About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Cronin, Jeremy [First Interview]


Conducted by Howard Barrell,

Lusaka, July 16 1989

Over the 83-86 period, how would you describe the over-all change in ANC tactical thinking?

I think that the major new themes that emerged were: the notion of the mass revolutionary base, pointing substantially to the township, urban and to rural areas; a much more developed notion of people's war; and related to that a conception of MK as an officer corps of the people's army, rather than the people's army in its entirety; a much clear understanding and development of and generalisation of the experience on the ground in regard to rudimentary organs of people's power. So I think that cluster of related concepts marked a substantial new strategic grasp and understanding and thrust in the ANC position.

And how would you characterise the determining factors in the shifts which took place? Readings on the ground -- what would be the crucial factors?

I think it would have been events on the ground themselves, above all else. So I think it was an attempt to theorise and generalise experience and experimentation that was actually occurring on the ground itself.

Over this period, can you think of any particular moments which led to qualitative leaps forward in the ability to theorise these generalised experiences?

I do find it a little bit difficult to be very specific because I'm sure there were such very specific moments, but they have blurred a bit in terms of exact moments. Clearly, from an MDM experience, which was deeply informed by the outside, and by the outside's re-reading of other developments, one very significant shift was the one that occurred at the NECC conference. And I can't even remember if it was 85 or 86, but where the schools were defined as trenches of struggle, rather than something which should be abandoned. And that was bringing the school experience into line with the street/township experience. I mean, to my mind, that was one particular moment where you could put your finger on a particular time, or congress, or statement that emerged from

Are you referring to the Durban meeting?


Which is 86, as I recall. And can you think of any other moments that had similar impact?

No, not as specific as that. Clearly the year 85 was the turning point.

Could I suggest a few?

Yes, do that.

For example, the stayaway on November 5 and 6 in 84. That struck me as an outsider as a turning point. What would you say emerged out of it -- if you see it as some kind of "moment" in the development of this perspective?

I think what that stayaway marked, amongst other things: there was a strategic problem within the MDM where I was located at that point -- in the course 84, end 84, and 85 -- there was a huge problem of where to now? We had very successfully boycotted the tri-cameral elections and also the black local authorities which was the project which had assembled the UDF together, and that really was my main line of activity in this period. There was a substantial strategic crisis of "where to", of how to go forward. And I remember at this time, there was discussion -- it never got beyond that -- it was discussion and some controversy around a national convention. That was one idea which was floating around. It had to do with "what next"? The regime had put on the agenda the new constitution, and we had formed up in response to that and used the space, some space which had been provided by that issue. And there was a sense that national political issues had been addressed in effect by the new constitution and by the tricameral elections and they had been defeated. What was lacking here was the development of an alternative perspective, and groping around as it were in that situation, we were doing two things, as I remember in Cape Town, quite soon after the August election. We were all exhausted, but within about a month or two -- I was education and training officer in the UDF at that stage -- we ran a series of workshops about a programme, where to now? that kind of thing. And there were two threads coming through at that point. One was a return back into our affiliates, picking up on issues of washlines and rents. But we didn't attach the significance that that rent issue later assumed., etc -- a whole lot of localised things which we saw as possibly not bad because it would rebuild affiliates which had been weakened by focus on national political questions. But there were sort of strong feelings that you couldn't just retreat back into that. You had to, at the same time, be focusing on the national political issue of state power. But we didn't know how to do that. We were lost, I would say. And what the stayaway did -- although it didn't provide the answer -- but pointed to continuing mass surges, mass militancy, also indicated that the mobilisation that had occurred through the UDF and that had, to some extent, particularly around the August period been focused on the coloured and Indian community, that this heightened political climate had affected quite dramatically the African townships as well. And from then on, from that November stayaway onwards, the real focus, the cutting edge of struggle became the African township. But, I think, that was all dimly realised, personally, at that stage. It was only really -- and I can't put a date to it -- through 85 period that one began to understand that there was something new occurring which was, in a sense, the answer but it was to the problems that we were posing rather abstractly: the question of state power was being addressed not theoretically, but practically through the destruction of the lower echelons of state power, and the building of alternative forms.

Now, there had been tactical differences between some sections of the trade union movement and the UDF.


Perhaps even more deepseated differences than that. What did that November 5 and 6 stayaway seem to presage in terms of a unity of popular organisation?

Yes, well, I think the question says it, and is quite right. It was something we were very sharply aware of, as the question reminds me. That marked a massive unity -- particularly the two key sectors -- with the students and workers in the |November stayaway. I think it's been reiterated quite often by commentators, and that was very clearly the case. It was a unity in action between those two key sectors, which blasted away that old seemingly intractable problem, and certainly did presage then the developments that went fairly rapidly from there on to the founding of Cosatu and so forth and a much closer union-UDF cooperation which had bedeviled things quite seriously up to the August elections.

I'd like to look at the experience of Cradock. In terms of my understanding, the development of rudimentary OPPs in Cradock is really the first experience that emerges over this period. Does that accord with your

Yes, yes.

Now, when does the Cradock experience begin to really feed into MDM thinking, which is where you are, and, from your knowledge of others, when does it start feeding into other areas?

It certainly feeds in quite early, and I am sure it would have been in the course of 85. But I honestly can't be more specific.

