As South Africa enters 30 years under the rule of the liberation party, Tony Leon examines what success might look like in toppling a government as a liberation movement and finds SA wanting.

Imagine you headed operations for a liberation army, seeking to overthrow an oppressive state and the cruel overlords who helmed it.

What would you target, and which metrics would gauge your movement’s success in toppling the government which was your avowed enemy?

Metrics of success

Psychologically and practically, plunging the country into darkness would be a key tactic. In one year, ensuring that for most of the year, say 332 days, the country’s electricity was cut off and the bulk of power stations closed would mark the scorecard as excellent.

Next, perhaps, shutting the water supply in major areas (say eight days of no water in suburbs of its largest city), and poisoning it with E.coli or infecting it with cholera (perhaps, respectively, on the beaches of its most popular coastal resort and in a town alongside its capital city) would devastate local morale and suggest the state was incapable of providing the necessities for life.

A gas explosion in a major street in its largest city would be further proof of state neglect or perhaps an indicator of strategic sabotage into the bargain.

Crippling the infrastructural arteries necessary for modern economic life would also be an obvious target. Disabling rail, roads, and ports to block key exports (and imports) on which a country is heavily dependent for selling commodities to the world would be the tactics to achieve strategic success here. Impeding exports and imports worth, say R7 billion per day, as estimated by the local freight forwarders association, would be an indicator of operational excellence here.

Causing much-needed investors to flee the shores of the state for safer climes elsewhere would complement the destruction of road and rail – especially when the local stock exchange and bond markets heavily leaned on external punters to supplement local investment. One metric (of many) would see foreign investors dumping R135 billion in local shares in the last year, citing increasing wariness around developments in the target country.

And one consequence of all these targets being hit would be an erosion of the local currency, often used as the indicator of the sovereign’s share price and useful to cripple the government’s space to fund other priorities by driving up the cost of borrowing and crowding out other activities. An 8% annual decline against the US Dollar amounting to a cumulative 80% over 30 years of struggle would be impressive in terms of sovereign wealth destruction.

Since at least the time of Thomas Hobbes and his Leviathan (circa 1668) the social contract between ruler and citizen has been anchored in the state’s ability to protect its population from death, harm and injury. Upending this by allowing a criminal army to roam broadly unhindered across the land, say more than 400 people per day being subject to serious assault and raping 120 women daily would, in its grim awfulness, tick the success box.

Disrupting daily life and again immiserating people by, say, preventing the post office from delivering letters and parcels would be another indicator that the state was unable to perform basic functions.

And what of the seat of the detested government’s emblematic authority, its place of legislative business, the houses of Parliament which had stood tall and untouched for more than 135 years since 1885? Enabling it to be burnt down would strike a mighty, if symbolic, blow against the state you seek to supplant.

From liberation to reckless carelessness

If even some of these key indicators and measures had been achieved, you would have operated one of the most successful liberation movements and armed forces of all times.

In the struggle to liberate South Africa from its oppressive apartheid regime, against which the actual liberation movement, the ANC and its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) set its face, destroying the state and infrastructure, routing the armed forces and disabling the country’s economy and hastening its surrender were the targets. Yet, during the thirty or so years of MK’s history and the intensification of the struggle to liberate South Africa few, if any, were achieved.

Certainly, external sanctions and pressure, moral force, internationalising the incarceration of Nelson Mandela, an internal struggle which rendered most black townships ungovernable and the arrival in power of FW de Klerk as the last white president were more effective in hastening the change than any attacks on infrastructure or a disabling of the edifice of the state and its armed forces which, after three decades of attacks, was left largely unscathed.

Yet, as readers will readily know, and doubtless groan at the reminders, all the targets for disabling the state listed above and the tactical steps to ruin the country and depress its people (or worse) were achieved not by the liberation army during the struggle but in the thirty years, accelerating in the past twelve months, after the struggle ended. And at the hands of the same liberation movement which achieved power and control of government itself.

Why the state set out to disable itself, render its own governance shambolic and inflict deep suffering on the very people it sought to liberate is one of the more intriguing questions of modern times. Doubtless, this was not intended.

At best, reckless carelessness in execution, holding deep beliefs in antique and discredited ideas, erecting grandiose projects on weak physical and ideological foundations, and biting the hands that literally fed, electrified and clothed the nation while alienating key internal and international groups who might have hastened reconstruction not further destruction, will provide some of the answers here.

Underground parties prone to corruption

However practically ineffective MK might have been in achieving change in South Africa, its symbolic heft is of greater importance, hence the tussle between Jacob Zuma and his erstwhile struggle partners in the ANC on brand ownership.

But in a more malign sense, and another key explainer for the state of the state today and the state into which it has plunged the country lies in the nature and operating methods of the ANC in exile.

One of the most underrated but important books written of past times as an explainer of current times, is External Mission: The ANC in Exile 1960-1990 by the late Stephen Ellis. A great number of the morbid pathologies which have killed off the current state and its operations were salted in those years of enforced exile: criminal networks, intense factional struggles, promotion of inept but loyal cadres, and a brutal dissent-stifling discipline.

The ANC is hardly alone in discovering that the requirements for sustaining a liberation movement in exile are a poor fit for the rigours and limits of constitutional democratic governance and economic discipline.

Widening the lens to other parties of national liberation who went on to win elections afterwards, from Israel’s Labour Party to the French Gaullists and Ireland’s Fianna Faul, historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft notes: “All underground movements operate of necessity by basic rules – unconditional loyalty to colleagues, and no questions asked – which become dangerous when carried into constitutional societies. It is no coincidence that parties which operate underground … have been so prone to corruption.”

India’s Congress Party is another key example.

It is even more interesting that each of the parties cited by him lost power after decades of uninterrupted rule – with thirty years being the benchmark.

As we enter 2024, it will be interesting to see whether South Africa joins this club.