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Age of Iron

Two new histories revisit the fall of Apartheid
Art for Age of Iron.
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Breakthrough: The Struggle and Secret Talks that Brought Apartheid South Africa to the Negotiating Table by Mac Maharaj and Pallo Jordan. Penguin Random House South Africa, 256 pages.

1986 by William Dicey. Penguin Random House South Africa, 304 pages

In 1975, while traveling through the United States, the Zulu traditional healer Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa had a dream that “South Africa would be engulfed in violence from 1976 to 1989.” While the particulars of the vision are not recounted in Mutwa’s book, Let Not My Country Die (1986), he admits to a growing sense of foreboding in the months leading up to it. A number of people he’d crossed paths with back in Soweto had reported having nightmares of crowds “fleeing from something, with huge fires burning somewhere in the background and lighting up the sky.” The apartheid government had largely managed to suppress mass internal resistance since the Sharpeville massacre in 1960—after which the Pan African Congress (PAC), South African Communist Party (SACP), and African National Congress (ANC) were banned—and the Rivonia Trial (1963–64) that condemned Nelson Mandela and other members of the ANC’s military command to life in prison. But in recent years there had been a change in the political weather.

In January 1973, migrant workers at the Coronation Brick and Tile factory in Durban went on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions. Over 60,000 took their grievances to the streets between January and March of that year as the action snowballed. The Durban Strikes brought “South Africa’s second most important industrial complex to standstill,” retired ANC politicians Mac Maharaj and Pallo Jordan argue in their new book, Breakthrough: The Struggle and Secret Talks that Brought Apartheid South Africa to the Negotiating Table. It “initiated a new phase in industrial relations and in the rebuilding of the trade union movement.” By the mid-1980s, black unions could marshal more than a million workers to put down their tools.

To paraphrase Winnie Mandela, the government responded by firing “machine guns” at school children armed with “stones and dustbin lids.”

At the same time the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was picking up speed. Originally formed in the late 1960s, the movement drew from a range of influences including the U.S. Black Power Movement and Pan-Africanism and thinkers like Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Franz Fanon. In the words of founder Stephen Bantu Biko, a student organizer and writer who was slain in police custody in 1977, “the basic tenet of Black consciousness is that the Black man must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic human dignity.” Maharaj and Jordan argue that the movement was one of the catalysts for the 1976 Soweto Uprising. That year, thousands of high school students poured into the streets of the Johannesburg township to protest the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction. To paraphrase Winnie Mandela, the government responded by firing “machine guns” at school children armed with “stones and dustbin lids.”

The protests spread across the country and were met with a brutal response: firings on demonstrators, indiscriminate arrests, indefinite detention without trial, torture. Hundreds had been killed by the time the uprisings petered out in the last months of ’77. The end date of Mutwa’s prophecy may have fallen well short—an estimated 14,000 more perished in political violence from the time of Nelson Mandela’s release in February 1990 to his election as president in April 1994. But it did come to pass.


Protests in South Africa in the 1980s. | Wikimedia Commons.

Breakthrough is a history written by political insiders. Maharaj was imprisoned for twelve years on Robben Island and smuggled out the manuscript of Mandela’s memoir Long Walk to Freedom on his release in 1976. Jordan held various posts in foreign offices of the exiled ANC. Both men also served as cabinet ministers after the fall of apartheid. Yet they have resisted the lure of the first-person pronoun, putting the emphasis on collective struggle. (“Pallo Jordan was in Harare on 2 February 1990. He recalls receiving the text of De Klerk’s speech two hours before delivery . . .”) Breakthrough draws on a trove of materials including the prison files of Nelson Mandela, ANC documents, as well papers by the Afrikaner-Broederbond, an all-white male secret society that exercised considerable power in the shadows.

Much of Breakthrough unfolds in the eighties, the period which also the backdrop of William Dicey’s bleakly engrossing book, 1986. “History happened at a furious rate in the mid-Eighties,” he writes in his author’s note. “Stories that in a different time might have dominated the headlines for days on end had a shelf-life of just a few hours.” By his own admission, Dicey was a bystander to the political tumult of these years. Although the country was put under a state of emergency, as a white teenager enrolled at a prestigious high school in Cape Town, his own life carried on “placidly and undisturbed.” Having decided to tackle the decade, Dicey first toyed with writing a memoir of his friendship with one of the few Black students on scholarship at his high school. But the further he read, the more disrespectful it seemed to insert his own life “into this world of drama writ large, of heroism and endurance and sacrifice.”

What led the principal adversaries in South Africa to seek a negotiated settlement instead of a fight to the finish?

