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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
Jordan, Pallo [First Interview]
Conducted by Howard Barrell,
Lusaka: July 4 1989
I'd like to start at December 1976. If we look at the conjuncture, we can identify certain advantages which had come the ANC's way. For the External Mission, there are considerably more favourable conditions. Its military wing had been considerably enlarged through the inflow of young militants, its front had moved closer to South Africa as a result of the Portuguese coup, there was restiveness among its real and potential constituency inside SA, the SA economy was going through a difficult patch. How did the ANC analyse the conjuncture? How did the ANC read the possibilities at the end of 1976?
Jordan: I would say that 1976 was very important in that the build-up that we had seen since 1973 of organised opposition to the regime had almost piqued with 1976. All the factors that you mentioned contributed to that growth. I think it was perhaps around that time that tentatively people began talking in terms of the possibilities of insurrection because one had had and seen a combination during 1976 of a number of tactics that are associated with insurrectionary situations: extensive street fighting for one thing and times at which the regime lost control (very brief periods of course) of townships. Then, apart from that, the sort of veld fire effect of the mass uprisings spreading from centre to centre to centre very rapidly in a matter of a few weeks, in some cases days. This was unlike anything one had seen in the past. In the past what had happened would be that the key urban centres would come out on strike -- that was what one had seen in the 1950s and 60s -- two days, three days, one day or whatever, key centres would come out and that would be the form that the demonstration would take.Occasionally associated with such events there might be scattered incidents of street fighting here, there but it wasn't a sort of national pattern. In 1976, we saw this as a pattern in almost every major urban area and even in quite a number of the smaller ones as well. So I think it was around then that people began tentatively to think about an insurrectionary scenario and thinking about its possibilities. Also, of course, there were quite a number of big general strikes during that time -- one day, two days and so on, all associated with this spirit of insurgency. So I think it was important in that respect in beginning to make people re-think the possibilities. At the end of that year, I would say assessments in the main still tended towards protracted war scenarios. With this major difference: I think there was the beginnings of a realisation that urban areas would have to play a major role in that protracted war rather than the rural areas. There was, for example, talk of looking at the works of Marighella, even looking at the experience of resistance movements in Western Europe, France, in Holland, etc, where you'd had partisan warfare conducted mainly by urban people in urban centres, in urban environments. But still I think the perspective even then was one of protracted war. That also, too, was the attitude sort of reflected in the training people received. There was still a great deal of emphasis on being able to root oneself in the countryside, survive in the countryside, etc, although of course also there was an attempt to begin to locate arms near and around urban areas, etc. So it wasn't ruled out. But I don't think quantities of arms cached around urban areas testified to thinking about insurrectionary situations in urban areas. It was much more [?rural] than partisan warfare.
Would you say that this is the first time that insurrection begins to occur to the ANC as a serious consideration?
I wouldn't be certain. The conception in the past had very much been this classical conception that you would have a long, protracted war which would be waged mainly in the rural areas and then at certain nodal points insurrection could become part of that scenario and might even be the climax of that protracted war, that the decisive battle perhaps being some form of insurrection. I think that's what thinking was. I think that in 76, or after 76, there began to be, I think particularly on the part of Joe Slovo, we started thinking of a protracted war punctuated by moments of insurrection which raised it to a higher plane but not necessarily being decisive. I would say that was the change in 76, the idea of punctuation with insurrectionary moments rather than insurrection being a climax of people's war.
Post-76 we get the formulation of an armed propaganda campaign. At the time that it was decided upon, which seems to have been round about 1976, what was seen as its role in securing conditions for a more advanced tactical perspective at a later stage. How was it periodised? How was it seen as fitting into the future perspectives of the movement?
