BOOKS on South Africa’s recent history continue to roll off keyboards and printing presses, including a recent spate of memoirs and analyses of Mkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). These tell a consistent tale of brave and committed women and men who departed for the hazards of exile in pursuit of one of the great moral causes of the twentieth century: the defeat of the apartheid state and its ideology.

Their experiences tell a salutary tale of frustration and disillusionment that often led to desertion and subsequent harsh retribution. MK was one of the least successful of the armed wings of African liberation movements. From its very earliest days in 1961 it lacked organisational skill and decisive direction. A vacuum of leadership was occupied by the venal and the corrupt paying attention to personal agendas rather than the greater good of the liberation struggle. They led lives of relative privilege, many indulging in criminal activity that included misappropriation and smuggling, while the foot soldiers lived in squalid conditions without clear purpose or prospect of a quick return to South Africa.

Factionalism based on ethnic undercurrents, false accusations and witch hunts were employed to cover up misdemeanour and incompetence. ANC/MK security used the term umdlwembe (bandit, spy, counter-revolutionary) to denigrate critics and support fabricated charges propagated by an active rumour mill. The security apparatus of Mbokodo was ruthlessly employed to bolster a culture of gangsterism and authoritarianism in which the names of Joe Modise, Andrew Masondo and Mzwai Piliso recur. While more virtuous leaders such as Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani and Ronnie Kasrils exerted influence, they too were guilty of turning a blind eye towards, and of occasional complicity with, methods that were just as brutal as those of the Pretoria regime. (Stanley Manong attributes much of this to the influence of ZIPRA, the armed wing of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), which he blames for the ‘toyi-toyisation’ of the ANC at the expense of political objectives.)

Opposition was met with unscrupulous and ruthless means to preserve the status quo. Even Chris Hani, perhaps MK’s most admirable figure and ultimately a true martyr of the struggle, was lucky to avoid a firing squad after he voiced criticisms of the Wankie campaign of 1967. Critics were labelled agents and traitors alongside the real infiltrators the Pretoria regime so  successfully inserted. And the MK status quo was based on an expectation of blind obedience to leaders who had not a shred of democratic credibility, but endlessly invoked the ‘will of the people’.

Such was the ANC in exile 25 to 50 and more years ago; a matter of no more than historic curiosity one might imagine. But while we live in South Africa in radically different circumstances some features of the past are all too familiar. One that stands out is a reactive, knee-jerk instinct to label critics, or public servants simply doing their jobs in accordance with the demands of the Constitution, as traitors, supporters of ‘white monopoly capital’, and foreign agents. Some of this rhetoric sounds deranged: Julius Malema when still part of the ANC Youth League famously called BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher a ‘bloody agent’ after Fisher queried Malema’s credentials; former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, a veteran ANC member, was labelled a CIA agent for carrying out her mandate without fear or favour. Such incidents would be matters of mild curiosity were it not for the fact that they originated with senior government and party figures. The ANC remains an organisation in the grip of real or contrived paranoia that enables those in positions of power to swiftly neutralise detractors. Over the years there have been well-founded suspicions that state security agencies have been deeply involved in ANC infighting rather than securing the interests of the nation.

Before and after he joined MK, Modise was a gangster. As minister of defence in Nelson Mandela’s government he was deeply implicated in the corrupt arms deal that marks the symbolic beginning of the rot afflicting South Africa’s post-liberation government. But the criminality that characterised Kongwa camp in Tanzania from 1963, and under which MK cadres suffered, has grown to the extent that the ANC today is neither liberation movement nor political party but an assemblage of competing interests grouped around business opportunity and racketeering, particularly at provincial and municipal level. Wessel Ebersohn, writing for Noseweek, calculates that 500 political assassinations have occurred in KwaZulu-Natal since 1994, most of them about power, influence and ultimately money; very few about political ideology.

Lack of leadership, factionalism, organisational disarray, and  majoritarian arrogance with scant understanding of the responsibilities and obligations of a modern democracy; these are characteristic of today’s ANC, but they contain remarkable echoes from the past. There has been a tendency to ascribe some of the ANC’s less salubrious attitudes and activities to the east European security culture that pervaded the external mission. But many of them seem more closely rooted to home.

This is a pivotal year for South Africa as the ANC succession debate gathers momentum and President Jacob Zuma tries to engineer a future that keeps 783 charges of fraud, corruption and racketeering out of court; and him out of jail. Apart from his preferred candidate, former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma about to return from Addis Ababa, there are an unusual number of pretenders to the throne in contrast to normal party procedure. In quasi-mystical fashion ANC leaders have ‘emerged’ from the movement – not entirely unlike a Dalai Lama. But personal ambition and political campaigning are the new norm. We can now expect an increase in the underhand behaviour that can be traced back over fifty years to the MK camps of exile.

  • See, for example, A. Cajee and T. Bell, Fordsburg Fighter: The Journey of an MK Volunteer (Face2Face, 2016), which is reviewed on this website; S. Manong, If We Must Die: An Autobiography of a Former Commander of uMkhonto we Sizwe (Nkululeko, 2015); S. Ellis, External Mission: The ANC in Exile (Jonathan Ball, 2012).