Editors’ Introduction – March 1984

After the ‘Nkomati Accord’ – the ANC must rethink its strategy

The Nkomati peace pact between the South African government and the Frelimo government of Mozambique makes the publication of this pamphlet on the “Lessons of the 1950s” all the more timely.

Why? Because the pact can only drive home the realisation among the black working people of South Africa that they are their own liberators—that no-one else can do the job for them. It can only spur on the search within the rising working-class movement for the policies, methods of political organisation, strategy and leadership necessary for a successful revolutionary struggle.

The decade of the 1950s was in many ways a forerunner and ‘dress rehearsal’ for the mass movement today, now facing even greater and more bitter battles against the bosses and their racist state. Understanding the lessons of the 1950s—understanding, in particular, why the movement of that time ended in division and defeat—can be a precious asset today, helping to forewarn activists against old errors and pitfalls.



Tremendous struggles

The 1950s was a period of tremendous struggles, involving in actions, at one time or another, hundreds of thousands of people over the length and breadth of the country.

That was the period which established the tradition of the ANC as the focal point for united mass resistance; which raised its now-imprisoned leaders to unequalled prominence; which produced the Freedom Charter; and which gave birth to SACTU as the first national non-racial trade union federation based on African workers.

While the traditions of the 1950s still echo strongly in the movement today, it is not widely known or understood, especially among the younger generation of militants, precisely what policies, methods and tactics were followed by the leadership at that time—and with what results.

In that respect the memory of the 1950s has been eclipsed by the ANC’s pursuit for the past twenty years of a strategy of “armed struggle”. It is the carrying out of bombings and other guerilla actions by units of Umkhonto we Sizwe which has become the hallmark of the ANC.



Blind alley

Inqaba has argued consistently that a guerilla strategy is a blind alley in South Africa, falsely raising hopes of victory which this method of struggle cannot fulfil. It strengthens the enemy which it is intended to weaken; it diverts the efforts of many militant youth from the essential tasks of mass organisation; and it has retarded the understanding of the working class that the only road to victory lies through the mobilisation of their own power.

Now the Accord of Nkomati has cast its own brutal light upon the issue.

Underpinning the ANC’s strategy has been the belief that secure military bases could be built up in neighbouring countries as the movement for independence and majority rule advanced down the continent to the borders of South Africa itself. Then (so the thinking went), from these ‘Frontline States’, mounting pressure of armed actions by the fighters of MK could eventually cripple the South African state.

It must surely be admitted now that that conception of the liberation struggle lies in ruins.




In fact, the ‘Accord’ between South Africa and Mozambique only makes publicly obvious what has long been the reality in Southern Africa.

Capitalist South Africa, with its developed modern industry, towers more and more over the whole sub-continent. It is an imperialist power—weak in world terms but a giant on the scale of Africa. The financiers and monopolists who head its ruling class need the markets, the raw materials and the labour power of the whole region to fuel their machinery of exploitation and profit.

Their drive to dominate Southern Africa politically follows from an economic drive. To safeguard their position in South Africa itself, they must extend their power beyond its borders. The might of their industry gives them the economic and military means to blackmail and bully their weak and crisis-torn neighbours.

As a result, the ‘national independence’ of the countries of Southern Africa is an empty and brittle shell—and will remain so until the capitalist class and capitalist state in South Africa is overthrown.



Main threat

The main threat to the ruling class in South Africa, as their own strategists recognise, comes from the awakening power of the black working class.

Industrial development has given SA capitalism the means to build a formidable state apparatus, based on white privilege and domination, designed for the armed repression of the black working-class majority. But this same industrial development, by raising the strength, cohesion and consciousness of the workers, drives them towards their task of overthrowing the state and putting an end to the racist, capitalist system.

In the hope—which will prove vain—of warding off this threat, the South African regime now conjures with `constitutional reform’, intended to disperse the black working class and divide it against itself on ethnic or tribal lines.