They begin to move at the end of 84 -- they've more or less moved decisively in my understanding of the history of this time -- they had more or less set up the street committee system in Cradock [by then}. So, 85. If you go to early 85, can you recall in the Western Cape, which is an are of relative quiescence in the beginning of 85, can you remember when people begin to see the Cradock experience as potentially generaliseable, or requiring close study?

When was the big Cradock funeral?

I don't remember. But we can find it. It might take a bit of time. I think it is

I think 86.

It's about July 85 -- late June, early July. The UDF calls on July 13 and 14 for two days of national protest against the deaths of Cradock activists.

Right. So, it would have definitely been in the first half of 85, because.

Gutted bodies of Cradock activists Goniwe etc, found 28.6.85.

I'm just trying to be very clear. We certainly had some rural conferences -- I'm sorry I don't have files etc, which will come, eventually I hope with my stuff. But we had a series of rural workshops in Cape Town which drew people from the West Cape, Karoo, south Cape areas and the idea was to try to learn from each other and generalise experiences. And certainly many of those would have occurred after Goniwe's death. But, at the time of his death, he was certainly known, not just among leadership people -- not just known as a name but as someone who was behind a really important experience that was developing. But I can't be more specific than that.

Would it be an exaggeration to say that the generalisation of the street committee concept and OPPs owes perhaps the significant portion of its development to the Cradock experience?

It might be an exaggeration. Clearly, it was an important pioneering example. When we were really popularising these notions certainly in 86 -- I can remember that very clearly: running a series of courses which included a large chunk on people's power, looking elsewhere as well: Philippines and whatever -- that one was looking at quite a variety of experiences in early 86, in the interregnum between the two states of emergency. There was the hole Karoo experience. By that stage, it wasn't just Cradock, but all those little Karoo towns, or most of them -- Graaff-Reinet, etc, etc -- they had all had experiences of quite considerable popular power organisation. As well as Soweto was beginning to emerge and the Pretoria townships -- Mamelodi -- and to some extend Alexandra. And also Port Alfred was another example people were looking at quite a lot. So, again, I can't remember with precision. I remember having discussions with people in 85 who were studying the Cradock thing, but quite rapidly it became a slightly more generalised experience. And when one was trying to popularise it, it was more than Cradock. It was always referred to as part of a package of other --

Before we go on, can I just check --

[break in tape]

Right, you mentioned earlier that the issue of the tricameral elections had really the major concentration and focus of the UDF at national level. I would like your estimation of the extent to which the State's restructuring of local government in the black African areas, the increase in rent etc - to what extent you would indicate that as a focus of attention in the UDF over the period until the uprisings start in early September of 1984?

I wasn't that active until late 1985, really, on the national scene within UDF. And certainly in the Western Cape - partly because there were few elections for black local authorities - there was very little focus on that issue, I would say, within the region, from the UDF. Certainly, some branches of affiliates, or affiliates that were located wholly within townships, were focusing on a variety of issues. The main issue for us in the Western Cape, the two issues were essentially the coloured election and the Khayalitsha move. So that was the focus, which also made Crossroads a primary point of focus within that period. So rents weren't particularly being pushed within the greater Cape Town area. Yes, and clearly there were other dynamics. But my impression speaking to national comrades was that the Vaal Triangle, which became the seedbed then for the whole new phase that opened up, that all of that was being facilitated by UDF rather than being strategically planned and coordinated - if one can make that difference. The heightened political climate, the existence of numerous sort of mass rallies occurring - I mean what was really significant about UDF in that period was that resistance politics became national again for the first time. I mean something like the launch of the UDF or the huge mass funeral, like at Cradock, were major national events, of a kind which hadn't occurred before. And those things translated - a lot of people would come back from, say, the launch of the UDF or from the Cradock funeral feeling very militant and with a heightened sense of urgency and the possibilities of moving forward. So I think that's what I would mean: the UDF facilitated in that kind of way. But I don't think there was careful strategic planning, which figured out that, say, the rent issue was the explosive one and that black local authorities could be kicked out of the townships, and that would open up a new phase of struggle. I don't think it was planned like that - I might be wrong but certainly that isn't the impression I had at all.

Now, a delicate question, can you give me some indication as to when you found yourself actually being drawn into ANC underground structures? Is there any way you can indicate that?

I hesitate.

Let me ask you a different sort of question. In this early phase, in other words the post-formation of the UDF, up until, let's say the November 5 and 6 stayaway in 1984, through the elections, what was your sense of the input into the developments taking place from ANC underground personnel within the broad mass movement at that time?

I didn't have a strong sense of that. What was very clear was that the major runners in the operation, the people who were pushing hard, who were coordinating nationally, who were etc, etc, were all people with long historical associations with the ANC - many of them off Robben Island and so on. So, to that extent, one had a strong sense of an informal ANC playing a major role, and I would have guessed that a lot of people were operating with relatively open mandates from the movement, either from structures on the island or from contacts outside, so that a general direction - I would be fairly confident in saying - was being provided by the ANC. Beyond that, without knowing in detail, I would guess that that wasn't the case, that there wasn't like day-to-day or tight tactical underground leadership being provided.

How did that general ANC direction express itself? Or, how would you characterise that general ANC direction which you sensed? What would be its elements?

In the earlier period, prior to late 1984-85, but in 1983 up till August 1984, I think the prime influence would have been on building a broad united democratic front. I mean I think that that was - people generally of my persuasion who at that stage wasn't (weren't) structured once more back into underground structures but felt a responsibility, and answerability to the movement, that I think there was a clear perspective, a message coming through that constructing such a broad mass democratic front was the prime task. Ja.