Like Maharaj and Jordan, Dicey omits the “I,” a decision that allows him to “hear out all the participants,” as Svetlana Alexievich would say, the minor and major actors. In form, 1986 is a month-to-month chronicle, assembled from newspaper clippings, memoirs, political histories, and video footage. The title date has a particular significance: 1986 was the year clandestine talks between the apartheid government and opposition forces picked up. 

Though written from very different perspectives, Breakthrough  and 1986 are driven by the same overarching question: What led the principal adversaries in South Africa to seek a negotiated settlement instead of a fight to the finish? Both books have as their horizon the recently deceased president F.W. De Klerk’s address before the opening of parliament in February 1990, in which he announced the unbanning of all political parties, lifted the state of emergency, and passed other reforms that all but signalled the regime’s capitulation. 


South African Special Forces with UNITA solider in Angola. | Tumblr.

The figure who looms largest over both books is P.W Botha, a law school dropout who presided over the decade as South Africa’s last prime minister (1978-84) and its first executive state president (84-89). Before accepting the country’s top job, Botha had spent over a decade as defence minister. Under his watch, South Africa set up its covert nuclear weapons programme —by 1990, when the programme was dismantled, the country had built six uranium bombs—and an ever-larger portion of the national budget was commanded by the South African Defence Forces (SADF). “We are today involved in a war whether we like it or not,” Botha explained in 1977. South Africa was faced with what he called “Total Onslaught”—besieged by communist enemies inside and beyond its borders. “It is therefore essential that a total strategy [is] formulated at the highest level.” By that he meant white minority domination had to be defended by any means necessary. The Total Strategy, as Maharaj and Jordan point out, “was a policy that licensed a dirty war. This war recognised neither international law nor state boundaries and operated beyond the reach of South African law even inside the country.” 

Part of Botha’s problem was that the political landscape of Southern Africa was changing rapidly, as white settler regimes one by one fell. In ’75, Portugal lost hold of its colonies—Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau—in the wake of the Carnation Revolution. Then in 1980, after an interim period of British control, Zimbabwe also gained Independence. In Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, Mahmood Mamdani writes that 1975 marks the point when the battlegrounds of the Cold War shifted from South East Asia, with America’s defeat in Indochina, to Southern Africa. “The strategic question was this: who would pick up the pieces of the Portuguese empire in Africa, the United States or the Soviet Union?” 

Mamdani notes that the encroachment of Black majority governments were viewed by the United States and Pretoria as “nothing but a proxy for Soviet expansion into a rapidly decolonizing Africa.” In response, Botha set about destabilizing countries in the region, either by sending in ground troops or providing support to surrogate forces. Angola and Mozambique bore the brunt of his aggression. Namibia endured, in the words of military historian Gavin Cawthra, “one of the most intense and sustained military occupations in modern history.” Dicey quotes the historian Leonard Thompson’s verdict that an estimated one million people in neighboring states perished between 1980 and 1989 as direct result of aparthied South Africa’s foreign policy.  

The scale of death and destruction is hard to fathom. There is, however, a black-and-white photograph included in the pages of Breakthrough that captures something of the achievement (if we can call it that) of apartheid’s war machine. Taken on a cloudless day in Lesotho in December 1982, it shows then-president of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, mid-stride, hand on heart, looking down at a row of open caskets. Forty-two of his ANC comrades and Basotho civilians had been killed by the South African Defence Force (SADF) during a night-time raid on Lesotho’s capital Maseru. “Speaking at their funeral,” Dicey writes, “Oliver Tambo warned white South Africans that they too ‘would have to start burying their dead.’” The warning went unheeded.

It bears mentioning that members of Botha’s security establishment spent considerable time studying counter-revolutionary tactics employed in places like Algeria, Vietnam, Chile, and El Salvador.

Instead, the regime came to use similar tactics on home soil, deploying troops into the townships and arming right-wing vigilante groups. “Vigilante groups started to emerge in townships throughout the country towards the end of 1985,” Dicey writes. “These groups tended to comprise older men who had a vested interest in the apartheid system: homeland officials, black councillors and policemen, shopkeepers, shebeen (tavern) and taxi-owners, as well as the disaffected and desperately poor.” 1986 opens with an incident involving one such group, Mbokodo (“grinding stone”). They murdered twenty “troublemakers” in Moutse for opposing the government plan to incorporate the rural district into the Bantustan (Homeland) of KwaNdebele. It bears mentioning that members of Botha’s security establishment studied counter-revolutionary tactics perfected in places like Algeria, Vietnam, Chile, and El Salvador. West Point instructor John J. McCuen’s The Art of Counter-Revolutionary War (1966) is said to have been a seminal influence. 

