Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s death over Christmas felt like the end of an era. For millennials the story of how apartheid was ended is history. Idris Elba in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom joins Michael Caine in Zulu, both movies about a fading past. The change, from white to black hero, is relatively recent. The screenplay of Cry Freedom, released in 1987, portrayed the life and murder by security police of Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko seen through the eyes of his journalist friend Donald Woods. Journalists’ ‘first drafts of history’ are now giving way to second drafts with their selective memories and erasures.
In 2013, news of Nelson Mandela’s death reached London as Long Walk to Freedom premiered – for a film company the financial equivalent of a miracle. The British establishment finally deemed him respectable enough for a Royal Film Performance attended by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Twenty-five years earlier the non-racial African National Congress (ANC) was on President Reagan’s list of terrorist organisations when Margaret Thatcher at the Commonwealth Conference adamantly refused pleas from Commonwealth leaders to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime. She characterised African National Congress (ANC) threats against British companies trading with South Africa as ‘typical of a terrorist organisation’. Prince William had the good sense to describe Mandela as ‘extraordinary and inspiring’.
There are other easily forgotten, perhaps ‘inconvenient’, facts about the struggle against apartheid that are worth re-stating. The conflict was inevitably drawn into the Cold War between the superpowers and seen by them through that prism. Mandela was believed to be a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and therefore a danger to Western interests. A few weeks before the 1962 Cuban missile crisis a CIA-linked US diplomat tipped off South African security police about Mandela’s whereabouts; disguised as a chauffeur he was arrested at a road block.
The ANC’s decision, after the Sharpeville massacre by police of unarmed protesters in 1960, to form a military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and begin a sabotage campaign, hardened Cold War stances. Sabotage evolved into what the ANC called ‘armed propaganda’, attacks on prestigious targets such as the Sasolburg oil refinery, the Koeberg Nuclear station and Vortrekkerhoogte, the Pretoria command centre of the South African Defence Forces (SADF), attempting, with varying degrees of success, to avoid civilian casualties. The Communist Parties of the Soviet Union, East Germany and Cuba were inevitably drawn in and Communist States were soon supporting MK guerrilla training camps in Angola and Zambia. A great diversity of other actors became involved.
The global anti-apartheid movement was much broader than the well-respected, and effective London-based Anti-Apartheid Movement, of the same name. Compared with other nationalist and liberation movements of the time an extraordinary combination of protagonists actively resisted the apartheid regime. Liberals as well as socialists and communists, the schoolchildren of the 1976 Soweto uprising, the scores of organisations in the 1980s popular front United Democratic Front (UDF), minority religious communities as well as Christians and Church leaders, a broad coalition of ethnicities. Within and without South Africa from civil disobedience to sports and consumer boycotts from campaigns for economic sanctions to mobilising ANC front-organisations, from diplomacy to strategic planning by the exile leadership as well as guerrilla infiltration, there was a huge variety of active resistance. A broad, heterogeneous movement fighting apartheid operated in the midst of the Cold War.
In the Catholic tradition the bishops denounced apartheid as ‘intrinsically evil’. There were special theological reasons for Protestant Christian resistance to ‘the system’. They confronted an ideology similar to that facing the ‘Confessing Church’ which produced the Declaration of Barmen in Nazi Germany. Not only a national security state that tortured and murdered its opponents – as in Latin America - but the heresy of a perverse form of Christian Nationalism, the ideological justification for apartheid promoted by the Nederduiste Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK), the Dutch Reformed Church.
Many different hands dismantled apartheid. But two principal factors brought it to an end. By the mid-1980s sanctions were biting, business CEOs, including powerful multi-nationals, began putting pressure on the Afrikaner government to negotiate. Concurrently in Angola in 1988, Cuban and Angolan troops with East German pilots fought an overstretched SADF to a stalemate at Cuito Cuanavale using the same tactics that had defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The South African National Security State suddenly seemed much less secure.
In 1982, Sweden’s Social Democrat government, the first and only non-communist State to do so, had begun clandestinely to fund the ANC internally – but not MK. Sweden’s Prime Minister, Olof Palme, who initiated the funding, was assassinated on 28 February 1986, most likely by the apartheid regime’s notorious - Orwellian - Civil Cooperation Bureau. In contrast, UK government strategy was to divide what they imagined was an ‘Africanist’ ANC from the SACP. When this failed hopes remained that Inkatha, a tribalist Zulu Party with German backing, might stop the ANC sweeping the board in the 1994 elections.
Finally and sadly, South Africa’s peaceful transfer of power is a myth. In the early 1990s hundreds died in clashes between Inkatha and the ANC, and members of the unreformed security forces continued to assassinate ANC and MK returnees for several years. It might have been worse had Archbishop Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission not totally discredited the Afrikaner extremist right-wing and thus avoided more organised violence against the incoming ANC.
There have already been many touching encomia for Archbishop Tutu. He became the recognisable voice and face of non-violent opposition to apartheid violence. He made work for human rights a key part of the life of the South African Council of Churches which he led from 1978 to 1984. For many journalists his was the only name in their address book if and when they sought a newsworthy Christian leader for clear and courageous comment. In the repression of the mid-1980s, when the internal leadership of the ANC were almost all jailed, his national leadership became even more important. In New York in 1986 following a failed UK visit to change Margaret Thatcher’s mind on sanctions, Tutu publically challenged Reagan’s refusal to exert economic pressures on the apartheid regime. Despite Presidential vetoes, Congress later that year passed an Anti-Apartheid Act including some economic sanctions.
Six weeks before Tutu confronted Reagan, the apartheid regime had begun secret meetings with Mandela - moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in 1982. The ANC were particularly anxious that in his isolation Mandela might make concessions they could not accept. They needn’t have worried. In triumphant scenes few will forget he was finally released in February 1990. Then the Soviet Union imploded. Funding for the ANC was cut off almost overnight. Negotiations in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa in 1991 resulted in free and fair elections in 1994.
It was prolonged sanctions that proved to be the proverbial last straw – more a heavy bale - which broke apartheid’s back. A unique case of God and Mammon serving a common cause?
See TheArticle 02/02.2022