And it's all-inclusive? It's very inclusive? This position would also be consistent with kind of broad ANC politics?

Exactly, which also gave one quite a lot of confidence in combatting the negative features of so-called workerists, for instance. I mean, I think everyone must have been pretty clear that that was an anti-ANC position. and they too, I think, were clear on that, the workerists, yes. So there was a broad strategic line of march, I think, that everyone was clear about that was an ANC line of march towards a strategic conception.

Now over the same time, you get the formation of the National Forum (NF) which, as you know, drew on perhaps a collection of other tendencies. To what extent could one - how was it possible to distinguish this general ANC line of march from other attempts to bring together broad fronts of a roughly-speaking similar type? What was the distinguishing factor which, at this time, enabled one to say that this is an ANC line of march, this is not?

Well, I think, in the first instance, what characterised the National Forum was a completely opportunistic alliance, in my view, between two quite distinct currents. The one was an ultra-left current, which emanated from Cape Town really. It had pockets of support elsewhere, but was fundamentally located in Cape Town around the Cape Action League (CAL) and some youth movements attached to it. And their points of criticism of the UDF project was an ultra-left criticism that for instance the Western Cape Traders' Association was one of the affiliates of UDF. So that was a bone of contention. On the other hand, the other sort of wing of the National Forum, principal one, was Azapo, and their criticisms were of a black consciousness (BC) kind. In particular, they objected to the presence of Nusas within the front. The sort of opportunism of it was sort of patched up, or disguised sometimes, by attempts to suggest for instance that Nusas were the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie, etc, etc. So the kind of black consciousness critique was adjusted in that way to make this alliance possible. But, in essence, what united those forces was their rivalry with the ANC, I would say. That was the key to it. And they, many of those forces were, until quite late in the day, involved in the process of consultation that was leading up to the UDF, and they actively split off from that process. So their refusal to go as broad as the UDF was prepared to go would be another characterising feature. But also, certainly in the Western Cape but also nationally, I can also so confidently that at least 90 percent of their political activity, whether it was in their publications, well principally in their publications and press statements - they didn't do very much else, they held a few mass meetings in the Western Cape just prior to the elections - but an inordinate amount of energy and time was spent attacking not the tricameral parliament, not the regime, but in fact the UDF. So they were defining themselves very much vis a vis the UDF and vis a vis the ANC and the Freedom Charter - so they were always picking small differences with that broad and increasingly hegemonic position - and I think that's what characterised their politics above all else. I think that after the 1984, and certainly through the 1985 period when they virtually got peripheralised, despite the fact that it was the UDF that was banned, or its affiliates, or it was by and large UDF leadership and ordinary members who got detained in the two states of emergency, ironically it was those forces that crumbled much more rapidly than UDF and its affiliates. And one detects now, in pockets of the Cape Action League (CAL), which has now resurrected itself a little, a much less sectarian line. But that's slightly new now. That certainly wasn't a feature of that period, the earlier period.

To continue with general questions and I'd like to go back now to a review of the entire period, Cape Town and nationally, and look at the whole period 1983-86. By late 1986, as I understand you, you are now in contact with the ANC in some formal sense. What tactical formulation emerges in the ANC by late 1986, drawing in both the concepts of both people's war and the experience on the ground that resistance is taking a clearly insurrectionary form. What sort of formulation develops of the relationship between people's war and this insurrectionary experience on the ground that has developed over this period?

I am not going to say anything profound or very new, I mean, other than just to emphasise that what starts to happen, that the ANC now starts to understand much more fundamentally that people's war - or the ANC that I am seeing, I mean let's be honest, because it is obviously an ongoing debate within the ANC and not yet a resolved - but the ANC that I am seeing, and it is particularly the ANC on the ground at home, is understanding, one, that guerilla struggle is not bush war any longer - that old and still lingering perception - that it has a much more insurrectionary character: if one is talking about people's war one is not talking about it in the same way as one was talking about it in Mozambique, etc; that the key task is to build up combat formations in the industrial areas and in the townships themselves; that the training for these cadres has to happen on the ground much more--

Inside the country?

Absolutely, ja. That they have to work much more closely with the political underground; that they not a sort of loose, floating army; and that they also have to work very closely with the mass democratic movement, strategically and in every other respect as well; that also a crying need, particularly as one sees the development of organs of people's power and then a massive crackdown from the system, that the defensive importance that MK (has), that people's war is not just attacking pylons and so on, it's also defending organisational gains. And often it was unable to do that in the concrete situation - I mean Crossroads would be a prime example for us in the Western Cape: that where such organs were fairly far advanced in some respects, I mean within the Cape Town situation there was probably a higher degree of popular control in pockets of Crossroads than in any of the other townships within greater Cape Town, and there was certainly an MK capacity within that township, and the regime found it very difficult to get in, partly because of its physical characteristics as a squatter camp, but at the same time, given an armed presence of the liberation movement within that thing, it made it very difficult for them. But the capacity to defend the gains against vigilantes, let alone against the regime, was fairly weak. So those things were seen as being important as well, building up that capacity. What else should be said. I think that - ja no.

Can I put a formulation to you which I'm suggesting as the essence of ANC tactical thinking as it obtrudes to an observer over this period? That, in effect, people's war over this period takes on the following meaning under South African conditions for the ANC: that people's war is the gathering, development and deployment over a protracted period of time of the forces and tactics necessary for national insurrection? Would you find any major problems with that formulation?

