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Inside the African National Congress : APARTHEID'S REBELS Inside South Africa's Hidden War by Stephen M. Davis (Yale University Press: $27.50, cloth; $8.95, paper; 238 pp.)

November 29, 1987|Vincent Crapanzano | Crapanzano is the author of "Waiting: The Whites of South Africa." and

"One could argue that the African National Congress is the most quixotic guerrilla organization in modern times," Stephen Davis writes in his studied account of the ANC, the most important opposition to South Africa's racist regime. ANC leadership endorses violence with an aversion to terrorist tactics, Davis observes. It shuns symbols of guerrilla war like camouflage uniforms, and, unlike most liberation movements in Africa, which are highly ideological, the ANC "acts as a consciously federal coalition with little consensus on basic principles."

The ANC's commitment to non-racialism and the overthrow of minority rule is, of course, the exception. Although its administrative offices are in Zambia, the ANC tries to influence events in South Africa, a thousand miles away, through an illusive underground network. It receives support from the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries--and it is rigorously condemned by South Africa (as well as by many conservative Americans) as an organ of the Communist Party--but it also receives extensive support from Scandinavia. It is loosely affiliated with other anti-apartheid groups like the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), but it opposes such black racist organizations as the Azanian Peoples Organization (AZAPO)--the principal group that protested Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's visit a few years ago--and Inkatha, the "compliant," essentially Zulu, party headed by Gatsha Buthelezi and in whom many conservatives here in the United States, oblivious to the divisive potential of Buthelezi's tribalism, see South Africa's salvation.

The ANC has schools in Tanzania and an army of about 8,000 in Angola, supplied with arms from the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and East Germany, but it has difficulty, according to Davis, in developing a disciplined and united opposition in South Africa.

Founded in 1912, the ANC, then called the South African Natives' National Congress, was the first modern, nontribal, African reform movement. Despite decades of frustration--ANC women were already protesting pass laws in 1913--the ANC managed to maintain an extraordinary (to many today, a naive) faith in the possibility of peaceful, constitutional reform. But, with the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, in which the police fired on unarmed blacks protesting the pass laws, and the riots in Soweto in 1976, in which hundreds of blacks were killed, the ANC was finally forced (though apparently not without ambivalence on the part of the older generation) to adopt a more violent posture. Its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, was founded in 1961 after massive arrests of ANC members and the banning of the congress itself. In 1962, it began to cooperate with the South African Communist Party, and, since then, despite its repeated assertion of independence from the Communists, it has been roundly condemned by the South African government as an instrument of Moscow.

Today, there are between 13,000 and 14,000 members of the ANC living outside of South Africa, most of whom left after the Soweto riots. (It is, of course, impossible to estimate how many ANC members there are in South Africa or to evaluate the extent of their commitment.) Many of these new exiles are young, impatient, victims of the butchery of the post-Soweto years, and they tend to be militant, Marxist-oriented revolutionaries. Although the ANC takes responsibility for many acts of sabotage in South Africa, its members are split between those who still believe that a peaceful end to South Africa's minority rule is possible and those who are convinced that the rule of the majority can only be achieved through violence.

The "quixotic" character of the ANC is as much a product of the "quixotic" character of South Africa's racist government--a self-contradictory, arbitrary, capricious, cruel and moralizing regime--as it is of its pragmatic need to garner support from whomever it can and to accommodate to whatever definitions, for whatever reasons, the West, the East, the countries of Africa, and South Africa itself impose on it. (Davis argues that the ANC's president, Oliver Tambo, assumes that his organization can benefit from any opposition to apartheid.) The ANC has, for example, an excessively large and complex bureaucracy that "looks good in terms of a flow chart" but is, as all bureaucracies tend to be, not particularly efficient. The ANC's bureaucratic inefficiency is, however, largely the result of what Davis, somewhat unsympathetically, calls "an obsession with security"--an obsession that produces a "culture of subterfuge," a secretive, compartmentalized bureaucracy.

Davis' study of the ANC is thorough and impersonal. It reads like a policy report, or a report to some government agency, and tells us little about the tone, the values, the personnel in the ANC. We miss the confusion, the pathos, the rage, the bitterness, the sadness, the disillusionment, the cynicism, and above all the sense of commitment that the ANC members must surely experience, but perhaps there is no room for such sentiments in political analyses. Davis concludes, sadly, that the rioting, the protesting, the violence--which some experts would call a chronic revolution--will end in a Pyrrhic victory. "When the peace arrives, it will probably not be through conquest. Rather, it will come grudgingly, and after seasons of bloodshed, as a fruit of exhaustion."

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