The End of Apartheid, Direct Action and Its Costs

Quite a few people are calling me, legitimately, on my slippery slope comparisons between harassment of researchers and mass murder. Fair enough, but I would still maintain that once you put yourself in a situation of effectively absolute license to act in service to a moral claim that you see as being beyond argument or not subject to procedural or democratic arbitration, your feet are at least at one end of that slippery slope.

Even in circumstances where there is literally no other option and where the injustice is unambiguously intolerable, moving to a strategy of direct action which preemptively and aggressively rejects democratic or institutional liberalism has costs.

One of the most interesting questions to me in my field of speciality is, “Why did apartheid come to an end?” As recently as 1987, most of the scholars, intellectuals and activists concerned with South Africa were fairly certain that apartheid was structurally strong and would only be brought down by a long period of total struggle. A decent number would still maintain that South Africa’s current commitment to neoliberalism means that much of apartheid survived, and that the struggle continues. I don’t: I think apartheid as a specific social and political system ended, and with great and surprising rapidity.

The debate about why that happened (because even left-wing critics of the current government tend to concede that something changed in 1993) is interestingly enough still fairly embryonic. A few books that appeared in the 1990s voiced the argument from the left that fairly little had changed, and that the transition was only a kind of crisis management by South African capitalism. There’s a few other books and articles that look at particular aspects of the transition (for example, behind-the-scenes analyses of Mandela and De Klerk’s talks, or of maneuvering within the National Party).

My own view is that it’s fairly easy to say what did not matter, namely, the formal “armed struggle” waged by the ANC. For all that the decision to take up arms was seen both within and outside South Africa as a watershed for the ANC, in the end, the ANC’s military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe was fairly irrelevant when it came to bringing pressure on the apartheid regime. Fear of MK may have pushed the regime into over-reaching in its attacks on other countries in the region, and the mythology of MK may have been an important symbolic tool for mobilizing protest in the country, but MK itself mostly blundered and served as an opportunity for some ANC leaders in the MK training camps to demonstrate that they, too, could manage to be pointlessly oppressive and authoritarian.

Whether or not South African troops were formally “defeated” at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in 1987, the battle certainly outlined the limits or outermost capacities of South African military power, so that played a role.

Sanctions and divestment mattered some. I would argue that the most important international sanction in the end may have been the sports boycott, as it most sharply communicated South Africa’s pariah status to the white population. But the refusal of international financial institutions to roll over loans in the 1980s was what really mattered, and that happened less because of political pressure and more because banks decided (rightfully) that South Africa was a bad risk. I sometimes feel chagrin at how little some of us in the divestment movement understood about the international organization of capitalism or the nature of the stock market. On the other hand, given that divestment was really not that big a deal to do and that it did actually help a bit, I also sometimes get irritated even in retrospect with how hard trustees and others fought against it.

The really major thing, I think, is that the Soweto uprising of 1976 and subsequent campaigns to make South Africa’s townships “ungovernable” put the apartheid regime under what proved to be unbearable pressure, largely on the pure grounds of resource limitations. The apartheid state simply couldn’t cope in the end with the demands that ungovernability put upon it, even when it put up a pretty good show of having everything under a tight authoritarian lid. Few of us saw this clearly in 1986-87 precisely because the state was putting on such a good performance, but underneath, the leadership was increasingly seeing collapse as inevitable.

Let’s review what led to ungovernability. The vast majority of the population without any vote or democratic outlet. An authoritarian state that legally defined almost all dissent as terrorism and gave itself entitlement to retaliate against dissent with imprisonment, torture, and murder. A state which routinely censored all media. A state which ignored property rights of most of its citizens. In short, a state which was in every respect the antithesis of liberalism, in which there was literally no avenue for democratic or liberal protest for the vast majority of its citizens.

Let’s review what ungovernability consisted of. Refusal to cooperate with any institution controlled directly or indirectly by the national government. So leaving school, refusing to pay any rents or fees assessed by governmental bodies, refusal to comply with orders from authorities no matter how routine those orders might be, and an embrace of violent resistance to the state and any perceived agents of the state. Making large areas of the country “no-go” areas for civil authorities unless they were accompanied by strong military forces. Murder or threat of murder of suspected collaborators.

As I said, I think it worked. I think it was justified not just because it worked but because there were no other alternatives. The apartheid state and the National Party spent twenty years steadily crushing all other avenues for political change and rewriting the laws and constitution of South Africa so as to define itself as the permanent and unchanging ruler of South Africa.

