Some Of Our Failures.

July 22, 2008

A recent contributor to these parts challenges the Creator, claiming that AZAPO was a victim of the evil Charterists and never colluded with, or served the interests of, the apartheid state. One may pretend that if one wants to. However, in order to learn from the history of South African politics one must pursue the truth and then try to make sense of it. Hence one should not base arguments on ridiculous lies. Why did AZAPO and the PAC both fail to win persistent support, and then why did they betray the cause of liberation and serve the desires of quasi-fascist white colonialism? (A nice long phrase, that last one; the Creator hopes never to use it again.)

The contributor is talking partisan bosh. The records of the 1985-6 period in the Eastern Cape shows that, sadly, there was a serious outbreak of violence between AZAPO-supporting thugs (led by the “Black Cats”) and the Charterists of the UDF. It was hardly likely that the Charterists went out to seek trouble with the gangsters; much more likely that AZAPO, seeing its support dwindling, tried to use violence to protect its control, in much the same way that Inkatha was doing on a far greater scale in Natal. (Occasionally, similar violence was linked with AZAPO on the Rand as well, but it seems to have been strongest in the Eastern Cape.) Of course much of this was no doubt due to local tensions, but AZAPO’s leadership never repudiated this behaviour — instead it tried to capitalise on it.

Why do we know so much about this, when much less is known about the huge conflict in Natal? Because AZAPO enjoyed the support of the English press, which represented the conflict as a sign that the UDF was evil. AZAPO’s leadership played along with this rather than acknowledge their faults, even though the “Black Cats” were enjoying the support of the police, and reputedly of the “Hammer” death-squad, allies which AZAPO should have very strongly repudiated.

AZAPO also enjoyed the support of the SA Institute of Race Relations, which under the leadership of John Kane-Berman had become a major apartheid propaganda organ. The SAIRR used the clashes between the UDF and AZAPO to attack the former, promoting AZAPO’s propaganda position as much as it could. AZAPO claimed to be a socialist organisation with black-conscious inclinations, whereas the SAIRR was a free-market organisation with white-supremacist leanings — but AZAPO no longer concerned itself with such matters. Momentary interest was all that mattered to it — hence it eagerly took advantage of its lenient treatment under the State of Emergency.

Indeed, in the 1980-94 period AZAPO opposed every genuine anti-apartheid initiative while producing none itself. It showed up at the “Patriotic Front” conference purely to undermine it; it played no useful role in post-1990 negotiations. It is hardly surprising that it was seen as a tool of the apartheid state by most outsiders. It is again natural that AZAPO has dwindled to insignificance as a result of its opportunism and its intellectual bankruptcy. This could be the future which awaits the ANC.

If AZAPO took advantage of the support of the apartheid state, the PAC actually collaborated completely with the apartheid state’s atrocious military, police and propaganda structures.

The PAC was treated gently by the apartheid state after 1980, apparently realising that the PAC, like AZAPO, posed no real threat to it. However, only in the late 1990s, when former PAC President Mogoba (a friend to the SAIRR who eventually gained high office in that odious organisation) applied for a high post-apartheid government job and faced a security vetting, did the truth came out. The President of the PAC had done a deal with the apartheid secret police; in exchange for immunity from prosecution or ill-treatment (he was never detained under the State of Emergency when over 30 000 activists, mainly Charterists, were jailed) he did whatever they told him. He even betrayed his own military commander. Effectively, the PAC in the last years of apartheid was an annexe to the apartheid armed forces.

Nobody in the PAC’s leadership (except those benefiting by the betrayal) seems to have noticed that President Mogoba doing anything odd. If anything, however, worse was to follow. With the unbanning of the PAC, the Azanian People’s Liberation Army, their military wing which been largely quiescent in the darkest days of apartheid, suddenly sprang to action. In the early 1990s APLA committed a flood of atrocities, murdering a large number of civilians, chiefly but not exclusively whites.

When the apartheid government found how the ANC’s uMkhonto we Sizwe had set up a secret command structure, exposed in 1990, there was a spate of detentions, tortures and murders of ANC activists. Nothing like this confronted APLA, even though the PAC was thoroughly penetrated by the apartheid spy system. Only in the run-up to the 1994 election did President De Klerk order the murder of a houseful of PAC-linked children in Umtata.

What was going on? Nothing can be proved because all the records have been destroyed, but it seems that APLA’s terror campaign was endorsed by the apartheid state. It was, effectively, a campaign to unite the white community against blacks, discouraging the kind of non-racialism which characterised the ANC. Admittedly, the PAC may have hoped that this campaign would benefit it, since it could claim that it, unlike the ANC, had not abandoned the armed struggle — the fact that it was a toy struggle taking place under the auspices of the apartheid state was unimportant to them.

But this Faustian bargain turned out to be important to most South Africans. Hence the PAC’s support remained minute. (The PAC retained enough support in Cape Town to be able to hand control of the city to the Democratic Alliance, the successor party to the apartheid National Party, in 2006 — probably the PAC’s final, and most pathetic, betrayal.)

All this is not simply ancient history; we should ask why it happened. What went wrong with the PAC and AZAPO? Why did they do what they did, why did they fail so utterly, why did they sell out so needlessly when they had so little to sell in the first place?