Not at all, no.

Great. Now, to stay still with the global period itself, 1983-86,you drew out three elements of importance in the ANC's developing tactical perspective over the period. One was the concept of mass revolutionary base. What sort of view developed inside the country, by late 1986, among the ANC, within the ANC, over the theorised capacity in future of such bases to defend themselves and to protect their political and spatial integrity against the central state?

I think it would be grand to claim that there was some coherent, congealed theorising on this. And I actually don't think that was the case, to be honest, or certainly that I was aware of. I think that I was of the view - and I hope I am not thinking retrospectively - but that such areas had, that the mass revolutionary base was understood to be essentially the township, that it had parallels but also differences with a rural revolutionary base, the characteristic pattern of many guerilla wars in Africa and elsewhere. There were advantageous and as well as disadvantageous features of this particular kind of mass revolutionary base. I mean to state the obvious: that the ability to hold indefinitely those mass revolutionary bases as liberated areas was limited, was constrained - there needed to be an understanding of that, that there would be a fluctuating situation where control would be lost to degrees as far as the regime was concerned, and asserted therefore by the masses. But it wouldn't be a stable situation, or relatively. Obviously, one can exaggerate the stability of rural liberated areas as well. But, just given the sheer proximity of such townships to the key centres, given the fact also that they don't have an independent productive base - and this issue came up quite clearly on the consumer boycotts, for instance, the ability to sustain consumer boycotts - was limited. And one of the lessons to be drawn from that was that the township couldn't operate as an independent liberated zone indefinitely, given the nature of the economy in South Africa. There wasn't independent peasant production which could sustain the liberation forces within a particular geographical space, the township. But the negative things are also simultaneously advantages. They are on the doorsteps of the key power centres. A relatively liberated Alexandra is a hell of a lot more potent in many immediate ways than some stretch of bush in a distant part of the country. So, ja, I think that that understanding - I don't know how developed it was - but it was certainly growing as an understanding. But, and that relates to your question: one could defend it relatively, but, you know, a massive SADF concentration, I mean they could take over, to a considerable degree, Alexandra, if they threw enough forces at it. And there was not much one could do to stop that. And so other forms - I mean underground, clandestine forms, etc - also were important. Because the defence - whereas mobility is often the defensive form used in other (kinds of) liberated zones, the liberated zone shifts and there is a fluid area, in a township, you have to sort of - well there were two things that happened quite a lot in South Africa. In that period, you saw organisations going underground quite a lot and trying to weather the storm, and succeeding more or less, obviously at quite a price. But comrades were able to operate for long periods of time, and to direct events in their townships with increasing difficulty, for instance, but by being underground. And then there was a massive internal refugee type situation as well. There was a huge too-ing and fro-ing of personnel from a variety of different townships, but particularly the smaller townships in the rural areas, like in the Karoo, or say in the Orange Free State, a lot of key activists who had been participants in those revolutionary bases, couldn't sustain their presence within them and fled into larger, more amorphous places like Soweto, or into Cape Town, or into sort of grey areas which have now grown enormously - the Hillbrows and places like that. So the ability to sustain and defend had limitations which are partly of a general kind which I am talking about, but partly also had to do with the underdevelopment of the armed capacity and the relative weakness of the underground as well. So, ja, it's not solely objective; there were subjective weaknesses.

Now, if we can still stay with the global period: my understanding of the M-Plan drawn up in the 1950s was that it was really a model for the development of a mass movement. How does it differ from the notion of organs of people's power by the end of 1986? To what extent are organs of people's power the result of insurrection? To what extent are they instruments of insurrection? To what extent are they organs of self-government? To what extent are they organs of the mass movement? And to what extent are they intended to relate to the underground? What is the notion of the OPP (organ of people's power) which is emerging within the ANC by 1986?

OK, I would need to go back to be confident about the M-Plan. But certainly the M-Plan came up a lot, and there was the relevant document pulled out of Karis and Carter (From Protest to Challenge), and was circulating very widely in photostat form through the UDF and for instance--. I think the principal difference, as I understand it, as I remember it, and I might be wrong, was that that was much more a form of developing organisation and ensuring that the ANC assumed a much more mass character down to the zonal level, and the difference which your question now begins to allude to was the organs of people's power as they emerged. But I would still say, add that there is still confusion around this and the word is used quite loosely inside, still, today. But certainly in that period, organs of people's power were more than just the greater elaboration and extension downwards of the mass democratic movement. They occurred in a situation where there was a vacuum within the lower echelons, where ungovernability had physically destroyed or removed the lower echelons of apartheid power in many townships, so that, although the street committee idea might have begun as an attempt to make the civic more representative and more democratic, they began to assume insurrectionary features. And I don't think one can say that they were the result of organ-- they were both. It was only because there was an insurrection that physically removed certain elements of apartheid control that they were able to acquire this qualitative development. And, in so doing, obviously, they deepened the insurrection itself. So I think that was something very new, which I don't think was envisaged at all by the M-Plan, as I understood it. What I would add is that, what I am saying is not necessarily understood. There is still a tendency to regard any street committee as, ipso facto, an organ of people's power, regardless of the balance of power within the particular locality. And I would personally argue, that's not quite right.

How would the balance of power affect its validity as an organ of people's power?