The armed propaganda campaign, I think, had two purposes. First of all to register an armed presence and the capacity of the movement to respond to the regime's violence. And then also, apart from that, it was also conceived of as being vital in terms of hitting various strategic enemy installations, not only for the demonstrative of that but in fact to deliver crippling blows against the enemy. Hence you Sasolburg, etc. But, over and above that, there was also the need to build up the confidence of the army we'd trained because, if it just lay fallow, if it didn't engage in action, if it didn't acquire any real experience of combat -- and there is a need I think to blood it in that sort of way, if you'll excuse that expression. But in terms of the movement's tactical perspective, this opened the way first of all by its psychological impact on the rest of the oppressed community since there was a recognition that we can fight back and also to make them much more receptive to approaches to assist in the actual conduct of the protracted war. I think without those sorts of very spectacular armed propaganda missions that were carried out, it would not have been possible at a later time to send people into the country and have them assisted so that they would survive amongst the general population. Part of the reason, I think, why that became so important as a means of germinating that sort of feeling amongst people was the relative weakness of the organised underground structures. If we had very strong underground structures inside the country we would not have experienced the necessity to go in for that kind of armed propaganda and on a very large scale, because the sort of political work that they would be doing would take care of a great deal of that. But I suppose nonetheless you would have had to perform some acts of armed propaganda in any case, but it assumed a much greater importance because of the weakness of our underground inside the country.
Can you give me some indication of quite how weak the underground was at that stage?
If you look at the secretary general or the president's report to the Kabwe Conference, he talks about the underground being slowly rebuilt by ex-political prisoners from Robben Island. Now, when you consider that most of the people who had been charged in the Sixties were just beginning to be released from 10 year sentences, 13 year sentences, 12 year sentences, from about 1973 onwards, that is how rudimentary the underground was then. And a number of these people had to be extremely careful because they were obviously watched, rebuild very very slowly. At that time, there very few underground publications inside the country, very, very, very few, exceedingly few -- the occasional leaflet, the occasional leaflet bomb. Units, I'm sure they could have been numbered as well below 50 inside the country. Of course, one of the impacts of the events from 73 to 76 was that it did make the atmosphere for political activity much more conducive for people who were in the underground -- first of all to work and then secondly for identifying possible recruits into the underground. But there had been a deadening impact made by the repression of the 60s, a mood and atmosphere of terrible distrust of each other so people were just terrified of getting involved in any political activity. Now, during that time, from about 73 onwards to 76, one of the important dimensions of the reconstitution of the underground inside the country was work, very quiet, dialogue with various people in the black consciousness movement. Many people who remained in BC after 76 claimed that ANC poached BC cadres. I think many of them don't realise that that whole period -- 72-76 and even after -- there had been a continuing dialogue with individuals, leading figures in the black consciousness movement which had assisted in beginning to build some sort of infrastructure. Now, of course, the thing about the black consciousness movement was that it was mainly located in the universities, not very much in the communities, even less so in the trade unions. But, at the same time, too, the self- mobilisation of the working class made possible the establishment of core groups in various parts of the country to do trade union work, which assisted in the whole process. Many of these were experienced unionists and that, in turn of course, fed the underground with working class cadre. But the core groups were, I think, the important seedbeds for the future wave of underground recruits, activists and others, and played, I think, a very very important role in this period in terms of providing political training and experience to the sort of cadreship who, I think, came into their own in the period after 76 when the mass democratic movement now actually began to consolidate itself.
We can see the armed propaganda campaign obviously fed into the diplomatic objectives of the ANC External Mission. To what extent do you think that, in practice at times, the armed propaganda campaign became subject to External Mission imperatives, diplomatic imperatives, the necessity to project the ANC as being an effective and combative entity to institutions like the OAU Liberation Committee and others?
