Book review: 'War in Peace: The Truth about the South African Police's East Rand Riot Unit 1986 - 1994'

Few books have yet been written about the ‘people’s war’ waged by the African National Congress (ANC) from 1984 to 1994. Nick Howarth’s book, War in Peace, helps remedy that defect.

Howarth is no armchair commentator, for he served as a riot police commander in the turbulent years from 1986 to 1994. He was also stationed on the east Rand: the site throughout the early 1990s of bitter conflict between the unbanned ANC and its main black rival, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).  

Howarth’s book vividly describes the battle for control of the massive east Rand townships and their millions of black residents. As Howarth writes, there was ‘a real war’ going on in these black dormitory areas, but it lay outside the knowledge of most whites and remained largely unacknowledged by the Press.  Yet, night after night, he and his patrolling riot unit saw homes and hostels set ablaze, tracer bullets arching across the sky, fierce clashes between ANC and IFP supporters, and sometimes the brutal massacre of unarmed innocents by antagonists on both sides.

Howarth’s men – like the other riot units on patrol in these strife-torn townships – faced a continual barrage of attack as they picked their way past burning barricades and concealed pits dug in the roads to trap them in their casspirs (armoured vehicles). By the early 1990s, most of the attacks on the riot policemen came from the ANC’s ‘self-defence units’ (SDUs) which the organisation’s returned Umkhonto we Sizwe operatives had helped establish, arm, and man.

 SDU units were no match for the police in open combat, but such combat was not the SDU aim. Though the SDUs repeatedly ambushed police patrols, their main targets were either deemed IFP supporters or the ordinary township residents the ANC used terror to control. Writes Howarth: ‘SDUs…were cowards who murdered and pillaged for fun. They were a disgrace to the struggle.’ [p100]

 As the violence intensified, ANC propaganda brushed over the role of SDUs and Umkhonto operatives in the fighting. Instead, the blame was placed on state president F W de Klerk, the IFP, and (increasingly) on the riot police themselves, all of whom were said to be stoking conflict as part of a sinister ‘third force’. Comments Howarth: ‘There were allegations of a Third Force, and that might well have been true. However, during my time as a policeman, I never personally saw evidence of this. Something had to be fuelling the unrest, but it certainly wasn’t [the] riot units… I was just a cop doing what I thought was right – protecting people and trying to stop them killing one another.’ [p123]

 ANC-aligned monitors of violence and front-page articles in the New Nation and other newspapers sympathetic to the ANC repeatedly accused the riot police of invading homes, assaulting innocents, and transporting IFP warriors into battle against ANC SDUs and ordinary township residents. Responds Howarth: ‘But we were putting our lives on the line to protect a bunch of strangers… It was a case of the more we did, the more trouble we were in. [Soon] we’d just about taken enough.’ [p126]

Howarth’s book gives first-hand accounts of many key events:

 ·      the mounting battles on the east Rand in the second half of 1990;

·      the clash between the police and the ANC at Daveyton in March 1991 in which a policeman and twelve others died;

·      the violence that surged in April 1993 after the killing of Chris Hani; and

·      the conflict in Tokoza in May 1993 when ANC demonstrators marched past an IFP hostel and a small group of agents provocateurs opened fire on the hostel dwellers, sparking further street fighting in which dozens of people died.

 According to Howarth, the group in this last incident was made up of ‘ANC supporters who had broken away from the march [and] were armed with AK-47 rifles’.  Judge Richard Goldstone and his commission of inquiry into political violence investigated this last incident, and confirmed that a few gunmen had instigated the conflict. Writes Howarth: ‘The identities of the gunmen were not established. We could have told them, but they never bothered to ask us.’ [p193]

 Accusations against the riot police – renamed the Internal Stability Division (ISD) early in 1992 – intensified as the crucial 1994 election drew closer. Damning allegations against the ISD were given splash coverage, while hard questions about the ANC’s refusal to disarm or disband the roughly 13 000 Umkhonto operatives it had brought back into the country under the cover of the peace process remained unasked.  Notes Howarth: ‘If there was one thing that the ANC could organise to perfection, it was their propaganda machine.’ [p195]

Howarth’s gripping account of the war on the east Rand is an important antidote to the persistent propaganda that has long shielded the ANC from any blame for the upsurge in political violence in the early 1990s. One weakness of the book is that Howarth gives few details of the ANC’s underlying strategy, or of the key political developments that marked South Africa’s transition to ANC rule. However, this omission matters little – for the great strength of Howarth’s book lies in the fact that he was there.

 Howarth’s account is no academic treatise. Instead, it is full of fascinating (and often horrifying) detail rooted in his personal experience. It is a tale of courage under fire, of dogged determination not to give up in the face of persistent exhaustion and massive stress, of understanding for the plight of township residents caught up in the conflict – and of quiet disdain for the politicians on all sides who helped unleash the violence and then left it to the police to try and damp it down.