Well, if it was simply, it was a street committee, but what that street committee did was to meet as the lowest organ of a civic in a particular township, but in a situation where the black local authorities, the local kitskonstabels, police, etc, actually ran the township effectively, then I would say that it wouldn't strictly speaking be an organ of people's power.

It would be an organ of some kind of representation?


But not of power?

Yes, it would be an element of the mass democratic movement. And I think that it is important to understand that there was a qualitative shift that occurred in that 1985 period which was an unstable reality which we were not able to sustain, but which we need to understand; but we do need to mark that difference. And it is perhaps useful to mark it in terminology, but referring to organs of people's power as strictly that where there is a vacuum or where the regime no longer controls and runs (things). I mean obviously it's not a Chinese wall. Because I think that the moment there is an attempt to see the question of, to remove the question of street committees and organs of people's power from the insurrectionary perspective - you see that - and it is simply elaborating the civic or whatever other local organisation. And that's not quite right, and can lead to errors, strategic errors, to over-estimations or confusions.

OK, I would like to stay again with the global period and to isolate a third element which you mentioned as a key change over this period. And that is the requirement on the ANC's part to develop MK as an officer corp inside the country. And my understanding of that is that MK then takes on a leadership and training role, development of popular combat forces, etc. Now, how was this notion of MK as an officer corp, the development of popular combat units, seen to relate the development of organs of people's power? What was seen as the nature of the envisaged linkage, the desired linkage between organs of people's power, an MK officer corp and popular combat units?

I think that the essential link needed to be through, as they were called then, APMCs--

Area Political Military Committees?

Right. Which would be --. [Aside: Sorry would you like me to move so that you can--?]

[I'm fine. I'm fine. There's a cloud, so it's going--]

That would have been - that was seen as being the command organ which would then elaborate its presence into a variety of other structures, the more or less spontaneously evolved organs of popular power, the mass democratic structures, etc. So that was seen as the key task, to develop such APMCs within as many mass revolutionary bases as possible, potential mass revolutionary bases as possible.

And this was an attempt to integrate a whole variety of forms of struggle? An integration of the political and the military becomes then a major theme in ANC tactical debates?


And this is reflected among ANC people inside the country?


OK, if we could now go to the kind of sequence of development of the uprisings, as they affect the Cape. OK, by early 1985, there have been insurrections on the Vaal, on the East Rand, Eastern Cape, and there are one or two flashpoints in Natal and also in the Orange Free State. Now, at that time, what was the - to the extent that you were aware of it - what was the line being put out in mid-1985 by the ANC inside the country, or the ANC outside the country, to the extent that it was reaching people inside the country in your kind of position?

Certainly, the key thing, and which one became....

[Break in tape]

[End of Side A]

OK, in mid-1985, there is the ANC national consultative conference in Kabwe, June 16th to about the 22nd, 23rd, to what extent were you aware of ANC Western Cape's input into that conference and feedback from the conference into the kind of perspectives of which you were aware in the Western Cape, feeding in from ANC people?

OK, I was completely unaware and I'm still unaware of any Western Cape feed in to the situation. And my first briefing on it came relatively informally in the sense that someone who had come outside as an ANC contact, not of mine particularly but of someone who I worked with in the MDM, had been told to brief some people about it, and that was probably within a month or two of it happening. So I got such a briefing, a very full and illuminating briefing which helped me, confirmed the general drift of things as one had understood them and the pieces of ANC policy as one had been able to construct them from things that came through.

Did you find that you had been operating consistently with the ANC's line of March? Were there any matters which you had to correct, new emphases which you had to correct?

No, I don't think there were corrections or major--. No, its usefulness was that it, as I remember, was that it was global, broad and confirming and useful in that sense, and helpful in that way. But I don't remember any particular shocks or surprises.

Did you get any new strategic direction, or tactical direction from that conference?

I think, you see probably I've collapsed things a little bit. I would say that what came through most clearly to me was the emphasis on forming leadership structures within the country with all-round responsibilities. I think that was the single most important thing. And it was already, as I have just said, I mean I was calling them RPMCs, and that we were filling in the gap for an RPMC, but I wouldn't have called it that at that stage. It was really only on, having received that briefing from Kabwe that, you know, I had words for what was a lived experience. So it rang a lot of bells, and it was reassuring because, clearly, a major frustration was the sheer distance of the ANC leadership from the events on the ground. And this seemed to mark an appreciation of it which certainly confirmed the impression.

So, at this point then, if this was the character of the relationship between the, let's say the leadership of the political vanguard and, let's say, its real constituency inside the country of which you formed part, how would you describe the relationship then between, or the leadership function? What is the nature of the leadership exercised by the vanguard in the situation in which you found yourself at that time?

I think I have said it already. But just to run through it. I mean I would say that its influence was moral, it was unifying in a broad national way, it enabled one to have a sense that one was pulling in the same generalised direction - and there was always a lot of - if I went up to national UDF gatherings, or whatever, [short break in tape to talk to child]...

What it was was a symptom of the absence of a really strong APMC in the region at that point in time, and an attempt with all the sort of organisational inelegance that it had of making up for that gap.

[Break in tape]

OK. so should I just fire?


The point I was [going to] make is that I think another problem in regard to the whole vanguard role that emerged in the course of the mid-1980s, well through the 1980s, was that the major gain probably after 1976 was the reassertion, sort of uncontested, the assertion of the hegemony of the ANC.

After when?

