Songezo Zibi: No one sold out

On June 28 1919, World War 1 officially ended with the Treaty of Versailles, which was negotiated largely among the Allied powers. Germany, the main protagonist in the war, had very little participation as it had surrendered in November 1918.

Germany agreed to pay reparations under the Dawes Plan and the Young Plan. It is generally accepted that the reparation obligations placed upon Germany caused a great deal of suffering among ordinary Germans. The poverty and strife worsened when the Great Depression began in 1929.

These conditions had a lot to do with the rise of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party – the Nazi Party. A firebrand with a superb oratory gift, Hitler profited enormously from what became popularly known as the “stab in the back”.

According to this legend, German politicians elected to surrender to Allied powers when the German army was quite capable of continuing the fight – and possibly winning the war. This legend was a fabrication.

The real story, however, is that, in a high-level meeting on September 28 1918, General Erich Ludendorff, the head of the High Command, had strongly propagated the need for an immediate armistice. His boss, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, pushed the idea at a meeting chaired by Kaiser Wilhelm II the next month.

“The army cannot wait 48 hours because the military situation made it imperative that the fighting be stopped at once,” he said.

The civilian government eventually assented. It could not cause an apparently demoralised, defeated army to fight and win a war it no longer had the stomach for.

In the face of the humiliating conditions that followed the Treaty of Versailles, no one would own the suggestion. And so this revised version of events transformed from rumour to fact. Even those who knew the truth simply refused to acknowledge it. The rest, as they say, is history.

This story comes to mind whenever the Convention for a Democratic SA (Codesa) – the negotiations that began in 1991 to end apartheid – is discussed by some politicians and many others on social media platforms. There, the legend goes, Nelson Mandela and the ANC decided to accept the trappings of political power and totally capitulated on economic reparations and empowerment for black people. They are accused of being the reason so many black people are poor today.

It is not unusual to hear some in the ANC itself repeat this version of history. To hear it being told, you would swear the ANC was the only party at the negotiating table, and had powerful leverage in comparison to the apartheid government. It had no such leverage.

The signatories to the deal that ushered in a democratic South Africa were numerous, but the points of leverage varied. The minuscule chance of some kind of military victory evaporated in December 1988 when Angola, Cuba and South Africa signed the New York Agreement, which put an end to the Angolan conflict and saw the withdrawal of Cuban and Soviet forces from that country.

The deal had profound implications for the ANC as it had Umkhonto weSizwe camps in Angola. These had to be moved to Tanzania and Uganda. The so-called “western front” through which it could infiltrate fighters and weapons into the country via Botswana no longer had the same level of usefulness.

There were other ramifications. Apart from the fact that the Soviet Union was collapsing, its officials were already forming relations with the likes of Neil Barnard, the head of the National Intelligence Service in FW de Klerk’s government. In fact, Barnard visited Moscow in July 1991, where, according to Soviet academics Irina Filatova and Apollon Davidson, he met KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov and foreign intelligence head Leonid Shebarshin. The Soviets also reciprocated.

While these were not cosy relations by any stretch of the imagination, it was clear that even the ANC’s most ardent backers saw that negotiation was the way forward. To its strategic credit, the ANC organised one final shot at military insurance in the form of Operation Vula, in which Pravin Gordhan, Siphiwe Nyanda, Mac Maharaj and others were key players.

Unfortunately, this largely successful infiltration of arms and operatives into the country was burst wide open when Nyanda, Gordhan, Maharaj, Billy Nair and other key actors were arrested.

It was also a very violent time and multiple people were being killed every day. People, children even, were shot at, hacked to death and even thrown off moving trains. Understandably, the rest of the world thought the entire country was going to end up like Angola, which descended into war immediately after independence.

The escalating violent conflict dominated the national political scene, and this is reflected in the working groups formed to take the Codesa 2 negotiations forward. There was a working group on the creation of free political participation, another on drawing up constitutional principles, a third working out transitional arrangements, a fourth looking at the future of so-called independent homelands and a fifth that managed process and time frames.

It is clear that the central objective was to get a framework in place that would replace the National Party government with something more credible. Were the specifics of economic power neglected? It appears so, but this does not equate to capitulation given the exigencies of the time.

It is also important to admit an uncomfortable fact that apartheid was not militarily defeated. Had this been the case, there would have been little or no negotiation. The very fact of protracted negotiation suggests a process of give and take.

There are many armchair critics today who like to propose that we charge Mandela and others with serious dereliction of duty. The many complex decisions they had to make are now regarded with the 20/20 vision of hindsight by keyboard warriors who have neither the context nor the knowledge of the history.

Despite shrill protestations from the right wing of our politics, white South Africans have done exceptionally well during democracy. Black people, much less so. This is also unsurprising. After decades of heavy investment in white education and through job reservation, they were always going to be the first to benefit from an economy into which investment was flowing again.

Short of a law preventing them from participating economically at all, the income and other socioeconomic inequalities that bear the old apartheid patterns were always going to worsen before they got better.

The question we should ask is whether the mechanisms democratic government chose to close this historical gap were effected or pursued with the political will required. After all, by 2004, the ANC had a two-thirds majority, which it didn’t have when it was negotiating the future of a violently chaotic country with limited leverage.

It is now 24 years since we attained democracy. The abject conditions many black people find themselves in are partly attributable to choices we made after democracy. A narrative that puts the blame solely on our negotiated settlement is disingenuous at best. At worst, it is a blatant lie.

It is no different to the famous “stab in the back” that whipped Germans into a frenzy of discontent that ended in yet another humiliating defeat when World War 2 ended in 1945.

Sadly, our own legend is likely to take further root. We live in an age of false history and bold lies told by artful political entrepreneurs to a younger generation that cannot be motivated to learn and understand its own history.

As we go through these tumultuous times, we continue to make choices about what we do about prevailing challenges of the day. These are things we wilfully ignore and fail to deal with because we want to hang on to narratives that imprison our minds in a cycle of regret and blame. We elect to follow those who offer divisive silver bullets that promise to bring us Utopia if we decimate this or that individual, or this or that sector of society.

We do not yet have a transformed economy. Many people will die without ever tasting the sweet fruits of freedom. We can choose to spend our energy on rewriting history to justify why we have not realised the South Africa of our dreams; or we can face up to our own failure to take forward the solid foundation our Constitution lays for transforming society.

Whichever direction we choose through the popular vote, future generations will judge us in the same way we judge those who came before us. Given our propensity to chase conspiracy theories, their judgement will be unkind.

Zibi is former editor of Business Day and author of Raising the Bar: Hope and Renewal in South Africa

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