“BRICS: in the Mirror of Times” Relations between the USSR and South Africa during the apartheid period
The thirteenth episode of the joint TV BRICS and GAUGN project is dedicated to the interaction between the two states under apartheid in South Africa
In the thirteenth episode of the joint project by the TV BRICS International Media Network and GAUGN “BRICS: in the Mirror of Times”, dedicated to the USSR’s assistance in the fight against racial segregation in South Africa, Aleksandr Voevodsky, PhD in History, Senior Researcher at the Centre for African Studies of the Institute of General History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, spoke about the role of the Soviet Union in the fight against the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1970s.
The project was supported by a grant from the Russian Ministry of Education and Science as part of the federal project “Popularisation of Science and Technology”.
Every year 16 June is a day off in South Africa, it is a Day of Mourning: on 16 June 1976, the apartheid government suppressed a school rebellion near Johannesburg. And this is just one episode in the long struggle of black people in South Africa against racial segregation. How did the Soviet Union help them and why did the USSR and South Africa find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades during the Angolan civil war?
First, let’s understand the terms: what is apartheid or aˈpartɦɛit?
The word has origins in Afrikaans, so it is more correctly pronounced “aˈpartɦɛit”, but in Russian the transliteration from English – “apartheid” has taken hold. In principle, both are acceptable.
In 1948, well after the Second World War, the National Party came to power in the Union of South Africa. It was formed during the First World War and expressed the national, even nationalist aspirations of Afrikaners. In one of our programs we talked about the Anglo-Boer War, which became a trauma for Afrikaners. In opposition to the British policy of imposing English as the main state language, a response began to form, a national movement began to take shape. At first it was a movement in defence of the language, defence of Afrikaner culture, and on this basis political nationalism has already formed, a rather right-wing. During the Second World War, the National Party sympathised with Hitler’s Germany, they had certain connections. In 1948, upon coming to power, the leader of the national party, Daniel François Malan, just proclaimed apartheid as a state policy.
The idea was that people of European descent and Africans come from different civilisations, cultures, the mixing of which is disastrous for both. Therefore, the policy of separate development as a benefit was officially proclaimed. That is, the prohibition of interracial marriages, a very strict system of territorial demarcation – in areas designated for whites, Africans could not live permanently, they could only come to work. A system of so-called bantustans, or fatherlands, was created: territories were set aside for the largest African peoples, within which Africans could enjoy a certain degree of self-government. It’s like a reservation where the population is being herded into.
What methods did the resistance use to fight the regime?
The Communist Party has been banned and worked underground since 1950, but it is during these years that a very important process takes place. The South African Communist Party moves closer to the African National Congress, and a common platform of action begins to emerge. Future leader of the African National Congress, already South Africa’s leader in the 1990s, Nelson Mandela joined the Communist Party in the 1950s. Before that, he was very sceptical about communism because communism is a European idea.
Already by the beginning of the active struggle against the apartheid regime, both the Communist Party and the African National Congress were beginning to form a united front. In 1955, the People’s Charter, the main programme document of the African National Congress, is adopted, stating: South Africa belongs to all who live in it.
What was the role of the Soviet Union at that time? How did it help fight apartheid?
The turning point is the Sharpeville shooting (on 21 March 1960, a peaceful demonstration of Africans was shot). In the aftermath, there was a massive upsurge in protests on the one hand, and on the other hand, there was a violent backlash from the regime, which tried to suppress the protests.
African National Congress leaders end up in prison, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. In these conditions, when in fact the leaders of the resistance were forced to move abroad, the key role was given to the Soviet Union, which provided financial assistance, material support, related to a variety of supplies.
In the archives I got my hands on a document that says: in 1967 – a tonne of sugar, several tens of thousands of boxes of matches, some salt. Virtually full provision for the African National Congress, which was operating in exile. Secondly, there was a shift to armed struggle, and the Soviet Union trained, provided military training. In Skhodnya near Moscow, Odessa (on the basis of the Odessa Military School), in Perevalnaya in the Crimea, in Tashkent (there are higher officer courses, commander courses). Plus students who came to Moscow, to other cities, studied, got civilian specialities – this is also important, because they were preparing to take power, preparing managerial personnel.
In the mid-1970s, a civil war begins in Angola, in which the USSR and South Africa were involved. How did this happen?
Yes, indeed, while for South Africa it was still a neighbouring, close country, the USSR was quite far away. In 1974, there was a revolution that led to regime change. And the following year the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique gained independence. But the situation in Angola was complicated because several movements were competing with each other for power, and the USSR supported the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola – Partido do Trabalho, MPLA). Others were supported by the Republic of South Africa, the apartheid regime, the national party regime, because they feared that if a pro-Soviet, pro-Moscow movement came to power in Angola, which bordered on the then South Africa (it should be remembered that modern Namibia was a province of South Africa at that time), then this border of hostile states would closely adjoin the Republic of South Africa.
South Africa has therefore made every effort to prevent the MPLA movement from coming to power, preventing it from doing so by supporting its opponents. The Soviet Union sent its advisers, there were also Cubans fighting in Angola, doing their international duty on the side of this people’s liberation movement of Angola. And South Africa also supported, and not only with arms, not only by training fighters: South African troops invaded Angolan territory. South African aircraft bombed the positions of government troops in Angola, and there were times when Soviet advisers and South African soldiers and officers found themselves in direct combat interaction, because Soviet specialists were operators of complex military equipment – artillery systems, armoured vehicles. In the war in Angola, several dozen of our compatriots lost their lives.
How have the policies of the South African National Party changed in response to external challenges?
This war was a very powerful challenge because it was unpromising, it required a lot of effort, resources, sacrifices, tension. International sanctions intensified – they even had to make petrol from coal, to refine coal into petrol, because there was an embargo on oil and oil products. These are serious challenges.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Peter Willem Botha came to power in South Africa, first as the new Prime Minister, then as President, who made this statement: the Afrikaners must either adapt or die. That is, conditions are changing, the world is changing, and the regime needs to change somehow, so an attempt was made to reform it.
The reforms ended up going nowhere, rather they provoked a new upsurge in the movement by the African majority. In 1984, a nationwide movement began, led by the United Democratic Front. As a result, the apartheid regime eventually came to an end.