Well, I think it was a process in which hegemonic domination was achieved in the post-1976 period and was uncontested by about 1985, I would say, it was uncontestable. Cosatu's formation would probably mark that important transformation, the kind of final recognition. But there was a negative feature to that, I would say, in that period. And that was that there was an inordinate respect and even idolisation in a large number of pro-Congress forces of Lusaka, of the movement outside, and of the leadership of the ANC, which obviously I was very much in sympathy with - it was absolutely right and an historical watershed, the recapturing of those heights. However, it led to a certain passivity, or renunciation of an all-round responsibility from the leadership that was emerging through the MDM [Mass Democratic Movement], in particular, on the ground at home, but then spilled over into the underground forces as well. So there was a tendency to wait passively for instructions from Lusaka, which of course take a long time to come often. They are tenuous, the lines of communication are difficult, and so forth. And I think this was another reason for the relative absence of a strong vanguard force on the ground at home. In my own personal experience, an important breakthrough occurred when at an underground level there was a combination of forces which involved senior, or relatively senior comrades who were smuggled back into the country, comrades probably from the sort of 1976 generation, who had spent nearly a decade outside in ANC machineries, often in the forward areas and so forth, but also in HQ, in MHQ and so forth. And some of them were outstanding, and what they had brought with them, part of their outstanding contribution amongst many other things, was a healthy, I wouldn't say disregard or disrespect, but an ability to understand the limitations of ANC Lusaka, and therefore a preparedness to take initiatives on the ground. And it was interesting to see, because within leadership structures which then began to emerge within the underground situation, it was ironically those coming in from the outside who often had to fight against a sort of psychological block that existed from very strong comrades who were playing often national leadership within the MDM sector, but when it came to sort of wider revolutionary decisions had blockages and would tend to argue: Let's wait for a communique from Lusaka, type thing. But, of course, they too brought many strengths. Comrades simply coming from the outside, with an experience of the outside, and with their most recent experience inside being 1976 or perhaps even 1980, 1981, had a lot of - I mean things had changed remarkably - so it was that fruitful combination that was important and that, in my sort of limited experience, began to have a very significant impact. And the lesson I would draw - and I think it's one that's increasingly developing, outside as well - is that there are severe limitations to an exile leadership. It has an enormous role still, there's no doubt about that, and the sort of very senior members have that depth and so on and is unequalled inside, or virtually unequalled inside, but in terms of day-to-day, week-to-week decisions, that sort of leadership role has increasingly to be exercised from within, with a relative degree of preparedness to get it wrong, maybe, and to be criticised. But that is far preferable to missing opportunities waiting for six months for a communique to get through.

Would you be prepared to say what you consider to be, in an idealised sense, the role of a vanguard movement in revolutionary struggle in South Africa? One of my problems is to find a way of conceptualising the role that a vanguard movement might play correctly to a successful conclusion under South African conditions.

OK, I am not sure that I am going to be able to repeat more than well-known sort of Leninist phrases. But relating these to the concrete circumstances, I think that we have been talking about the problem, the glaring problem of a relative absence of a vanguard force on the ground at home. And I've been talking about one problem, which is sort of relative passivity, failure to seize the moment adequately, failure to be bold enough across a range of problems. And there was one attempt which I mentioned, which was the sort of {???} semi-inbetween kind of arrangement - it was neither under sole movement discipline nor under MDM discipline. But there is one tendency within this kind of problematic situation has been vanguardism, which is associated, say, with the cabal phenomenon and so forth, which I think is related to the problem we are talking about, which is the distance and relative absence of the major force from the immediate site of things. And cabal-type problems emerged in a number of sectors, often sectors which, like the Indian sector or Nusas, where - you can see that I am moving quite widely--.

Go for it, go for it.

Where there was a relative degree of mobility from relatively privileged sectors, in a sense, of the Indian community, assuming a sort of national coordinating type role at a time - I'm talking about when these things grew up probably in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at a time when there was very little else. There was sporadic mass action, but not large democratic formations yet. And a certain style of vanguardism grew up in that situation which was - where there was a tendency to impose and dictate in a very narrow way on campaigns. And I think that was a solid lesson that was learned, although the problems linger on to an extent. But fundamentally, the sort of massive surge of 1985-1986 swept aside and peripheralised those groupings.

[Child speaking]

[Break in tape]

OK, so we were discussing the problems of vanguardism.

Right. OK. I'll go for the central question which I think you were asking. I think that - related to the point I was making - that clearly the mass democratic formations in our country are relatively, pretty uniquely advanced for a liberation struggle. {??} may be another exception, where one saw such large mass democratic formations. But any vanguard force is going to have to relate to that important reality, which vanguardism failed to do. But, at the same time, liquidation of the vanguard force is dangerous. And if one looks at the spontaneous flow of events, there are a number of very important strategic weaknesses which I think only a vanguard force can really redress. And here we touch on all the themes that we have spoken of informally like inability to project organised power outside, out of the mass revolutionary bases, the township, inadequate combat formations, lack of strategic - which relates to the first point - lack of strategic organisational networks, so that the spontaneous forms of organisation, relatively spontaneous has tended, with the exception of trade unions, all to be within the townships, and have not thought adequately enough about actually organising underground or other political networks in the citadel. So I think those are all tasks which fall upon a vanguard force, not to mention of course the overall coordinating task which emerges in an insurrectionary situation which only really a vanguard force [can perform]. And that is really another weakness that the sort of major uprisings have all only occurred - with few exceptions - around big symbolic days with the regime and the masses planning well in advance for them. And that reflects, again, a relative absence of a vanguard force, which would then call very rapidly for--.

