Saturday, November 30, 2013

The "Camelot" years in the anti-apartheid struggle

A fascinating feature of Alan Wieder's biography, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War against Apartheid (2013), is his reference to the 1950s as "Camelot" for white people who were part of the struggle against apartheid. As Wieder says, it was Gillian Slovo, one of the children of First and Slovo, who applied this term, and, one senses, she didn't do so entirely approvingly. The Slovo children clearly suffered from their parents' intense commitment to the struggle, as the children of other public men and women have often struggled, and Gillian Slovo's perhaps unhappy characterization of her parents' world should be understood against this background.

Nevertheless, the word may be apt. Nadine Gordimer's book Burger's Daughter -- a work of fiction, but connected to the actual life of a leading South African anti-apartheid lawyer, Bram Fischer -- vividly describes the partying of the day. It was, it seems, exciting to oppose apartheid in those years. And why shouldn't it have been? The whole world was moving away from doctrines of racial inequality, and surely South Africa would not sustain its isolation from this progressive trend indefinitely. Victory was coming. Meanwhile, though there were risks and consequences, they were much less severe than they would soon become. In the 1950s, of the many anti-apartheid leaders and activists who were accused in the Treason Trial, not one was convicted. And when police raided your house (as I think Stephen Clingman recounted in his biography of Fischer, Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary (2000)), you offered them tea -- if you were white. A measure of the romantic flavor of the time is that many people apparently didn't take the precautions their clandestine efforts really called for. And, while the political struggle went on, the opponents of apartheid were able to live a life that crossed racial lines -- lines that no other South Africans dared cross.

Things would soon grow worse. A state of emergency and a host of laws that made emergency rule part of regular life, a series of successful prosecutions (including of Bram Fischer), and the institutionalization of police torture changed the world of anti-apartheid opposition. It would take till the 1970s for a spirit of opposition to begin to flourish again. It's all the easier to understand how powerful the state oppression of those years was, when we know how much had been dreamt of and lost from the 1950s.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Have apartheid's diehards in South Africa been trying to subvert the ANC government?

Another startling thought about post-apartheid South Africa, from Barry Gilder, who did intelligence work for the ANC in exile and then was a senior intelligence official in the post-apartheid government, in his memoir Songs and Secrets: South Africa from Liberation to Governance (2012): Gilder believes that unreconciled apartheid supporters, outside and inside the government (many old-order officials did remain inside the government for years, as a result of agreements in the negotiations) were actively trying to undercut the new government. He argues that unseen actors were deliberately feeding false information about supposed security threats to the government and others, apparently to sow dissension and disagreement and generally weaken the ANC’s ability to govern. Gilder does not deny that the ANC did plenty to weaken its own ability to govern, but he insists that others contributed, and deliberately.

Gilder has a similar take on the rise of corruption. He doesn’t at all deny that ANC members newly in government were susceptible to temptation – how could they not be, having led lives that provided them little or no economic security up till then? But he suggests that those who held economic power in South Africa – white business, in short – deliberately set out to seduce and corrupt the new governors. (317)

Perhaps Gilder is wrong. Perhaps he views the world too relentlessly through the lens of his years of exile and uMKhonto we Sizwe membership. But he cites some striking incidents. One is the sweeping destruction of compromising files in the old order’s military, police, and spy agencies (182-83); there are no Stasi files full of revelations to be reckoned with in South Africa. Another involved General Georg Meiring, who despite being “implicate[d] … in apartheid’s dirty tricks campaign against the ANC and other opposition forces” by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (185), was the head of post-apartheid South Africa’s armed forces. In 1998 Meiring gave President Mandela a report alleging “a left-wing plot to destabilize South Africa”; an investigatory commission later called this document “utterly fantastic” and Meiring had to resign. (189) Then there were allegations in 2005 of plots against Zuma – based on email evidence whose “crude and sometimes ethnically derogatory language” Gilder felt was certainly not “the language of the people I know” who supposedly were among the senders (274). These were followed in 2006 by claims, in an oddly named document called “The Special Browse Mole Consolidated Report,” of a conspiracy against Mbeki, supposedly involving “former MK combatants, … Muammar Gaddafi, Angolan President Eduardo Dos Santos and many others.” (281-82) Gilder writes, specifically of the 2005 e-mail allegations, that:

I had seen this kind of thing before, most notably in the crude disinformation attempts of the apartheid regime against the liberation movement and its allies during the days of struggle, and more recently in the many attempts by former apartheid security officials to feed fabricated intelligence into the security services, government and the media. (274)

What would the point of all this have been? It’s hard to believe that anyone thought after 1994 that the old order would ever return.  Could they have thought that the ANC would, sooner rather than later, be defeated at the polls and replaced by a party more sympathetic to white and business interests? Perhaps. Or perhaps they simply thought that all that was left to them was to make the new government ineffective, on the theory that the less the government could do the more room they – these diehard opponents – would have to lead the privileged lives they still had. It’s hard to know. But Gilder’s book is a calmly written statement of the case that the ANC government’s problems are by no means all the product of its own weaknesses.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The ANC, the "armed struggle," and the Russians

Lately I've been reading about the ANC's armed struggle.* As everyone who has followed South African events knows, the armed struggle did not end with victorious rebel armies defeating apartheid troops in battle. But that obvious point may make it too easy to disregard the tremendous military challenges the ANC faced and the substantial campaign of undercover military action it nevertheless mounted. It was "armed propaganda" rather than conclusive military action, but it was quite effective armed propaganda. It's seems quite possible that the ANC’s military efforts were an integral part of the nationwide rising of black popular resistance to apartheid, and thus a material, rather than just symbolic, part of what brought apartheid down.

