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‘Sabotage’ and ‘soldiers’: Is South Africa still at war with itself?

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Dr Matthew Blackman is a journalist and the co-author with Nick Dall of ‘Legends: People Who Changed South Africa for the Better’ and ‘Rogues Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa’ (both Penguin Random House). He has a PhD from the University of East Anglia and lives with two dogs of nameless breed.

South Africa can look to its long history of internal wars to understand some of the ways its path forward may play out. Crucially, President Cyril Ramaphosa should consider the weak response of Jan Smuts in the face of the power of the Broederbond – and ensure he does not repeat it.

As former Eskom CEO André de Ruyter raised the spectre of “soldiers” and “sabotage”, I wondered to myself whether South Africa is in a state of civil war. Certainly, these are not words associated with peace time. 

Kevin Bloom’s article on crime cartels and Eskom seemed to confirm this, at least to some extent. As far-fetched as it may seem, it is worth considering the implications of the idea.

What really got me thinking about this was De Ruyter’s talk of the sabotage inflicted on the railways. Well, I thought, how do we stop this? And the thing that popped into my head was: how did the British do it during the South African War? They did it with blockhouses. 

Warring nation

The blockhouses that speckle their way around the interior of South Africa are one of the long-lasting testimonies to the fact that we’re a warring nation. A warring nation that has been fighting internal conflicts since at least 1652. 

The wars and massacres that have besieged our country make for a long list: the nine Frontier Wars (1779-1879), the Mfecane, the Zulu wars, the Basotho wars, the Anglo-Boer War of 1880-1881, the Jameson Raid (1896), the South African War of 1899-1902, the Bambatha Rebellion (1905), the Boer Rebellion (1914), the Bulhoek Massacre (1921), the Rand Revolt (1922), ​​Witzieshoek Revolt (1950), Sharpeville, the Border War, Soweto, the 1980s township unrest, faction fighting in KZN and in the Vaal triangle, right-wing bombings and killings in the lead-up to 1994, Marikana, the July riots… I could add many more.

Rarely, if ever, have we had a decade of peace. Perhaps we need to reassess and refocus on what exactly we are looking at when we view our country.

War and crime

My argument has other more obvious analogies to add to its weight. The railways and Eskom were also sabotaged back in the day by, among others, the right-wing Ossewabrandwag, the liberal African Resistance Movement and the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe.

South Africa’s birth was facilitated in many senses with the forceps of war and crime, and its life support system has been endlessly attacked.

Today we are calling the saboteurs “cartels” or criminals. But again, this is not an unusual moniker for this form of activity. The Boers and the Brits stole land and cattle – and they were once thought of as both soldiers and criminals. 

Colonialism was in some senses the greatest criminal cartel in history. 

And cattle-raiding has been, in fact, something of a South African pastime from the year dot. 

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The British robbed and mutilated the body of King Hintsa in 1835, the fascist Ossewabrandwag robbed banks, and Umkhonto we Sizwe were also implicated in crime syndicates in the 1980s. The PAC’s first military wing, Poqo, seemingly actively sought out criminals to help them survive financially by robbing.

Why do we think that the country we live in today is any different to times past? 

Some might argue we had a peace settlement in 1994. And as part of that agreement, we had the most just and fair Constitution delivered to us by Cyril Ramaphosa himself. And this is perhaps the crux. 

Epic failure

The Constitution was meant to bring equality before the law for all races, and the peace that is synonymous with equal access to healthcare, housing, education and, yes, electricity. That has failed. 

Or more correctly, the ANC’s politicians who took an oath to uphold the Constitution have epically failed us – along with the ideology of neoliberalism. 

It could be argued the peace settlement has been broken. 

But just who is at war with whom is a little more difficult to explain. In some respects, the ANC is at war with itself. But most of us can’t see the lines of attack and the weapons being used. 

One side seems to be covering the posterior of their enemy. Ramaphosa vs the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction only becomes truly visible at conference times… before disappearing in the camouflage of arcane NEC meetings.

