André Odendaal’s new book on Oliver Tambo and his secret think-tank
In his annual presidential address on 8 January 1986, ANC president Oliver Tambo called on South Africans to make apartheid ungovernable through militant action. But unknown to the world, the quiet-spoken mathematics teacher and aspirant priest-turned-reluctant revolutionary had also on that very day set up a secret think-tank in Lusaka. This think-tank, named the Constitution Committee, had ‘no precedent in the history of the movement’.
Knowing all wars end at the negotiating table, and judging the balance of forces to be moving in favour of the liberation movement, Tambo wanted the ANC to be holding the initiative after the political collapse of apartheid.
Guided by analysis by Pallo Jordan, Tambo instructed his new think-tank to prepare a constitutional framework and formulate the principles for a liberated, non-racial, democratic South Africa.
The seven-member team, including Albie Sachs, Kader Asmal and Zola Skweyiya, started deliberating and reporting to Tambo. In correspondence, they typically addressed him as ‘Dear Comrade President’.
Drawing on the personal archives of participants, Dear Comrade President explains how this process, which fundamentally influenced the history of contemporary South Africa, unfolded.
Oliver Tambo had a punishing schedule. He travelled regularly and engaged widely with internal and external parties on the way forward. Furthermore, his health was deteriorating. At the end of 1985, he was put off work and sent to the Soviet Union for treatment. He’d had a mild stroke in 1982 and his doctors warned him that the constant flying, changes of climate and overwork ‘may well push a fragile balance out of equilibrium’. But his treadmill routine continued. In February 1986, he travelled to Sweden to address the Swedish Parliament and met with UDF leaders from South Africa, as well as Prime Minister Olaf Palme who was soon to be assassinated. The next month he had important discussions in Mozambique, where he attended the funeral of Moses Mabhida, general secretary of the SACP. Afterwards, he boarded a long flight to Cuba where he and Thabo Mbeki met Fidel Castro, who inter alia warned them bout the pitfalls of nationalisation. In May, Tambo went to Malaysia, India and France, and on the sixteenth of that month he took charge of a meeting in Lusaka between the ANC NEC and the high-level Eminent Persons Group representing the Commonwealth heads of government.
Since February 1986, the EPG had been shuttling between PW Botha, the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, the ANC in Lusaka, the UDF and Cosatu, with a view to creating a climate conducive to negotiations. Moreover, Tambo’s visit to Paris had been undertaken in preparation for a meeting between the Soviet Union and Cuba with Swapo and the ANC over the possibility of a political settlement in Namibia. The ANC itself was now having to engage openly and formally on the possibility of negotiations.
The Constitution Committee saw a role for itself in these ‘talks of talks about constitution’. On 11 May 1986, shortly before Tambo and the NEC met the EPG delegation, its secretary Jobs Jobodwana wrote:
Our committee is generally aware of meetings and consultations as for instance the Eminent Persons Group in South Africa and outside. We do our best to follow these events by examining reports in the press and journals, but should like to have access to more authoritative sources which we assume are available by the NEC. We shall be grateful if material of this kind can be made available to us to study and report. We assure you that the principle of confidentiality will be strictly observed.
On 19 May, two days after the NEC met with the EPG, Constitution Committee chairperson Jack Simons sent Jobodwana a set of nine documents the NEC had used in its preparations for that meeting. Interestingly, two of these had been written by Simons himself for the NEC: a summary of a PW Botha speech and a document on ‘A Possible Negotiating Concept’ sent to the ANC by the EPG. The ANC boxed cleverly against the EPG. It decided ‘to be firm but not hostile’ and to ‘place the EPG on the defensive … by viewing it in the light that KK [Kenneth Kaunda] suggests’, i.e. as an additional vehicle for advancing sanctions. The ANC reasoned that it was premature to talk of negotiations because Botha was only using the idea to buy time. The ANC would ‘avoid any formulation’ that invited a third party to be involved as facilitator or chair, as it would then risk being sidelined in the process. Finally, in line with thinking since Jordan’s recent paper, the ANC ‘had no objections to an entrenched Bill of Individual Rights’ but opposed group rights of any kind.
However, 19 May 1986 was also the day the EPG saw its mission being scuttled by Botha. Their delegation was in Cape Town when his forces hit what they called ‘ANC targets’ in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia – all countries that the EPG had visited. Pallo Jordan recalls the aeroplanes coming over Makeni at tree height. Botha also proclaimed a new nationwide state of emergency, and thousands of anti-apartheid activists were detained. The ANC’s political standing rose in the wake of the EPG. Jordan, in his late 1985 presentations, had flagged the possibility of the ANC being under undue pressure to talk prematurely, but this immediate risk now slid away. Western countries imposed sanctions as the ANC desired, and conservative Western leaders started talking to the organisation for the first time. This underlined that the ANC could not be excluded from any future negotiations – a point that the regime would concede only two years later in 1988.