Consider the Pan-Africanist Congress, which had been part of the African National Congress until Robert Sobukwe began telling everyone who would listen that he had a new logo and a new organisation, different and better, like a brand of washing-powder. The real reason for the PAC splitting from the ANC was that the leadership of the PAC were second-raters who could only appear to be first-raters by avoiding competition with people like Tambo and Mandela. Also, the PAC was supposedly opposed to whites and therefore resented their presence within the ANC (the underground SACP and the overground Congress of Democrats). More importantly, the PAC loathed socialism of any stripe (even though it worshipped Kwame Nkrumah who had set up what he called a socialist state).

Sobukwe has been treated with respect since then, but in the Creator’s opinion he was a nincompoop who set the struggle back a decade. The PAC was a disaster; the most if accomplished was that occasionally its demonstrations did not lead to massacres. It had no notion of how to set up a military wing, so its initial effort in this regard — Poqo — was quickly destroyed by the apartheid police and Poqo‘s successor, APLA, never amounted to anything. When driven into exile (and although the PAC precipitated the banning of the PAC and the ANC, the PAC had made no proper plans to set up an external wing as the ANC did) the PAC was a conspicuously greater failure than that of the ANC (which was far from successful until the late 1970s). Basically, the PAC promised more and delivered far, far less.

Why was this? Largely, the Creator thinks, because of doctrines. Pan-Africanism is not a practical creed; it is rather a collection of banal but reassuring slogans invented by Westernised African leaders wishing to distract their people from the real problems of their societies. Absorbed at second- or third-hand in South Africa it led to blind faith in action — as if by simply assembling a bunch of unarmed people in the street you could push the enormously strong apartheid state over. (In part this was a product of an ignorant contempt for the well-justified caution which the ANC pursued after the collapse of the Defiance Campaign.) As a result, the PAC threw away opportunities for organisational gains in pursuit of what seemed to be momentary opportunities for success, but which turned out not to be even that.

Fast-forward a decade to the rise of Black Consciousness. On the face of it this was a more promising doctrine. The South African Students’ Organisation arose in an organisational vacuum and thus quickly came to the fore. It was led by intelligent people who could speak and write well. At the same time it was happening in a much more favourable environment than the late 1950s and early 1960s; by this time, many white businessmen felt that apartheid was a doubtful investment. It was obvious that the plans of grand apartheid were unlikely to work, and it was also clear that South Africa needed a well-educated black middle class, which implied that they had to be co-opted with concessions. Initially at least, the “verligte” or “progressive” supporters of the apartheid state saw SASO as a possible platform for this.

As history shows, this did not happen. Black Consciousness pursued an ambiguous course, but none of its leaders collaborated with apartheid. On the other hand, while it explicitly identified the destruction of the apartheid state as its goal, it did virtually nothing to accomplish this. As a result, when its activities led logically to the mayhem of the 1976-7 uprisings, it was incapable of turning these into anything more solid and productive. So Biko, banned, was eventually jailed and murdered, the organisation which he had built up was shattered, and those who had supported him were largely obliged to flee the country if they were not to be jailed. What is more, of those who fled and of those who were jailed, the majority ended up as Charterists — that is, as supporters of the “old-fashioned” ANC-style politics which Biko and his comrades had supposedly rejected.

Actually this was not altogether the case. Biko had considerable respect for the ANC, though it is far from certain that he would have joined it had he lived. On the other hand, those of his followers who did not become Charterists and who eventually formed AZAPO defined themselves almost from the beginning as anti-Charterists. They haplessly opposed whatever the ANC or (later) the UDF did, without offering anything particularly productive. They focussed on the middle class and failed to build up working-class and union support in the way that the Charterists did. (Ironically, the Charterists were helped here by NUSAS, the very organisation that Biko built his reputation by opposing.) After half a decade of consistent failure to organise or develop a policy basis, it is hardly surprising that AZAPO became shills for the apartheid state. They had nothing to protect them against this.

Why? Again, the Creator thinks that doctrine plays a big part in this. Black Consciousness was a Caribbean movement imported to the United States as a publicity stunt by some parts of the black Civil Rights movement who wanted a bigger slice of attention. (A bit like the PAC’s use of Pan-Africanism.) Obviously it is important to challenge white notions that blacks are somehow an inferior race. It is also important to be suspicious of sympathetic powerful whites who might have their own agendas (although neither the PAC nor AZAPO were suspicious enough). In the end, though, encouraging blacks to have self-respect does not take one very far, for the problem is not self-respect, it is oppression. The issue is not simply culture, it is economics. Significantly, when school students launched a campaign against unhealthy influences in Soweto, it was not the hair-straightening parlours they went for — it was the beer-halls which they felt were sapping people’s will to resist.

But in believing that decolonising the mind was the most important thing to do, the proponents of Black Consciousness, like the Pan-Africanists, were falling into the simplest of traps. They were believing that wishing it so would make it so. Had they been flourishing in the early 1960s they would simply have been trampled into the dust by apartheid brutality. Instead, in the early 1980s they were merely made irrelevant by other organisations with a more profound understanding of events, and a far greater ability to put their knowledge into practice — and then, sadly, they were co-opted in the very way that they pretended to warn people about.

Nowadays the PAC and AZAPO exist predominantly to warn us against what we should not be doing today. Sadly, plenty of people (especially in today’s ANC) are unwilling to heed this warning.