Along the way I've encountered something surprising: the positive role of Russians. By that I don't mean the supply of arms or money, though those supports likely were very important.

What I'm more surprised by, actually, is that the Russians emerge in these ANC stories, with only rare exceptions, as nice people. Why shouldn't they be nice? Well, because their role in the world always seemed to me to be to pursue their version of imperialism; if we became "ugly Americans" surely they became "ugly Russians."

Probably they did - but not in these stories. There must be other stories to be told, of course – the ones I’ve been reading are accounts by or about South Africans who were Communists and who were trained by the Russians in warcraft or spycraft. The South African Communist Party played a crucial role in the ANC’s struggle against apartheid, by the way, and many dedicated opponents of racism found their way to the Party. If people like Joe Slovo or Ronnie Kasrils or Barry Gilder didn't like the Russians, then nobody did. (And, in fact, Ruth First -- Joe Slovo's wife and a formidable, independent member of the Party herself -- was much more skeptical of the Soviet Union than her fellow Party members, some of whom tried to expel her for ideological deviation.)

Nevertheless. Slovo comes back from Russia with sardonic jokes he's apparently heard there about Russian politics. Kasrils learns just how much to drink before battle. Gilder, alone in Moscow for spy training, gains “at least twenty kilograms” (57) because of all the Russian food his housekeeper prepares for him. The Russians sound like pretty good friends to have.

And one thing the Russians don't do is this - an event Gilder recounts from his post-apartheid years in South Africa's National Intelligence Agency: 
During a meeting one warm afternoon in Cape Town with the CIA station chief in South Africa and a delegation from Langley, the station chief elbowed me during a break in the discussions around the corner of the venue and handed me a brown envelope with a few thousand dollars in it. He said it was for us to buy equipment. He said he needed a receipt and tore off the flap of the envelope and asked me to sign it. My hackles went up. There was no way I wanted a piece of paper sitting in a file in Langley with my signature on it. I carefully wrote: Received on behalf of the National Intelligence Agency, and handed the money over to the agency’s finance department. (204) 
Really, who were we kidding?

*In case you’re interested, the books I have most in mind here are: 

Barry Gilder, Songs and Secrets: South Africa from Liberation to Governance (2012)

Ronnie Kasrils, Armed and Dangerous: From Undercover Struggle to Freedom (2013 edition)

Alan Wieder, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid (2013)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The complex politics of game parks

An uncomfortable footnote to our trip to a game park in South Africa in July: We went to Kruger, but not quite Kruger; instead we stayed at a private lodge on land near Kruger. The owners of a large area had taken down the fence between their land and Kruger proper, so that there no longer is a boundary for the animals, and the land is now a game reserve, with various lodges located there and offering game drives to fascinated visitors such as us. It felt a bit self-indulgent, though the folks at our lodge operated a pretty intense schedule of game rides, so we certainly didn't feel we were just taking it easy -- and it was a great way to see the animals.

Now I read, in Midlands (2002), a remarkable book by the South African journalist Jonny Steinberg that investigates the tangled story behind a white farmer's murder in another part of South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal, the following (at page 226):
[I]t took until the early 1990s for farmers to realise that beauty meant money -- lots of it. The zebra and the buck are already there. The unspeakable beauty needs no maintenance. Erect a tall fence around the wild, uncultivated land you have never used, sprinkle the valley with simple wooden cabins, lay down some dirt roads, and you have a game lodge. There is an American niche market for this sort of tourism; seduce it and you can charge in dollars.
That would be us. And that would be fine, except that the land Steinberg is talking about wasn't unused (226-27):
The whites have never used all their land. They fence off fields for their cattle, they plant vegetables in the narrow, fertile strips on the river bank. But the wild bush land has always been used by the blacks, to hunt, for its firewood and its water. It is one of the corners of the countryside the peasants have refused to give up. So for the whites to fence in the whole countryside, to claim the zebra and buck that have always roamed there -- that is no small thing.
I don't know whether the private game reserve we visited was the result of a similar act of dispossession -- whether, as my wife guessed, the white owners fenced the land and the former black users became the game drive guides. If that is what happened, it's probably not a compelling reason not to go to the private game lodges. After all, the immense, public Kruger National Park is presumably the result of similar and likely harsher dispossession that simply took place longer ago. It's also possible that the new economic relations, with the many paying jobs the game lodges create, are more just than the old ones built around tenant farming. Still, I do feel more inclined to try the public park and public facilities the next time we have a chance. Certainly this back story is a reminder -- and in a sense this is the fundamental point that Steinberg's book makes -- that in South Africa (and of course really in the United States, and probably everywhere) there is scarcely any step you can take that doesn't stir the memories and the lasting impacts of injustice.