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)

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