How do we explain the ANC's hegemony, then, that develops over this period, if it is so weakly organised on the ground?

Well, perhaps one could exaggerate its weakness on the ground. I think that, clearly, more than any other force, it has been present consistently on the ground, however weakly, and its thrown quite a lot of its underground organisational activity into agitation, propaganda and around the issue of winning hegemony. And this not to say it's not weak - I take your point, I think it's right - but perhaps another component of that weakness is that a lot of what it does is simply at the level of gaining hegemony, of popularity, or rallying people around the symbols and so forth, that's the movement, and it's not fulfilling other vanguard tasks. Maybe that was right, as well, if one looks at the period. In 1976, the ANC was very poorly present, and a major effort had to go into, as it were, consolidating its presence. I think the second major factor it its ability to wage armed struggle, which for quite a long period after 1976 was essentially armed propaganda, as well, fulfilling the same role, of rallying around it. I think thirdly it has won support through its broad strategic inputs into the situation which have always been generally very timely, well thought through, balanced, and so forth. I think the ANC has succeeded in that respect, so that January 8 speeches, major NEC statements and so forth have reflected what I was saying earlier - that external leadership, the sort of upper layers of it, are very mature and deep and have a very excellent, I would say, revolutionary grasp. Its not only a mature leadership, but it really is an extremely mature, deep leadership, I would say, in that sense. And I think that's been very important, and possibly the most important feature: that it has been quite strategic in broad terms, and has been able to sort of ride a complex situation that has unfolded. It has been able to respond to mass uprisings of 1976 and to catch the pulse of people's aspirations and so forth; it's been able to reply very well to the reform initiatives of the regime, particularly the tricameral and black local authority initiatives. It was essentially the ANC's strategic conceptions which opened up the mass democratic phase; it provided that vanguard leadership, and currently with the sort of complex issues surrounding negotiations, again I think the movement is exhibiting considerable maturity and a combination of revolutionary principle and tactical flexibility. So I think it gets that right. So it is able to offer broad leadership extremely well, I think. I think that it is still very weak, and it admits that it is weak in terms of day-to-day on-the-ground leadership, which is very distinct. So, ja.

I don't want to detract too much from your [household] tasks.


When these external comrades come in, it's after the conference. We have had the first Call to the Nation. What is the tactical perspective which they bring in at that point? You've mentioned that they came in with their awareness of their need to initiate, often to initiate in a way which does not have the agreement or even the guidance perhaps of people outside. What kind of strategic, what kind of tactical perspective do they come in with? We are talking now, presumably, about late 1985.

Ja. I think the first point you have just made is right. Secondly, they come in with - they spend quite a lot of time, I would say, tactically considering the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM), working through that relationship, the underground forces to the mass democratic movement, which is expanded enormously in that period, and see their leadership role as being more broad than just the Mass Democratic Movement but considerably in regard to the Mass Democratic Movement itself, overcoming factions and giving greater strategic purpose to the campaigns of the mass democratic movement. Those sorts of tasks are given quite a lot of significance and importance. A lot of time is taken with that. And related to that is an insurrectionary perspective which comes through very strongly.

Would you explain that insurrectionary perspective?

[Talk about chopping vegetables for dinner}

I think that it's not necessarily planned down in fine print or in great detail, but certain insights are very clear. The one is a stress on the significance of mass mobilisation and mass actions. So what gets reiterated by some of these comrades is a campaign in which lights are switched out in protest against detentions in a couple of townships like Mannenberg or Heideveld or Bonteheuwel on a particular night every week, a Wednesday night or something, and candles are lit - that that is very important: it's important not just in its own right as a symbolic action and so on, but it is also a dress rehearsal where the masses are acquiring the capability of acting as one decisively at a given hour, at a given time. So, that sort of understanding, which doesn't come spontaneously within the Mass Democratic Movement, that starts to get imparted. So, you know, because, comrades don't, emerging through the MDM structures - and I would include myself in that - don't often see beyond the immediate significance: They have detained a whole lot of comrades, we must strike back in some form; and then a bit of unhappiness - well, it's a bit soppy, lighting a candle, where in hell does that get us? And these comrades were saying, No, very important, and they are linking therefore that scientifically. Secondly,

[Re kitchen tasks: Do I mix this together?]

[Let's do it in a second pan]

Second, combat structures. And the perspective of training people inside, of training people who are emerging, not necessarily, in fact generally not sort of first layer leadership people, but second and third layer people - particularly interested in youth and workers, where there is a spontaneous militancy. So a perspective that these people must be given basic training inside, or crash-courses briefly outside, but they mustn't lose their jobs or their MDM contacts ever based within their communities. So I would say those are the three main things that come. One, the need for on-the-ground leadership. Two, the significance of mass action. And three, the need to enhance combat activity which is closely linked into mass democratic formations, and so forth, and is not an army coming in from the outside.

Right. [Re kitchen tasks: How would you like to do this? Can I do anything, or am I in the way. I am trying to ensure that... (laughter). Rather than have to admit that I was the one responsible for...]

I am particularly keen to know what was seen as the relationship between, how the political and military aspects of combat work should be linked, if at all, and in what structural way, to the extent that you can talk about that?

Well, I think that it was the RPMC or APMC model, so that one had heard of it, and the military was under...

[Young Benjie Cronin interrupts]

[Break in tape]

Right, we were talking about the relationship between the political and the military in combat, and the APMC/RPMC concept.