It had costs. If you’d tried to talk seriously about those costs in 1986, to have a cost/benefit analysis, I think you’d have been laughed out of most rooms as a weak liberal who implicitly supported apartheid, and maybe with some reason. Things were past that point. But the ANC and its supporters would probably have done better after 1993 if there had been some clearer acknowledgement during the struggle about the consequences of ungovernability and some attempt to prepare to face those consequences. It’s pretty hard to introduce the proposition that people have a public or civic duty to obey the law, pay their fees, and respect public property when you’ve had more than a decade of a declared obligation to do none of that. When children have left school for 15 years, they’ve been permanently wounded for the rest of their lives, in a way that leaves a democratic and liberal society few easy options for remedy. When you’ve said it’s ok to necklace someone who supports apartheid, what are you going to say when someone necklaces someone over some other political or social disagreement? When you’ve said that a thug is a hero of the resistance because he’s being thuggish in the right cause, you may have a problem when he continues to act like a thug. Nobody wanted to talk about crime as an issue in 1990 or 1991, during the transition, but it’s not exactly surprising that it became such a major problem given ungovernability on one hand and the use of police as tools of authoritarian control by the apartheid state on the other.

If the end goal is more or less a liberal society of some kind or another, then illiberal means are going to eventually prove as potentially serious an impediment to achieving it as whatever illiberalism one is trying to fight. Obviously this doesn’t apply if one is looking past liberalism to something else, like a very rigorously conceptualized form of socialist revolution. I suppose it doesn’t apply either if one has an exclusive tunnel vision on a single cause, e.g., if all you care about is whether monkeys and rats are getting tortured in laboratories and the rest of the world can go to hell as long as the monkeys are set free. People with that kind of tunnel vision do tend to be a bit surprised when they take a look around them and realize that the world has in fact gone to hell in part because all sorts of folks went off into their own private activist Idaho and did whatever they thought was righteous.

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9 Responses to The End of Apartheid, Direct Action and Its Costs

  1. Doug says:

    Moderately off-topic here, but as the field asks why apartheid came to an end, is there much comparative thought given to the European revolutions of 1989? Communism looked pretty strong as a system, too, in 1986 or thereabouts, but by 1990 it was all gone in the satellite countries, with the Soviet Union swiftly following. It had been upheld by force numerous times since the end of WWII, but was not in the end defeated by force.

    As for the relationship with your original slippery-slope argument, the leaders of the oppositions essentially came to the conclusion that the way they came to power meant at least as much as the fact of coming to power at all. I’d have to go back through my Havel and Michnik et al. to give chapter and verse, but that’s my overall impression. And I think it’s one of the internal things that’s made a difference in progress toward their relative success in the decade and a half since. (Efforts at creating a parallel society, in Poland for example, did not go as far as ungovernability in SA, but did lead to a clear separation from an authoritarian state that made near-total claims for its citizens.)

    Anyway, I think there’s good stuff in comparing the changes, and I wonder if it’s done among Africa specialists.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    You’d think it’s a natural, right. There’s some stuff from political scientists, but some of it is for my tastes a bit shallow in its historical sense or doesn’t seem satisfyingly knowledgeable about the local particulars. There’s also a few studies that compare specific dimensions of the changeover (nationalism, etc.)

    There was also a big fad in the early 1990s for talking about the “winds of change”, and democratization as inevitable shift in the global zeitgeist, etcetera. That, thankfully, has slunk under the bed in embarassment. It’s not just what we’re dealing with now, but things like the big elections in Zambia that Africanists got briefly excited about until they realized that replacing the old autocrat with a new autocrat in a multiparty election is not a screamingly huge achievement. That’s about where Fareed Zakaria’s book on illiberal democracy entered the picture.

    If there’s a good, rigorous comparative study out there, I would very much like to hear about it, though.

  3. Doug says:

    Comparative between Africa and East-Central Europe, or just comparisons among the ECE countries? I’ll put my thinking cap on about the latter; the former is probably a market gap for a ground-breaking study. (Got a few years to spare?)

    The primary sources on dissident thinking are accessible and reasonably short–an advantage of samizdat circulation. Here I’m thinking mainly of Havel, Michnik and Gyorgy Konrad. All three went on to play prominent (though different) roles in post-transition public life, so their more recent works will have the advantage of comparing practice with theory.

    The difference between replacing one autocrat with another and what has happened in ECE also shows the advantage of having nearby multinational liberal institutions that states can aspire to joining.

    I’ll have a look at my own disorganized book collection and see if I can offer anything helpful.

