NDR policy shifts on labour, BEE, property rights, land, and mining are all intensifying too. But the lessons from the people’s war are clearly evident in the student protests: in renewed calls for ‘ungovernability’, in strident rhetoric and hostile accusation, in attempts to blame the police for violence during demonstrations – and in the constant escalation of demands, so that grievances can never be overcome no matter how many concessions might be made.

An understanding of the people’s war is thus vital in comprehending the present. It also provides insights into what the future is likely to hold. A dominant element in the ANC and SACP is clearly intent on pushing ahead with the NDR until we reach a socialist and then communist ‘nirvana’. But there is also now something of a pushback from more moderate elements in the ANC, who are worried about the damage to the economy. Some kind of political re-alignment seems likely too, for the EFF could merge with the ANC to buttress the NDR camp – or ANC moderates could seek to join up with the DA in support of the free market and an open, democratic society.

We cannot expect to see into the future, but we need at least to understand a key part of the country’s recent past: the people’s war, which ANC propaganda has largely hidden from our view. Only on this basis can we begin to understand developments since 1994 and the current complex swirl of events. Knowing about the people’s war also equips us better in our attempts to influence the future. In particular, it is vital in understanding the two- stage revolution which has been playing out in South Africa since the early 1980s. This in turn can help us to develop an effective counter strategy to protect and strengthen our democracy, get the economy growing once again, and restore hopes of a better life ahead.  Few things could be more important to the country and all its people.

Author: Jeffery is the Head of Policy Research at the IRR. She is also the author of People’s War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa.

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  1. Cedric de la Harpe Reply

    Thank you Doctor Jeffrey, Your article identifies the impact of the people’s war, where the communities were used, to establish control of our country, through manipulated conflict. What I saw, was how the Pan Africanist was destroyed, had it not been for their anti-white stance, we would have had a settlement agreement four years earlier. I refer to this as the period of hidden history, silent, no credit given to those who were used in the people’s war. Understanding this period, as a society, is going to be difficult, many of the youth involved, were part of the ‘Lost Generation,, for which, the Peace Settlement Agreement, made financial provision to help rehabilitate. By 1996, it was ruled that no ‘lost generation’ existed, that we did not have damaged youth, so we could spend our budget elsewhere.
    The participants in the ‘people’s war’, are today’s parents and grandparents, those who manipulated the participants for political reasons, are still in the position to manipulate.

  2. Eye Patch Morty Reply

    Good piece. But barely any mentions of what the Apartheid government was doing during this period or leading up to it. It’s not like this “people’s war” happened in a vacuum. Guess I’ll need to buy the book to get a broader view on the context.

    1. Zaggeta Reply

      Apartheid violence has been written about and illuminated quite a lot. There’s very little need to write more about it because most of the information is already out there. This info is needed because very little of it has been exposed. My two-cents.

      1. Eye Patch Morty Reply

        Fair enough.

  3. Nic Haussamer Reply

    This is a fantastic historical exposition and easily one of the best articles on the site; indeed, this is a part of South Africa’s history that is seldom told or referred to, but, as the article states, is crucial in understanding our current (and future) political landscape.

  4. Dumza Beja Reply

    Hi Jeff, don’t know who’s your intended audience for this writing. For now its difficult for me to comment any further as you have omitted the role of apartheid forces inside and outside borders of this country.
    Anyway I firmly believe that we have reached a stage where we need to focuss on healing the nation and work together in building this country regardless of our different political homes or beliefs.

  5. Harald Sitta Reply

    Dear Dr. Jeffery, Thank you. It is good to have ‘subversive war” analyzed by an expert. The problem is that journalism ( national and International) is totally buying the ANC story. Part out of a diffuse progressive sympathy part out of incompetence . Can I order the book with RS?

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