Right, and I don't think I have got more to add other than to say that...

They were clearly seen as linked at this point?

And more than linked: subordinate.

Can you say to what extent this APMC or RPMC-type structure in the Western Cape was able to survive the setbacks which occurred?

Ja, but that shouldn't [be spoken of].

OK. Right. What I also want to know is, if we go to 1983, the beginning of 1983, what was the conception amongst ANC-type of people or ANC people in the Western Cape of the conjuncture at that moment, the restructuring that the state was going in for, its effects and the possibilities for mobilisation which seemed to arise out of this restructuring by the state? Do you want me to remind you of the developments after the anti-SAIC campaign...


Came the Anti-Republic campaign.

I don't think it's possible for me to generalise. I can talk personally. And that was that, I think one was aware of the possibilities for mass mobilisation and that the tricameral elections, in particular, offered space. But I think that the degree to which it became possible and the degree to which the masses responded to efforts went way beyond my own personal expectations. You know I think the regime lost control much more substantially than I would have anticipated. And I also remember that, in the course of 1983, we were very pessimistic about the survival of the UDF beyond August 1984, the elections. We knew that we had some space. But the regime was saying - and one was aware of that through a variety of sources - that they would crush this UDF within six months after the elections, although they had to tolerate its existence in order to create legitimacy for the thing. So, and I must say, it was a feeling that many of us had that we had to give it a crack, we had to prevent them from succeeding, but we didn't necessarily imagine that we would prevent them from succeeding and, at the same time, carry the struggle a whole stage [further]. I mean there was always a lurking suspicion that that might be possible. But I don't think anyone that I was aware of was planning for that qualitative step forward. So the people's power period, which immediately succeeded August 1984 was a surprise, and it was spontaneous, and clearly UDF and similar forces had unleashed something way beyond any plan.

So at the time that you were working in - if one looks at January 1984 - I mean you weren't aware of statements that were coming out from the ANC about the need to put forward a consciousness of confrontation and revolt amongst people. It was a very aggressive set of statements, that it was necessary - let me find a quote - "It is essential to continue to shift our posture to the offensive", and calling for the formation of "fighting organisations" to destroy the outposts of apartheid administration. You weren't aware of this very aggressive message that was coming out from the ANC External Mission at the beginning of, say, 1984.

I'm not sure - I may or may not have been - but I would have interpreted it not as literally as I would now.

You would have seen it as a kind of rhetorical ritual?

Militancy, you know, step it up, and so on, ja.

But not as a kind of literal...?

I think so, to be honest, I think I would have, in early 1984, read it in that kind of way.

Do you think that the ANC itself might, if it were asked, point back and say that that was rhetoric rather than...

I don't know, it's possible (laughter).

Ja, I'd like to turn now to the - you have mentioned before the way in which the UDF, certainly in the Western Cape, to denude local structures of the leadership in order to concentrate on national objectives and national campaigns. Can you just elaborate on the nature of the kind of unevenness it caused, or the disruption it caused to local organisations at that time?

Well, just to be a little bit more specific: when I came out [of prison] in 1983 in the sort of pre-UDF period, the United Women's Organisation (UWO) was a key formation in the Western Cape, and was playing quite a leading role, strategising role. For instance, the national million signature campaign, launched by the UDF campaign later in the year, emanated from UWO. At the same time, a lot of basic structures that the UDF then built upon had been elaborated by the two civic organisations, CAHAC and Western Cape Civic Association. And virtually the entire complement of the leading activists who went into the UDF were drawn from those three organisations, and then CAYCO, which was formed in 1983. And, if one then goes forward to 1984, the end of 1984, early 1985, then one finds a situation where UWO has lost its coherence; it's very uncertain of its way forward. CAHAC is virtually non-existent as a central civic organisation; at a branch level, it's got second and third layer people continuing to work in their areas. But it's not functioning as CAHAC. And the same applies to the civic, to a lesser extent, the Western Cape Civic Association. Now, what had happened is that the majority of leading cadres in those respective organisations had either gone into the UDF regional and national structures, as in the case of particularly CAHAC. Ja, in fact it applied to all three of those organisations. So, there was depletion at that level - person power, cadre power - which was exacerbated further by the character of the campaigns which were waged, particularly the anti-election campaign. In the Western Cape in particular, what happened is that the UDF became more than a front; it started to function much more like a political organisation, particularly in the coloured areas. [There] it had area committees, which were linked into regional structures, which were linked into the Western Cape region itself more broadly. So we had various area committees, say, in Bonteheuwel, Heideveld, Mannenberg, which then formed a region called "other townships", which then linked into the UDF [??] and the [???] independently of the civics. So that is an organisational process, linked to the kinds of campaigns that we were fighting: the million signature campaign, the anti-election campaign itself, plus the sort of flight of cadres - all three combined to deplete the organisational coherence of the affiliate structures of the UDF.

Now, at this time - we are still at the beginning of 1983 - to what extent, or how justifiably do you think the ANC could say, in the beginning of 1983, that it had emerged not only as the opponent of the apartheid regime, but as an alternative power which "has won over the conscious and active support of the majority of South Africans"?

I think that was growingly true, put it that way. It was more true later but, already by that stage, I would say there was a mass of people, including the coloured population, I was going to say, were already beginning to align itself to this alternative centre of power, moral authority [...???]

[Gemma Cronin enters]

[End of interview]

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.