Another problem is that the democratic weapons the state has at its command are broken. 

The National Prosecuting Authority, the police, the Hawks, the secret services and the army were so damaged and infiltrated during the Zuma years that they have little to offer. They are simply dust in the balance of justice outweighed by the heavy waters of the fire pool.

Smuts and the Broederbond

So can we draw from an example from the past that is analogous to our present position? The closest I can think of is Jan Smuts’ war with the Ossewabrandwag (OB) and the Broederbond, which I wrote about in Rogues’ Gallery. As Smuts realised, these were the Afrikaner enemy from within.

To fight this internal Afrikaner war, Smuts employed his head of military intelligence, Dr Ernst Malherbe. Malherbe was one of the most capable men in South Africa at the time. Educated at Stellenbosch and Columbia, he was tasked with investigating the Broederbond.

When he finally reported back to Smuts, he confirmed that the Broeders were a destabilising internal force that was infiltrating and weakening the civil service and the police.

Malherbe encouraged Smuts to act against them, as he had against the fascist Ossewabrandwag. During the Second World War, Smuts had thrown, without trial, many of the OB’s members, including a young BJ Vorster, into a prison camp at Koffiefontein.

But when it came to the Broederbond, whose methods of war were slightly murkier than those of the Ossewabrandwag, Smuts was uncertain and fearful of a wider backlash. He simply did not have the stomach for it.

They were too enmeshed within the system, too much part of his own Afrikaner system. Instead of taking decisive action, Smuts weakly demanded that all civil servants and police who were members of the Broederbond resign from the secret organisation. A total of 1,094 people complied with his request and left the Broederbond.

But Smuts’ loss in the 1948 general election was in some ways a result of the Broederbond’s power from within. This power helped to usher Broeder DF Malan into office, and the vast majority of Broeders simply resumed their membership as apartheid kicked in.

Smuts lost the battle against the Broederbond, the RET faction of their day, and South Africa lived with the consequences for the next four decades. 

One feels that Ramaphosa is facing a Smuts-like decision.

If he does not act against the enemy within, who knows what will happen? 

What is certain is that his failure to act has already been catastrophic. One can only imagine it will get worse. DM

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  • Errol Price says:

    The most striking and indeed shocking sentence in the above article is this :
    ” One feels that Ramaphosa is facing a Smuts-like decision ”
    That may or may not be true as a metaphorical proposition but to any-one familiar with South African history the fact that these two are mentioned in the same sentence must induce a profound sense of shock.
    Jan Smuts was an absolute giant intellect, lawyer, biologist , and world -renowned statesman who played an instrumental role in fashioning a peaceful world order at critical times.
    Ramaphosa is a hack , bereft of any leadership qualities and a moral pygmy who spends his time stuffing dollar bills into a sofa.
    How far has South Africa fallen !!

  • Bruce Q says:

    Comparisons are odious at the best of times.
    These are the worst of times.
    There are more and more discussions being aired by South Africans of all races that the ‘freedom’ achieved since the scourge of apartheid was abolished, has come at a huge cost. Especially to the poorest of the poor.
    If the racist Nationalist government didn’t respect the Black African race, that disrespect is absolutely nothing to how the ANC government treats them now.
    You see, comparisons are odious.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      That is the reason why Madiba was able to say words to the effect that if the ANC does to you what the apartheid regime did, then you must do to it what you did with the apartheid regime. He did not harbour any illusions of ‘liberation/freedom’ !

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      A very pertinent and acute analysis ! The reference to CR as ‘author’ of the new constitution is ‘contradicted’ by his pathetic attempt to BS Zondo into accepting that cadre deployment is ‘constitutional’ ! It is consistent with authoritarian and fascist states who make the judiciary a ‘functionary’ of the state as in Russia and China. No wonder Gwede keeps railing against those who hold the state ‘accountable’ … and not a law unto itself !

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