No, I don't think so. You see, one of the things the ANC had always done right through the 60s and early 70s, especially in relation to the OAU Liberation Committee and bodies such as that was to emphasise (the reports of course are confidential) the importance of the ordinary humdrum political work. I remember -- was it 75, yes I think it was -- preparing a huge dossier on propaganda work that the ANC had done. It was not armed propaganda -- it was ordinary plain old propaganda and organisational work that the ANC had done inside the country which was prepared for the OAU LC. And this included quite an impressive array of innovative activities. There were disks, records which people could play, there were cassettes, there were leaflets that had been put in leaflet bombs, comic books, little instructional booklets on various areas of struggle, and all that sort of thing. So I don't think there was any time at which we felt we should do something to impress the OAU. I think the imperatives that always dictated on military matters on armed propaganda or anything like that were those that had to do with the struggle internally. Otherwise one could have been doing that sort of armed propaganda right through that period. The weakness and the big hole and gap which was, in a sense, very debilitating in the late 60s and early 70s was the absence of a really strong and effective underground structure inside the country. We needed organisation to be able to do anything really, because otherwise we would merely be sending people into something like a black hole without a compass, just trying to grope around in the dark as best they could. So that was what needed to be built and, at a point when it was built to a sufficient degree that it could in fact sustain some people, then it became possible to engage in armed propaganda. But even there, the weakness was such that the armed propaganda had to play a very important levering role in terms of just making people ready for engagement and involvement in the actual armed struggle. That was a very, very long process, but I don't think one would say at any time that we looked at the diary and said, oh well, the OAU is going to be meeting in three weeks, we better do something spectacular so that it can become the talk of the next OAU meeting. No, no.
So, as the armed propaganda campaign proceeded, did the ANC find itself confronting any unintended consequences of the campaign?
I'm thinking did the armed propaganda campaign unleash consequences or forces inside the country which the ANC felt it was not able to deal with at the time?
Offhand, I wouldn't say there were. No, not off-hand.
At what point in the duration of the armed propaganda campaign did the ANC conclude it was necessary to launch a qualitatively new type of armed offensive?
The perspective had always been like that: that the two things would move together; that armed propaganda would be an aspect of a general offensive, providing a great deal of the psychological and other leverage, creating the conducive conditions and state of mind among people. But, at the same time, parallel with it were the attempts to infiltrate people so that they could root themselves inside the country, doing far less spectacular things, working very quietly, acquiring military skills and reproducing themselves inside the country by training others.
Did you achieve that?
To a certain extent. There was, I think, a lot of work that was done out of the various advanced and forward areas in those particular terms. Yes, it was achieved to a certain extent. Not to the extent, maybe, that one would have wanted. And there were problems that were encountered in respect to that. But, even during that time, in the late 70s and early 80s, there were lots of people who were being trained inside the country. People would go in and would work and service units that had been set up inside the country, and even go on missions with them. That is to build their own confidence in combat, etc. And, of course, in time, that was bound to bear fruit. It wasn't going on or proceeding to the extent that it is today, where a growing number of armed actions are carried out by people who have been trained inside the country. It wasn't to that sort of degree.
Are there any figures or proportions that we can give to this internal development of cadres and units inside the struggle at that time?
The people who were closer to the action would be able to tell you that. I just have a very general picture.
In 1978-79, the ANC had a major strategic and tactical review, according to the report to the Kabwe conference. What were the main issues up for discussion in the course of this review?
I would say the main issues that were looked at first of all was the validity of the strategy document which had emerged from the Morogoro conference 10 years earlier, one, and then the second was an examination of the validity of the perspective of protracted war as the ANC conceived it. And then the importance of mass political work, first of all for grounding the armed struggle, as perhaps the decisive component of any perspective of protracted war. I think that was the most important aspect of that 78-79 review. I think there hadn't been as clear a position in the past of the importance of mass mobilisation and perhaps its decisiveness in any perspective of protracted war: that you can only conduct and talk about people's war in the context of a politically highly motivated and active, mobilised community. If there is relative political quiescence, you might be able to conduct armed actions, even quite spectacular ones, but then there is no real back-up for it. It is a people mobilised and actively engaged in struggle who are able to sustain that kind of protracted war. And there's a certain congruence, an important congruence, between the armed aspect of the struggle and mass political activity. And there's a complementality there as well that is very important because the mass activity creates a favourable climate for the military activity, and the military activity at the same time, too, assists in giving a great deal of backbone and stick to your mass political activity. The complementality is very important. There was also, I think, a very important recognition that took place with respect to that classical formulation about the two dimensions, time and space. Space usually had been conceptualised as territorial space but in 78, and the review that took place then, I think, there began to emerge an understanding that space might not just be territorial but could actually be political space. In that respect, mass mobilisation was very important in terms of creating the political space, and that political space in turn can be expanded continuously by armed activity. Yes, I would say those are the significances of it. The review included all the components of the liberation alliance; not only the ANC but also the Communist Party and Sactu all had an input in that particular review. And I think from that time on the importance of the formalisation of activity and work of the alliance became much more important also. Before that, I think the cooperation had always been much less formalised and much less structured. It also becomes a great deal more formalised and structured. So I think the review had significance in that as well.
