It seems to be the year for insurrections.
Of course, there was the attempted Capitol Hill insurrection in the US in January. But what current events at Nkandla – efforts to persuade former president and kleptocrat-in-chief Jacob Zuma to surrender to arrest for contempt of court – remind me of is another event that many South Africans may have forgotten or never heard of: the so-called Battle of Ventersdorp.
It was a violent confrontation in August 1991 (so almost exactly 30 years ago) between the then-National Party government and the AWB – the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, the Neo-Nazi hard rightwingers who were ready to fight for white supremacy in South Africa at almost any cost. It fell in the four-year interregnum between the unbanning of the ANC and release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, and the first sort-of democratic elections in 1994. (I say “sort-of democratic”, because as we’ve come to learn, a party-list parliament without meaningful constituency accountability is not really the democracy we need.)
I had a somewhat unique view of the Battle of Ventersdorp. Not that I was there; I wasn’t. I was 60 km south of Ventersdorp, a conscript in the then all-white South African Defence Force, at an artillery base five kilometres outside the Afrikaans university town of Potchefstroom: 4 Art, as it was known.
Ventersdorp, 100km west of Johannesburg, was then notorious as an AWB stronghold. The Battle of Ventersdorp was one of the most serious challenges from the white far-right to the authority of the National Party government, which by then had committed itself to some form of constitutional settlement with the ANC.
I’ve had to refresh my own memory. Wikipedia describes it thus:
The confrontation took place outside the Ventersdorp town hall where then State President F.W. de Klerk was scheduled to hold a public address. Ventersdorp was then a political stronghold of the right-wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), which had opposed de Klerk’s decision to recognise the African National Congress and release Nelson Mandela the previous year. The town was inundated by angry AWB supporters the day of de Klerk’s speech, including some carrying arms. The South African Police responded by setting up roadblocks and confiscating weapons… The AWB supporters numbered 2,000. They were armed with hunting rifles and pistols and wore protective items to shield them from the effects of an inevitable tear gas attack by the riot police. The police equalled the AWB in number, but were considerably better trained and equipped… Once the AWB cut the electricity and fired on the police, the police were ordered to shoot to kill. Three policemen were wounded, none of them fatally, while the police killed one AWB member. The AWB also fired into a police minibus. Two AWB members were killed and 13 were injured when the police returned fire from the minibus.
Here’s another account, in the New York Times.
What neither of these accounts entirely captures, and what I know from my own experience, is just how determined the National Party was to defeat the challenge offered by the AWB.
As the Ventersdorp confrontation loomed, the scale of the AWB threat became clear. It was by no means certain that the SAPS, the white-led apartheid police service, would be able to contain the AWB militia. So there was a back-up plan involving the army. A reserve force, entirely comprised of experienced officers and NCOs in (if my recollection is correct, around 30) armoured cars mounted with heavy machine guns – and I saw these being mounted – was marshalled on the outskirts of Ventersdorp, drawn from the various SADF units based in and around Potch, under the command of my “boss”, the artillery colonel. They were quite ready to swoop in if the police regulars were overwhelmed, and fight off the AWB; fortunately, the confrontation never became quite that bad.
At the time, the SADF had a built-in divide between career officers and NCOs, who were called “permanent force”, and conscripted ordinary soldiers. Many of my fellow conscripts were open AWB supporters. (They were not always the crude racists that this affiliation would suggest, a subject for another day.) The career army officers were well aware of the affiliations of their troops. No doubt some of them shared these sympathies, but they were professionals, by and large loyal to the state. They did not risk including any conscripts in this reserve force. I was instructed to keep quiet about what I knew of these preparations.
Back to 2021, and here we have another nationalist South African government, now decades in power, faced with a dangerous threat to its authority:
What do these inchoate insurrections have in common? Some thoughts come to mind…
- In both cases, the would-be insurrectionists seem to be driven by a sense of threatened privilege: white privilege in the case of the AWB; kleptocratic privilege in the case of Zuma.
- Carl Niehaus (who somewhere in my mind’s eye is still a young, athletic, principled lefty; what happened?) now bears a spooky resemblance to Eugene Terreblanche, the AWB’s most notorious leader.
I suspect our present ANC government is every bit as determined, in its own way, to neuter the Zuma threat. I shiver to think what invisible preparations are being made behind the scenes to counter it.
