Book review: People’s War


Anthea Jeffery’s “People’s War – New light on the struggle for South Africa” was published into a storm of controversy in 2009 and mostly negative reviews.

A reader on called it a “book is full of anti-revolutionary and reactionary drivel that could only be believed by all Apartheid Apologists [sic] the world over.” Mail & Guardian news editor Drew Forrest said it “is a tract masquerading as history. And what makes it additionally depressing reading is its musty odour of déjà vu.” He adds: “Far from shedding ‘new light’ on South Africa’s pre-transition upheavals, it is a restatement of the ideological fixations of the South African Institute of Race Relations in the 1984-94 period and particularly its dizzy romance with Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.”

Security analyst David Africa – also in ThoughtLeader – wrote “Jeffery distorts the whole concept of ‘people’s war’ by quoting supposedly independent experts which were in fact members of the US administration engaged in Vietnam, members of the apartheid regime and others with very explicit political agendas. Quoting General Viljoen, Lennox Sebe and others as if they are impartial observers betrays Jeffery’s own bias when looking at ‘people’s war’ and the history of the South African struggle. ‘People’s war’ is portrayed as a war in which the entire populace (of course special mention is made of women and children) are machines in the armed struggle, to be used and disposed as such. The concept of ‘people’s war’ as practised by both the Vietnamese and South African liberation movements cannot be further from this distortion.”

This controversy relates to the ongoing “battle of history” in South Africa. In George Orwell’s novel, “1984”, the motto of the Ministry of Information proclaimed “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” To this one can add the observation of Frederik van Zyl Slabbert in his “The Other Side of History” (Jonathan Ball, Jeppestown, Johannesburg, 2006) that “One thing the ‘old’ and ‘new’ South Africa have in common is a passion for inventing history. History is not seen as a dispassionate inquiry into what happened, but rather as part of political mobilisation promoting some form of collective self-interest. Not for one second do I pretend to know the ‘whole’ or ‘real’ story of what happened in the old South Africa, or what is happening in the ‘new’. I know that significant parts of what has been, or is being invented, are not the way I experienced them.”

Fred Khumalo wrote in the Sunday Times (July 23, 2006) that the winners have always rewritten history. “They rewrite history to, sometimes, justify past actions. Or to lay the foundations for deeds they want to commit in future based on the mandate “gained” through a version of history that casts them in a favourable light.”

As students of military affairs this politicking does not interest us. What does is Jeffery’s thesis on the insurgency campaign waged against the South African government by the armed and political formations of the now-ruling African National Congress (ANC), especially after 1978. In that year an ANC delegation visited Vietnam, recently unified after a long war (1945-1975) of liberation against the French, the US and their local Quislings. There Oliver Tambo, Joe Modise, Joe Slovo, Chris Hani and Alfred Nzo met “the legendary strategist General Vo Nguyen Giap” who “had succeeded in refining standard Marxist-Leninist theories on the seizure of power into a notable blueprint for success. He had come up with a formula against which there was no easy antidote and which could be used not only to humble a militarily powerful adversary, such as the Pretoria government, but also to subsume or destroy rival organisations. He had also demonstrated the value of that blueprint, as recently as 1975, by defeating South Vietnam and its powerful American ally and uniting Vietnam under communist control.” (President Jacob Zuma last year congratulated Vo on his 100th birthday at three separate state occasions during his visit there.)

Jeffery notes the the ANC’s visit “was not widely publicised.” But its importance, according to Russian ANC scholar Dr Vladimir Shubin “is difficult to over-estimate”. According to Shubin, the delegates were “deeply impressed by the Vietnamese methods of underground armed struggle, especially the coordination between illegal an mass activities”. Above all else, they learnt that a revolution must “walk on both feet”: one military ad the other political. “They thus realised (as Tambo wrote in his notebook) that the ANC had fallen into a ‘bad strategic situation’ in which too much emphasis had been placed on the armed struggle at the expense of political mobilisation, making for ‘an impossible equation’.”

The ANC clearly learned what Vo had to teach because by 1990 they were the dominant military-political formation opposing the government and in 1994 won a democratic election by a landslide. That advantage at the ballot box has yet to be seriously challenged.

As far as this reviewer can determine, this is the first book to seriously measure the ANC’s insurgency against revolutionary doctrine. This gives this book a perspective contained in no other history of the liberation struggle. It is a major eye-opener and contains many themes that can be profitably explored by future authors. This makes “People’s War” important to military professionals studying insurgency and counterinsurgency – whether revolutionary or reactionary.

There is further food for thought or the post-1994 period: people’s war set in motion forces that cannot easily be reversed – violence and a culture of violence cannot be turned off ‘like a tap’ and neither can anarchy easily be converted into order.

Anthea Jeffery

People’s War – New light on the struggle for South Africa

Jonathan Ball Publishers



ISBN: 978-1-86842-357-6
634 pages. Maps. No illustrations, index. Soft cover