If repression was the main plank of the Total Strategy, there was also a slate of reforms intended to co-opt the opposition. Yet in some cases they had the opposite effect, “shifting the centre of gravity in politics from the white sphere to the black,” as Dicey writes. For instance, worker organizations seized the space opened by legislation, prompted by the ’73 Durban Strikes, granting black trade unions legal recognition. Similarly, the introduction of the Tricameral Parliament in 1983—a three-tiered assembly which gave those classified as “Indian” and “Colored” superficial say over their own affairs—galvanised mass opposition. Cynically marketed as a power-sharing arrangement, opposition to the Tricameral Parliament provided the springboard for the launch of the United Democratic Front, a nation-wide coalition of hundreds of organisations, bearing the slogan UDF Unites, Apartheid Divides. It also sowed the seeds for the township protests that lasted from 1984 through 1986. The genie had been let out of the bottle. In 1985, Tambo called for a “people’s war” in the party’s state of the nation address. The next year, he told South Africans to “turn every corner of our country into a battlefield!” 


San Francisco Poster Brigade. | Library of Congress.

By then the regime was running out of room to maneuver. During the manufacturing boom of the 1960s, the economy had grown at a rate of 6.1 percent per year. But in the 1980s, the picture had reversed. Alongside disinvestment and trade sanctions, consumer boycotts against the sale of South African goods gained pace in Europe. Following the ’76 uprisings, white captains of industry who, according to political economist John Saul, “had mounted on the tiger of racial capitalism,” began to plead for political reform, “now that they find they can neither ride it comfortably, nor easily dismount.” But as Dicey points out, these calls were largely driven by pragmatism and self-interest. White capital in South Africa—from the mines to the vineyards—had always relied on the exploitation of cheap black labor. Now, however, “the costs of apartheid had begun to outweigh the benefits,” Dicey writes. Labor relations had also grown increasingly volatile.

With state income dwindling, Botha’s administration was itself running out of money and had resorted to procuring short-term loans on high interest that could be called in at a moment’s notice—which is exactly what happened. In July 1985, days after Botha declared a partial state of emergency, Chase Manhattan Bank announced that it would not roll over its loans to Pretoria. Other international banks followed suit.

The ruling National Party (NP) turned to reform as a way of easing the mounting international pressure. In the run-up to the NP’s congress in August 1985, the Department of Foreign Affairs circulated word Washington and London—Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were strong allies of the regime—that Botha would introduce a radical shift in policy at his opening address. Time magazine gushed that it would be “the most important statement since Dutch settlers arrived at the Cape of Good Hope 300 years ago.” But at the last minute, Botha tore up the speech prepared for him and declared that he was “not prepared to lead white South Africans . . . on a road to abdication and suicide.” The economic fallout from Botha’s speech was catastrophic: the currency lost 35 percent of its value in two weeks. The governor of the South African Reserve Bank at the time, Gerhard de Kock, “estimated that the speech had cost the economy more than a million rand per word (and it ran into several thousand words.)” 

Both books push against the idea that the aspirations of the majority were simply “sold out” by the elites at the bargaining table

The NP would cling on to power for a few more years before apartheid buckled. Mamdani argues that the U.S policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with Pretoria “clearly delayed political reform in South Africa by at least a decade.” Be that as it may, South Africa in the 1980s was caught in a deadly spiral of violence. And it was not only between the state and democratic protesters. Ordinary citizens suspected of cooperating with the regime’s security forces were targeted—often, burnt to death—by the opposition; many lives were lost in clashes between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party led by Chief Mangosuthu Buthulezi. None of the belligerents seemed capable of securing a decisive victory. Samuel Huntington, who was consulted by Botha’s security establishment, concluded after a February 1986 visit that the government was “too weak to impose reform from above” and the opposition did not possess the military strength “to compel reform from below.”


In 1982, Nelson Mandela and four of his comrades—Andrew Mlangeni, Raymond Mhlaba, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada (who joined them at a later date)—were moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor, a prison on the mainland. Three years later, Mandela was hospitalized for a time; upon his discharge, he was housed separately in three large cells. Clearly, the regime was trying to drive a wedge between him and his comrades. Mandela, however, “read his isolation as signalling the arrival of the moment to engage the regime and persuade them it was time to talk to the ANC,” Maharaj and Jordan write. 

1986 and Breakthrough do not deal substantively with South Africa’s political compromise, which remains a hotly contested subject in the country. Yet by attending to the complexity of the political struggle in the decade leading up to it, both books push against the idea that the aspirations of the majority were simply “sold out” by the elites at the bargaining table, an accusation that has been leveled against Mandela and his comrades in recent years. The agreement, Achille Mbembe once noted, “led neither to final victory nor to crippling defeat for any of the protagonists in the historical drama. . . .  This is the stalemate many would now like to end.” Very much so.

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