  4. jpool says:

    I would agree that even if one accepts the necessity of violence in a particular struggle, and makes whatever collective commitments in terms of how and when it should be used, there are inevitably dangers and costs to such a course of action. I wish that I could remember the citation, but there’s a classic piece by Rosa Luxembourg that I think bears on this. She both endorses the necessity of violence in contesting the Russian Revolution and notes the costs, both ethically and in terms of opening the door for totalitarianism that such actions inevitably bring. So even in a rigorously conceptualized socialist revolution, at least one that’s committed to procedural liberalism in a non-bourgeois democracy, this dilemma comes into play.

    BTW, I’m sure that you’re right about the relative military irrelevance of Umkhonto we Sizwe in South Africa, but my understanding is that the same could not be said for the role of ZANLA and ZIPRA in ending white minority rule in Zimbabwe (or is this not correct?). Of course there are clearly costs for that struggle that people there have paid and continue to pay both individually and collectively. A Ghanaian friend of mine in discussing the relative lack of national consciousness in Ghana relative to Zimbabwe referred to Fanon’s point about the instructive role of violence in the struggle. He may be right on that narrow point, but it seems an awfully high price to pay.

  5. Ivory says:

    What influence did the rise in AIDS and AIDS related illness play in all this? The South African government was just ordered to provide anti-retroviral treatment to prisoners and is being held in contempt of court for previous refusals to provide adequet treatment. 30% of pregnant women in South Africa are infected with HIV and the vertical transmission rate in children who do not receive anti-retrovirals at birth is pretty high.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    ZANLA and ZIPRA were unquestionably pivotal in bringing an end to white rule in Zimbabwe. Though absolutely there were costs–not the least among them a rush through a transitionary period that basically paved the way for Mugabe’s authoritarianism.

    I wouldn’t at all view Ghana as lacking in national consciousness compared to Zimbabwe–that seems a really odd sentiment to me, actually. I also would not at all see Zimbabwe as bearing out Fanon’s proposition about the cathartic effects of anticolonial violence, in fact, quite the opposite.

    Ivory, I don’t think HIV-AIDS played really any role in the end of apartheid, but it’s definitely a significant problem with the “new” South Africa, including with the way that the state operates.

  7. texter says:

    I second the notion that Ghana absolutely DOES have “national sentiment(s)”!
    On the literature tip, see Korang’s Writing Ghana, Imagining Africa (2004). Or essays by Anthony Appiah. Or, or, or…

  8. jpool says:

    The fact that individual Ghanaians (or proto-Gold Coasters in some of Korang’s cases) posess(ed) a well-defined national consciousness doesn’t change the fact that national conscious in Ghana is very thin on the ground. As Robert Addo-Fenning once remarked in a seminar that I was attending, it’s something of a common place to say that Ghana is only a nation when the Black Stars are playing. On another side, the veneration that many Ghanaians still hold for Guggisberg, Ghana’s colonial governor in the 1920s, show the complicated relationship that many Ghanaians have with the colonial past.

    This is of course not just true in Ghana. Many if not most Africans have more immediate and relavent categories in their lives than the national. I don’t have any experience living in Zimbabwe, so I don’t have a direct sense of how that compares. The point that my friend was making was that in his view, because Ghana arrived at independence primarily through negotiation and pressure (as well as limited strike actions) rather than armed struggle, the struggle for independence as such doesn’t have a lot of meaning for most people. People still have definite opinions about Nkrumah (thank goodness, says my dissertation) and while there remain a certain percentage of commited Nkrumahists, Ghanaian politics today is largely defined by the rivalries between the ruling NPP, who call on the heritage of Nkrumah’s opponents, Danquah and Busia, and the NDC in the shadow of Jerry Rawlings.

    Again, I’m not sure that my friend is right, either in Ghana’s case or comparatively, but I understand the intuitive appeal of the idea that it makes a difference to have gone a through a period of collective struggle (even if in a highly differentiated way) rather than a brief period of mass nationalist organizing which is then diffused into a hand-over by stages.

    BTW, what were you thinking of for Appiah? It seems to me that while he certainly identifies as Ghanaian, he uses that identity either to make the point that Africans are different from one another (though I don’t think he argues this along national lines as such) or to reference more particular issues of culture (Ghanaian as an intermediate stand-in for Asante). More recently he has tended to argue against nationalism, in both state and pan-African forms, in favor of cosmopolitanism.

  9. Doug says:

    The last two chapters of Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent (98 or so), as well as the chapter on “Why Communism Collapsed” in A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century (2000) are not rigorous, comparative political science or IR approaches, but rather historians grappling with very recent events. They might be interesting on peaceful change in ECE; Timothy Garton Ash’s In Europe’s Name (1995) concentrates on Germany, but addresses the big question of “why peaceful change” as well. I’ll keep looking.

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