Now there had been a visit to Vietnam at some stage, I understand, following the Vietnamese victory by a delegation from the ANC.
Yes, that was in 78.
To what extent did this visit feed into this tactical review some Vietnamese perspectives which might find creative application in the South African situation?
I'm sure it did contribute to it, and you'd probably get a better view and understanding of its importance when you actually talk to the people who were on the delegation. I think Slovo was on that delegation, Modise was, the late Cass Make was. I forget now who the other people were, but the president of course led it. I know those three were definitely part of that delegation that visited Vietnam.
What sort of re-periodisation did that strategic and tactical review lead to?
I don't think there was significant reperiodisation with respect to it. But one thing I will say is that it did speed up one aspect of internal work, which was the creation of organised formations. I think after that review, the underground was instructed to assist as far as is possible and to participate and encourage the creation of unions, civics. And it also, I think, fed into the revival of structures that had for a long time been dormant inside the country -- internal committees of Sactu, activists, etc. So, in that sense, I think it was important for the sort of organised formations you see in the 80s. I think it was great contributing factor to the creation of them.
You've spoken of the symbiotic relationship the ANC saw between the development of armed struggle and the development of an underground capacity, and a mood amongst people of revolt. With the benefit of hindsight, does the ANC believe at all that conditions between 1976 and 81 actually allowed the ANC to spend more time and energy on building a self-sustaining underground rather than setting up and engaging in what were essentially hit- and-run units moving from outside the country?
No, I don't really think so. I think if there was any sort of regrets about that period they would relate more to not having grasped sooner the importance of mass political mobilisation. I think if there had been a much more consistent and largescale investment in setting up organised structures and formations in 76,77,78 -- that period -- things could have developed at a much faster rate and even the tempo of the insurgency. Because in 76 you had this big flare-up which lasted something like five months, and then you go into a relative lull after that, in part because of the response of the state, in part also because of the absence of organised formations. There was a tendency to rely too much on spontaneity in the period from 76 to the end of 78. There was that tendency. But I think from 79 on, there was a recognition that you had to build organised structures inside the country, and the form and the shape they took was not that significant. People had to be organised together, etc. In 79, for example, the ANC launched and anniversary celebration of the Battle of Isandlhwana, commemorating the anti-colonialist struggle of the previous centuries. This was very important not only in the sense of reminding people of past military traditions but also acted sort of as a means of mobilising people around collective symbols which had some importance. Committees to commemorate Isandlhwana were set up all over the country, and that I think was important also in reviving the spirit of resistance. And from those two, you could get core groups for future mass political activity. That's my assessment of the situation. Other people might view it slightly differently.
Are you saying then, following on from the Isandlhwana centenary, the ANC, its underground, external mission and other forces with whom it was in touch, played a major role in what became very important campaigns, it seems, such as the Anti-Republic Campaign of 1981 and then the Anti-SAIC in 1982?
Can you give me any idea of the nature of the role which was played by the ANC in these campaigns?
I was then very far away from that side of things. But I'm certain people like Ronnie Kasrils, Joe Nhlanhla and Zuma, Joe Jele or Slovo, or Thabo, would be in a much better position to answer your question.
But these campaigns would have been consistent nonetheless with the kind of mass mobilisation which the ANC was seeking to promote?
[End of interview.]