LETTER: People’s war, the Soviets and the ANC
The concept can be traced back to a 1960s short course given by Moscow to guerrilla movements
Carol Paton stated in her feature on Mangosuthu Buthelezi that the concept of a “people’s war” in SA was a result of an ANC visit to Vietnam in 1978 (“Mangosuthu Buthelezi: Tambo tainted my legacy”, September 16). This is incorrect.
In the late 1960s the Soviet leadership commissioned a short course intended for third world guerrilla movements that looked to Moscow for aid. This course, known as military combat work (MCW), was given to a wide variety of movements that sent missions to Moscow. The MCW explicitly recommends “people’s war” and explains how guerrillas should infiltrate their home country and establish “points of influence” there.
Naturally, many of those who attended the course made notes and this included a number of MK activists, with the result that various versions of the MCW circulated within the ANC. In the mid-1970s this was standardised as a single version by Bill Anderson and Ronnie Kasrils. So the concept of people’s war was pretty much old hat within the ANC and MK by then. It was further codified in Joe Slovo’s key document Planning for People’s War, which had a wide and influential circulation within the ANC.
What then happened, as Irina Filatova shows in her book The Hidden Thread, was that the Soweto uprising occurred in 1976. This led to strong criticism of the ANC by its Soviet backers: it was quite clear that the ANC had had no control or influence over these events and that Black Consciousness had stolen a march on the ANC.
Given that the Soviets were paying the bills for most ANC activities, there was great disappointment in Moscow at the ANC’s weak performance and even suggestions that the USSR should look around for alternatives to the ANC.
This was to eventuate a decade later in suggestions that the USSR should shift its support from the ANC to the National Party government, which was seen as much more “serious”. By then Moscow had been hosting ANC missions for nearly two decades and had little confidence in its capability or competence.
In the critical atmosphere created by the Soweto events, the ANC’s Soviet advisers told them their notion of guerrilla warfare being rooted among the peasants in the countryside — the classic version popularised by Mao, Castro and others — was simply not working and that they needed to study how the concept of people’s war had been applied elsewhere. Specifically, they suggested that the ANC send a mission to Vietnam — so even that was really a Soviet initiative. But by then the concept of “people’s war” was long established.
The key effect of Soviet pressure on the ANC after 1976 was to make the party sensitive to the need to establish “points of influence” over urban insurrections and to try to build bases within townships and informal settlements.
All this was clearly established by Filatova (who is my wife and who had access to the Moscow archives, which contain large amounts of material on the ANC). At the time of writing she is again at work in the Moscow archives. I find it hard to understand how her ground-breaking research on these matters is not being taken into account.