Economics, and politics intermesh. Foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy. The plan to construct a `constellation’ of dependent black satellite-states around the golden sun of ‘white’ urban industrial centres, can-not limit itself to the Bantustans alone.

It reaches out, striving to draw in by force also Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and even countries beyond. It seeks by these means to ground the whole scheme on firmer foundations; to keep its greedy grip on Namibia even while negotiating ‘independence’; and—by breaking out of political isolation internationally—to lean more openly on the now surreptitious backing of the major imperialist powers.




This introduction to “Lessons of the 1950s” is not the place for a full analysis of the Nkomati Accord and its likely consequences; nor for a study of the irreconcilable contradictions which will cause the strategy of the SA regime—despite the pliability of its neighbour governments—eventually to fail in both its domestic and international aspects.

The point to make here is this: the ANC leadership itself will be compelled, sooner or later, by the realities of the struggle, by these and subsequent events, to change its strategy. It will be compelled to turn from its reliance on guerillaism to rely upon the movement of the working class, for no other force exists with the potential to take on effectively the power of the SA state.

The sooner this fact is recognised and this turn made, the better.



Made easier

Unwittingly, in fact, the ANC policy of guerillaism made it easier for South Africa to turn the screws on the neighbouring states, for the regime was able to use the pretext of attacking “terrorism” to cover its tactics of military aggression and economic strangulation.

Now the policy of guerillaism has suffered a public defeat. It is far better to acknowledge that than to ‘soldier on regardless’, however bravely, by old failed methods.

The reality of the situation cannot be lost on the hundreds of ANC comrades now being hounded in a number of countries of the region. More important still, however, is that fact that persistence in this bankrupt strategy can only lead to further and worse defeats in the future. Its continuation is in conflict with the best interests of the workers’ movement struggling to build itself at home.

On the other hand, from acknowledging a defeat, the causes of which are analysed, understood and made clear to everyone, the ANC can emerge strengthened.




This pamphlet shows that the origins of the ANC’s turn in the 1960s to the policy of guerillaism lay in the failure of its leadership to appreciate that the achievement of national liberation and democracy in South Africa depends on a successful struggle of the working class against their capitalist exploiters.

The turn to guerillaism came at the end of a long period of mass struggles, which lacked nothing when it came to courage, militancy and self-sacrifice, but which were constantly crippled by the lack of a coherent revolutionary conception and strategy on the part of the leadership.

The cause of this, in turn, was a refusal to recognise the class nature of the struggle, and a fruitless search for democratic concessions through compromise with the liberal wing of the capitalist class.

The turn to “armed struggle” was an attempt to deal with increasingly vicious state repression. But it was a continuation of an old mistake in a new and worse form—for it abandoned all efforts to build systematically the organised power of the working class; hoped to substitute for this power the actions of secret armed units; and sought its allies in the diplomatic forums of the United Nations, the governments of Africans states, etc.

The Nkomati Accord has given a rude shock to this entire policy—and it highlights the fact that effective solidarity in Southern Africa means the unity of the working class of the whole region in a common struggle. All else is illusory.

Moreover, it must be recognised that our only reliable ally internationally is the working class struggling against exploitation in all capitalist countries and against political oppression in both the West and the East.



Digest lessons

To make a successful turn to a new strategy it will be necessary fully to digest the lessons of the 1950s, the period when the ANC stood openly at the head of the mass movement.

Today the UDF is regarded by millions of working people in South Africa as a forerunner for the eventual re-emergence of the ANC once again in its former role. That is why the launching of the UDF last year was greeted with such enthusiasm by activists wanting to unite the movement nationally in effective political action campaigns.

But, by simply repeating the methods and approach which failed in the 1950s, by not analysing and correcting those mistakes, the leaders of the UDF have already lost many opportunities for nation-wide mobilisation.

We hope that this pamphlet will assist in clarifying the tasks for the many working-class activists now trying to build and transform the UDF, and so prepare the way for the future transformation of the ANC into an effective instrument of our revolutionary struggle.


Continue to Chapter One.