SOUTH AFRICA: When The ANC Lost Its Brain


In 1959 the editor of Optima, a quality journal that Anglo American Corporation distributed to its shareholders, had an inspiring idea. He commissioned the famous British historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) to write an article about the most likely outcome of the seemingly intractable black-white struggle for control of South Africa.

Because the magazine was not for sale to the public, it did not receive the publicity it richly deserved. When I first cited the article in my The Rise and Demise of the Afrikaners (Tafelberg, 2019) I could not find a reference to it in any book or journal.

The article that Optima published was nothing less than a major scoop. During the 1950s and 1960s Arnold Toynbee was probably the best-known and most influential historian in the world. His picture even appeared on the cover of the weekly magazine Time. He was famous on account of his seminal book A Study of History that appeared in twelve substantial volumes between 1934 and 1961

Toynbee’s study charted the distinct patterns in the rise, decline and ultimate demise of the more than twenty major civilizations the world that he identified as having risen and fallen since the beginning of historical time. As the catalyst in the rise of civilisations he singled out the key role of a creative minority that successfully addressed the major existential challenges that confronted their society.

In each case it was the ability of visionary leaders to respond creatively to the existential challenges their society faced that triggered the rise of a new civilization. A key element in this process was the culture of the dominant group that created the civilisation.

Toynbee’s article makes an important distinction that has often been overlooked in the debates over the historic development and the future of South Africa. It highlights the important differences in the culture of the colonies founded by the Spaniards and Portuguese, on the one hand, and, on the other, those established by the Dutch and the British

Toynbee pointed out that the Spanish and Portuguese colonisers integrated the members of indigenous societies into their social structures of the colonies they founded. Marriages across colour lines were common. In stark contrast the Dutch and the British colonisers considered themselves to be superior to the indigenous people and made little effort to absorb them as equals into social structures like the family, congregation or political party.

In the end it was culture together with demography that decided the fate of the colonial societies that the different European nations founded. As Toynbee pointed out, the Spanish and Portuguese also exploited the native peoples in their colonies in Latin America, but the barriers to advancement were not racial, and hence not impermeable.

The colonies that the Dutch and the British founded stood in strong contrast to this. Upward mobility for subordinate people was difficult and intermarriage was not common. There was, as Toynbee noted with reference the colony founded in South Africa, ’no easy way of entry into the dominant caste for an able and adaptable African. The racial barriers were almost impermeable.’

But if culture is destiny, so is demography, which can trump culture. In a deeply divided society like South Africa increasing resistance and concerted pressure from a subjugated people inexorably bring a minority government to a political crisis where it had to face up to the fact that the costs of continuing domination were too high.

The only sensible remaining option was to accept the status of a minority that no longer enjoyed any real power or privilege rather than face the wrath of a resentful majority. Toynbee concluded his article with a wry observation: ‘Voluntary abdication in favour of a majority whom one feels to be inferior is a very hard alternative for human pride to accept.’

Why did the NP government in 1994 accept an agreement that left whites without any formal political power?

When this issue came up in discussions after the actual settlement of 1994 it was often contended that the white-ruled state was bankrupt and had no other option. A person who should know was Derek Keys, who was chairman of the board of directors of a mining house and the last Minister of Finance in the NP government. In an interview I had with him he dismissed the contention out of hand. ‘The going would get tougher but we could continue”, he stated.

‘Why did the Boers give it all away?’ is a recurring question in the book by the prize-winning Financial Times journalist Patti Waldmeir. Anatomy of a Miracle: The end of Apartheid and the birth of the new South Africa (1997). But the book does not provide a clear answer.

A book has just appeared that takes a more sober view of the transition than on the one side, calling it a miracle or, on the other, seeing the NP government under F.W. de Klerk as giving the country away to the ANC. The author is Leopold Scholtz, who did his undergraduate studies at the University of Stellenbosch and received his doctorate in history from the University of Leiden in in the Netherlands. He is following in the footsteps of his father G.D. Scholtz. who was editor of the Johannesburg daily Die Transvaler and author of several books on Afrikaner political, military and cultural history.

Leopold Scholtz worked his way up as a journalist in Nasionale Pers and ultimately served as deputy editor of Die Burger. After his retirement he moved to the Netherlands from where he currently writes for Naspers on current developments in Europe.

Scholtz brings his training as a historian and his long experience as a journalist to present a clear and compelling account of the transition to a democracy in South Africa, emphasising the years between 1960 and 1990.

Most of the previous studies highlight the popular uprisings in South Africa or the debates within the ruling National Party. Scholtz’s work focuses on the intimate relationship between the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP), both being backed by the Soviet Union, which he sees as crucially important.

During the last three decades of apartheid the South African government waged a campaign to persuade the public at home and governments abroad that the ANC was strongly supported by the SACP and by individual communists both locally and abroad.

With apartheid fast losing credibility after the Soweto uprising of 1976, the government’s campaign did not make much headway beyond the white electorate at home. For quite some time public option in the West tended to accept the view that the ANC was an autonomous non-racial organisation and too principled to be influenced by communist institutions and by the many communists in the leadership ranks of the SACP.

Scholtz leans in particular on the work of Irina Filatova, a Russian academic who now lives in Cape Town, and her co-author, the Moscow academic Apollon Davidson, and also that of Stephen Ellis, who taught at Leiden University and Jan-Adriaan Stemmet of the University of the Free State.’

Scholtz tackles with gusto the difficult issues. He is forthright in arguing while the ANC and SACP were two separate bodies they had one brain, that of the SACP. He argues that Oliver Tambo was never a communist while Mandela distanced himself from communism only late in his career.

Scholtz is frank in stating that the ideology of the SACP was very close to that of the Soviet Union and that the SACP dominated the ANC-SACP Alliance during the years of Struggle. The ANC’s intimate relationship with the SACP and its association with Moscow have acquired something of a smell. The tortuous way the present ANC government has tried to avoid condemning Russia’s assault on the Ukraine speaks volumes.

It is clear that the paralysis that has seemed to grip the ANC government is due largely to the decline of communism as an ideology and the cessation of the flow of expert advice from Moscow.

The electoral system that was introduced in 1994 in South Africa has compounded the ANC’s problems since it encourages the ruling party to sink in a political stupor between elections. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s appeals to his voters sound increasingly like calls to stragglers who are lost and without guidance.