   -  Anthea Jeffery, Head of Special Research, South African Institute of Race Relations. Jeffery is the author of People’s War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa, published by Jonathan Ball in 2009.



The ANC’s underlying strategy, which Howarth does not attempt to describe but which provides the context to his book, may be summarised as follows.

 When former state president FW de Klerk unbanned the African National Congress (ANC) and its allies in February 1990, he believed he was laying the foundation for a process of ‘good faith’ negotiations in which all parties would be committed to peace, mutual compromise for the common good, and respect for agreements reached.  

 However, the ANC had no intention of negotiating on this basis. Instead it saw constitutional talks as an additional ‘terrain of struggle’: an adjunct to the people’s war it had been implementing since unrest broke out in Sebokeng in the Vaal Triangle in September 1984.

 Most South Africans have little knowledge of what people’s war entails. Very many have thus accepted the ANC’s view that ‘the struggle’ was essentially a civil rights initiative backed by a campaign of limited violence directed mainly against the apartheid police and army.

 In fact, the strategy of people’s war was very different, for it deliberately targeted civilians for attack and used terror to bring township residents into line. In addition, though one of its aims was to rob the faltering National Party (NP) government of any remaining will to rule, its key objective was a different one. It was to weaken or destroy its key black rivals so as to give the ANC the hegemony it needed to drive its revolution forward in the post-apartheid period.

 Largely because it was so little understood, the ANC’s people’s war proved very difficult to counter. State president P W Botha tried in the 1980s to end it via emergency rule coupled with incremental reform, but the effect was mainly to erode the NP’s tattered legitimacy still further.

 Botha’s successor, F W de Klerk, tried to end the people’s war through political liberalisation and a commitment to negotiating in good faith. Though this was the only appropriate way forward, the ANC was able to turn this approach to its advantage through a variant of the ‘Trojan Horse’ strategy. 

 As the legend of the Trojan Horse makes clear, the Greeks ultimately triumphed in their ten-year conflict with the Trojans by pretending to give up fighting while simultaneously finding a way to infiltrate their soldiers into Troy.

 The ANC did much the same, pretending that it wanted peaceful constitutional negotiations while simultaneously using the talks to achieve the lawful return to the country of some 13 000 Umkhonto insurgents. This bypassed the great difficulty the organisation had earlier faced in infiltrating them illegally.

 With these trained and armed operatives back inside South Africa, the ANC was able to intensify its people’s war. Its aim was never to send Umkhonto into pitched battles against the army or the police, but rather to use MK in clandestine hit-and-run attacks against targets of various kinds. 

 From 1990 until 1994, black policemen and local councillors living in townships were frequently attacked and killed in their homes. Random attacks were launched against train commuters and other township residents, helping to spread terror among them. The great bulk of the violence, however, was directed against the ANC’s black rivals in the Black Consciousness (BC) movement and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

 The BC groups were quickly cowed, but IFP supporters fought back tenaciously and often viciously. However, they were clearly outgunned by Umkhonto, which was able to rely on the sophisticated weaponry the ANC, with Soviet help, had smuggled into South Africa over many years. The IFP thus suffered thousands of deaths, while steadily losing territory to the ANC on both the east Rand and in KwaZulu/Natal.  

 With attacks of all these kinds intensifying, riot policemen were sent into contested areas on a daily basis to protect civilians, help prevent attacks on commuters, and hold the warring sides in the ANC/IFP conflict at bay. However, these police patrols were commonly ambushed, petrol-bombed and shot at, even as ANC propaganda blamed them for the rising death toll and demanded their withdrawal from the east Rand and elsewhere. 

 Between 1990 and 1994, the number of policemen killed in political violence rose to an average of 200 a year. In the same period, two key BC organisations – the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) – suffered a number of attacks on their supporters. At the same time, thousands of IFP officials and supporters were killed, often in well-planned ambushes. In 1993 IFP president Mangosuthu Buthelezi asked how credible negotiations could proceed or a fair election could be held when ‘people were being shot for belonging to the wrong political party’.

 Umkhonto’s return thus brought political violence in South Africa to unprecedented heights. Between 1984 and 1989 – a period which included four years of partial or national emergency rule – deaths in political violence had totalled some 5 000.  Ironically, it was only after political liberalisation that political killings increased three-fold, bringing the number of fatalities to around 15 000 in the four years from February 1990 to April 1994.

 Such has been the power of ANC propaganda that Umkhonto’s part in this upsurge in conflict has persistently been downplayed or ignored. Hence, the ANC has never faced hard questions about the role of its armed wing at a time when the door to non-racial democracy had already been thrown open. Howarth’s book does not overtly deal with the ANC’s strategy, but his gripping account of the east Rand conflict must surely make it more difficult for commentators to continue overlooking the unacknowledged war he so graphically describes.