APARTHEID was a crime against humanity and a heresy. And robust opposition was morally justifiable. Any other interpretation of late twentieth-century South African history would be hard to argue and few seem inclined to try. The finer details are, naturally, fertile ground for debate.

In late 2008 a letter notionally written to martyred Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) member Solomon Mahlangu, and signed by another combatant with a Durban address, came into the public domain. Its exact standing was unknown, but it provided interesting food for thought and some alarming pointers to the future.

Some of the letter is perfectly reasonable. It notes that the struggle was waged for various freedoms, including those of association and speech. It also correctly records the progress made in bettering the lives of millions of citizens since 1994 and the fact that much remains unfulfilled. Looking at the affairs of MK, it applauds the process of reburial, repatriation of remains, and promises made by government regarding housing and training programmes.

But having conceded the right of the Congress of the People (Cope) to exist, the letter’s author condemns it as counter-revolutionary. This is a puzzling turn of phrase for a country that thankfully never experienced a revolution. Cope is also accused of ‘brazenly stealing the history and undermining the legacy of the African National Congress’; and it is portrayed colourfully as ‘perched on the shoulders of global counter-revolutionary formations’. This is standard fare from such quarters, ignoring the fact that the ANC has multiple legacies, some of which have clearly been inherited by Cope.

‘Democratic South Africa,’ continues the letter, ‘owes its existence to the sacrifices of MK heroes and heroines,’ backing up other claims that MK was in the vanguard of the struggle. This is dangerous, delusory nonsense. Apartheid was brought down by three main forces: changing global political and economic conditions; its own internal contradictions (and realisation of this within the National Party); and the mass democratic movement. Violence played little part and MK was no more than a minor irritant for the South African security state.

The letter addressed to Mahlangu claims that MK will lead from the front in engineering the ANC’s victory in the 2009 general election: apparently, more than before, the ANC is now dependent upon it. This may explain why, increasingly, we are treated to the strange sight of militarily-clad supporters at party rallies. Even more significant, MK is calling for the incoming government to endorse ‘an accurate account of our history in the curriculum of mainstream education’. South Africa’s history is allegedly distorted and so-called MK commissars are needed to educate the young about the past.

MK’s record was inglorious even by the standards of African liberation movements. Its programme of armed propaganda and targeting military objectives was legitimate, but it later went beyond the rules of war through acts of blatant terrorism. How, exactly, will the commissars explain this? MK made the most elementary mistakes through ill-discipline and incompetence and when faced by mutiny in Angola in 1984, it turned in on itself. It security arm, Mbokodo, operating with official sanction, beat, starved, tortured and murdered loyal ANC members in true Stalinist style. How will this be portrayed?

The armed struggle was both sideshow and strategic error. Blind to reality, it confronted the South African regime at its strongest point in territory totally unsuitable for guerrilla warfare; a slave to the ideology of other places at other times. From the very outset, ANC leaders Walter Sisulu, Rusty Bernstein and Ahmed Kathrada regarded it as irresponsible. Nor is there any evidence that armed struggle was supported by Albert Luthuli, nominal president of the ANC when MK was formed in 1961. The non-violent, political engagement of the United Democratic Front was one thousand times more effective in bringing down apartheid. And it was appropriate to the future challenges of a modern democratic society as opposed to one that could have resembled a Soviet clone.

In short, members of a violent and questionable distraction want to muscle their way into the history books. A liberal democracy should be highly alarmed at the prospect of men more used to wielding guns than pens intent on rewriting history.

And there is about this intervention a disturbing sense of déjà vu: north of the border, when the going got tough for the ruling party, men calling themselves war veterans suddenly emerged from the woodwork demanding various privileges. History clearly shows where that has led Zimbabwe.

This article was first published in The Witness on 27 January 2009 and entitled ‘Commissars coming?’

Further reading: Howard Barrell, MK: The ANC’s Armed Struggle (Johannesburg: Penguin, 1990); Stephen Ellis, External Mission: The ANC in Exile (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2012).