These events differ in that the AWB threat came from the far-right of white South African politics, whereas the Zuma mob remains regrettably embedded all too closely within the ANC mainstream.
Perhaps this is for the best, in a weird sense. My bet, and I truly hope I am right, is that in the end, after much 11th-hour bluster, ANC leaders and elders will succeed in negotiating a peaceful surrender from the old crook.
(Postscript: They did.)
How did I come to be a distant witness to the Battle of Ventersdorp?
At the time, military service was compulsory for young white men in South Africa. The devil’s bargain of the apartheid state was turning its children (the human brain doesn’t fully mature until age 25) towards violence and moral compromise. This was of course dressed up as heroic service against the many enemies of the state.
Many young white men of my age and class managed to defer compulsory military service by extending their university studies. That wasn’t an option for me. Following a bout of (undiagnosed, untreated) severe depression, I’d had been forced to drop out of my BA Hons. degree in English literature midway through 1990, and my choices were either to leave SA, go to prison as a conscientious objector (I considered this, but did not have the courage for a likely minimum two years in jail), or go to the army for one year.
By then, fortunately, the white South African military had withdrawn from its Cold War battles in Angola and Namibia. We were now not the “boys on the border”. As a conscript, I no longer risked being forced to fight against Cubans in Angola or to brutalise SWAPO insurgents in Namibia. The term for conscription had been cut from two years as was the norm during the 1980s to one year only. But conscripts were still pushed into the dirty work of the apartheid state, supporting “police action” in the South African townships, then frequently the site of running battles between the SAPS, ANC supporters, and members of the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party, who frequently operated as police surrogates.
I was fortunate. I am nearly blind in my left eye, and so, after being “called up”, got a medical exemption from ever having to fire a gun. I hadn’t anticipated that. But I’d been a practising Buddhist for about two years then, and had become a UDF supporter during my time at the University of Cape Town, so I had no complaints about being non-combatant. The UDF (United Democratic Front) was the 1980s alliance of union and civil society organisations that represented the ANC inside South Africa before its unbanning; and included in its ranks people like our current president, Cyril Ramaphosa.
After my six weeks basic training, I was assigned as a clerk in the office of the brigade Colonel, for whom I was running errands on 9 August 1991, an unlikely witness to the preparation of this counter-insurgency operation; at once shocked and impressed by the determination of the National Party to face down a facist threat to its own authority.
My role as a clerk made me privy to a register of firearm and armaments accidents that resulted from conscripts stealing and taking home weapons, and it was a long and horrifying list.
I also remember meeting many prisoners of the military police, some of whom, after repeated periods of going AWOL, had circulated between time in the ranks, civilian prison and military prison for up to eight years, trapped in a military-bureaucratic-penitential purgatory. The military liked to claim that it would make a man of you, and some did thrive and mature, after a fashion, but many others were just broken.
Here’s some further reading:
Theresa Edlmann, The Conversation, 2 September 2015, ‘The lingering, unspoken pain of white youth who fought for apartheid’.
I don’t class myself as bearing the pain described by Edlmann. I was slightly older, and by virtue of my initial university education and experiences of student and progressive politics, morally more fully formed when I was conscripted than were most of my fellow troops. (I still remember the horsing around that ensued when we were issued with rifles; I was horrified both that my companions were playing with real weapons, and that the officers did not check this behaviour. We really were children.) I was never, thankfully, forced into combat or directly morally compromising actions.
In noting the real pain and damage the apartheid state inflicted on its beneficiaries (undue privilege always has a price), I in no way mean to minimise or draw equivalences with the compounding horrors and indignities visited on black South Africans during, before and after that era, which have been consigned all too quickly to wilful forgetfulness. Most white South Africans do not fully understand and recognise the extent of the collective crimes of the apartheid and colonial states in South Africa.
Another impression from those experiences that lives on: the SADF defined itself by its mission to “fight communism”. Yet there can be few better examples of the kind of command economy espoused by state-led communism than the internal economy of an army. The irony was overwhelming: you had to become your enemy to fight them.
The army I was part of had lost its sense of purpose. It was still fighting old wars; we sang marching songs about enemies with whom the politicians had already made peace. Waste and abuse of resources was endemic; resources were “free” and entirely taken for granted by most.
Some countries, notably Costa Rica, have abandoned having a military altogether; and the decision has only helped along their development. Yet how do you defend yourself in a world with other real armies – the need to do so is real. Another subject for another occasion.