At the height of these dramatic political events, Tambo was sent to East Germany for medical treatment for his heart. In April, he had reminded Skweyiya about the importance of staying in touch with lawyers from home, but on the debates between the NWC and the Constitution Committee the president was keeping a distance.
The EPG outcome ended up giving the NEC a breathing space, but it had yet to resolve a key uncertainty: how to translate its firmly held notion of ‘People’s Power’ into constitutional terms that harmonised with the Freedom Charter.
In 1969, the ANC had adopted its ‘Strategy and Tactics’ document at Morogoro, after nearly a decade of exile and illegality at home. This had marked a decisive move towards seeing liberation coming from revolutionary struggle with a strong armed component. It closely identified with anti-imperialist Third World liberation movements from Vietnam in Asia to Nicaragua in Latin America, and ongoing liberation struggles in Africa, such as those in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau. The discourse of revolution, including the seizure of power and class analysis, became the bedrock of much thinking in the exile movement.
The overthrow of the fascist dictatorship in Portugal by middle-ranking army officers of the 1974 Carnation Revolution was inspiring. But more important was that liberation movements had achieved independence in Angola and Mozambique after years of armed struggled. The MPLA in Angola and Frelimo in Mozambique both proclaimed new constitutions based on concepts of People’s Power. After the Soweto Uprising in 1976, MK recruits from South Africa were being trained and housed in camps in the People’s Republic of Angola, while people from all over the world, including South Africa, were coming as ‘cooperantes’ to offer their skills in support of the Mozambican revolution.
As Joe Slovo pointed out, ‘during these periods the basic political content of the ANC was moulded in the socialist countries … from 1970 onwards we started sending people in large numbers to the GDR, to Bulgaria, to the Soviet Union and so on, and they were brain washed in Marxism’. He would later say, ‘Thinking back on it now it horrifies me to remember the kind of things they were taught. As a socialist, as I am now speaking, very mechanical rubbish Stalinist concepts.’
The concept of People’s Power was reinforced by the insurrectionary climate inside South Africa itself, where the people were being called on to make apartheid unworkable and the country ungovernable. From late 1984 onwards, People’s Power increasingly became part of the discourse and drive of popular internal politics. By the end of August 1984, local government structures were being attacked and rendered inoperative in various parts of the country. Street committees and alternative local structures were set up. People’s education and other programmes became popular.
Daryl Glaser has written about the ‘indeterminacies’ of the two models the ANC was trying to reconcile but which could not be definitively resolved. This was in part because the Marxist-inspired, National Democratic Revolution (NDR), People’s Power model and the constitutional democracy model were two theories that ‘speak past each other, having never expected to meet on ground where their respective ideologues would need to find a common language’. The places where they did meet throughout the 20th century were in struggles against fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, and in struggles for national liberation in the 1960s to 1980s. In these situations, Marxists, on the one hand, felt obliged to put aside pure class analysis to build broad fronts with non-socialist forces against tyranny. On the other, non-Marxist democrats recognised that in those life-and-death struggles, a constitutional solution would need to go beyond formal rules to incorporate fundamental socio-economic and political changes in society as a constitutional goal. ‘Despite their discordant relationships, the two logics are not irreconcilable,’ Glaser concludes.
It was against this background that the Constitution Committee had to consider the very brief NWC feedback from Ruth Mompati on 7 February 1986, with its implicit critique that the Committee was somehow unable to grasp the essence of a constitution suitable for a People’s Power approach. Position papers on various topics relevant to the debate were prepared for the leadership. Among these were three written by Simons, Sachs and Maduna, respectively, each dealing specifically with People’s Power.
After observing that ‘certain misgivings’ on the part of the NWC ‘necessitate remedial action’, and foreseeing problems should the liberation movement become ideologically divided, Simons also proposed that the Committee discuss recommending to the NEC the formation of a new national front embracing parties that had the same revolutionary perspectives, ideals or aims, and that the SACP, Sactu and the ANC (while retaining some autonomy) should form a single organisation, goal and platform. He feared that in future ‘under the usual conditions of ballot box rivalries’ the three organisations ‘might become rivals in a ruthless war of words, to the delight of our enemies and dismay of the people … Under such conditions of disunity, it is conceivable, even likely, that governments will cease to carry out the will of the people’. To prevent such a disaster, the first practical precondition for People’s Power was to preserve the ‘existing unity of purpose and action before and after the revolution’ and move towards ‘some kind of fusion’ organisationally. The Constitution Committee quietly withdrew Simons’ thought-provoking position paper, with its seeming applicability to South Africa even today, and it was not taken further with the leadership in tandem with the Committee’s other papers. DM/ ML
André Odendaal is writer in residence and honorary professor in History and Heritage Studies at the University of the Western Cape, and the author of a dozen books, including Pitch Battles: Sport, Racism and Resistance (2020), co-authored with Peter Hain, and the jointly edited Robben Island Rainbow Dreams (2021) on the making of democratic South Africa’s first heritage institution. Dear Comrade President is published by Penguin Random House SA (R340). Visit The Reading List for South African book news, daily – including excerpts!
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