Stephen El­lis: His­to­rian who laid bare the ANC’s heroic ‘myths’


Sunday Times - - OBITUARIES -

STEPHEN El­lis, who has died in Am­s­ter­dam in the Nether­lands at the age of 62, was a pro­lific and highly re­garded his­to­rian of Africa who ex­posed what he called the myth of the ANC’s armed strug­gle against apartheid.

He also re­vealed that Nel­son Man­dela had been a mem­ber of the cen­tral com­mit­tee of the SACP be­tween the Sharpeville mas­sacre in March 1960 and his ar­rest near How­ick in Au­gust 1962.

Man­dela, the ANC, SACP and their sup­port­ers in South Africa and in­ter­na­tion­ally had de­nied this for half a cen­tury.

When his book, Ex­ter­nal Mis­sion: The ANC in Ex­ile, came out in 2012, El­lis was roundly de­nounced as a liar.

Within hours of Man­dela’s death the SACP ad­mit­ted that in fact he had been a mem­ber, not only of the party but of its cen­tral com­mit­tee.

El­lis, who trawled the ar­chives of the East Ger­man se­cret po­lice, the Stasi, for his book, said the is­sue was im­por­tant be­cause it sup­ported the ar­gu­ment that the armed strug­gle was orig­i­nally the work of the SACP rather than the ANC.

He said it was de­cided at a con­fer­ence in 1960 that was at­tended by just 25 peo­ple.

Man­dela was one of the few black peo­ple present.

The ANC as an or­gan­i­sa­tion never voted in favour of armed strug­gle, he said.

Although suc­ces­sive ANC gov­ern­ments had done ev­ery­thing to bur­nish the myth of the armed strug­gle, he said, it was al­ways more the­atri­cal than real.

It played a neg­li­gi­ble role in bring­ing down apartheid.

Labour strikes, home-grown street protests and the re­fusal of banks such as Chase Man­hat­tan to roll over South African debt were far more ef­fec­tive.

“A gen­er­a­tion of South Africans has been told that the ANC sin­gle-hand­edly brought about the down­fall of apartheid, when the truth is that it was the work of many other ac­tors in so­ci­ety, not to men­tion the end­ing of the Cold War.”

In­ef­fec­tual Umkhonto we-Sizwe may have been, but at least it knew about bomb-mak­ing. El­lis re­vealed that bomb­mak­ing ex­perts from the Ir­ish Repub­li­can Army trained the ANC at a se­cret base in An­gola REV­E­LA­TIONS: Stephen El­lis said the armed strug­gle played a neg­li­gi­ble role in bring­ing down apartheid in the late ’70s.

El­lis was the first to re­port on the MK mutiny in An­gola in 1984, its Qua­tro prison camp and the dreaded ANC se­cu­rity depart­ment, Mbokodo.

The ac­cu­racy of his work was con­firmed by the fi­nal re­port of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion in 1998.

El­lis ex­posed the ex­tent of vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing tor­ture, im­pris­on­ment (of­ten in soli­tary con­fine­ment), beat­ings and ex­e­cu­tions in ANC guer­rilla camps.

Dozens of ANC mem­bers were tor­tured and killed as sus­pected spies by Mbokodo, some of them “barely teenagers”, he wrote.

He said East Ger­man train­ers taught the in­ter­nal se­cu­rity agents that any­one who chal­lenged of­fi­cial ANC dogma should be viewed as a po­ten­tial spy or a traitor.

As late as 1984, the ANC ex­e­cuted seven of its guer­ril­las by fir­ing squad and sen­tenced another eight to death in An­gola’s Pango camp.

A slightly mit­i­gat­ing fac­tor was the ex­tent to which the apartheid regime had in­fil­trated these camps with in­form­ers. Sev­eral very se­nior mem­bers of the ANC in ex­ile were turned by the apartheid gov­ern­ment’s in­tel­li­gence ser­vices, and some met mys­te­ri­ous deaths on their re­turn to a free coun­try.

But most of the trou­ble in the camps, said El­lis, was caused by the re­fusal of ANC bosses, es- pe­cially those who were also Com­mu­nists, to tol­er­ate dis­sent.

He showed how cor­rup­tion in the ANC was not some­thing that started af­ter it came to power in 1994. A cul­ture of cor­rup­tion per­me­ated sec­tions of the ANC in ex­ile, he wrote.

He re­vealed how the ANC’s se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence ser­vices co-opted many of the hard men of the apartheid era’s crim­i­nal gang­land, black and white, to­gether with some of the nas­tier se­cu­rity agents of the white regime it­self, in­clud­ing some of the shadi­est sanc­tions-busters.

The ANC’s first post-apartheid min­is­ter of de­fence, Joe Modise, El­lis said, was a big­time crook.

El­lis was born in Not­ting­ham, in the UK, on June 13 1953 and stud­ied mod­ern history at Ox­ford Univer­sity.

Af­ter Ox­ford he was a vol- un­teer teacher in Cameroon and then worked as a civil ser­vant in Lon­don be­fore turn­ing to academia to teach in Mada­gas­car and study the re­bel­lion in the 1890s there. He wrote his first book, The Ris­ing of the Red Shawls, as a re­sult.

He then headed the African sub-re­gion of Amnesty In­ter­na­tional in Lon­don. This in­tro­duced him to the bad side of Africa’s pol­i­tics dur­ing the Cold War.

As editor of the Lon­don-based sub­scrip­tion news-sheet Africa Con­fi­den­tial in the late ’80s he re­ceived and be­came the first to pub­lish ac­counts of the MK mutiny in An­gola in 1984, Qua­tro and the bru­tal­i­ties of Mbokodo.

He wrote books about the drugs trade, crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of the state, civil war and re­li­gion in Africa.

He worked at Lei­den Univer­sity’s African Stud­ies Cen­tre and was the Desmond Tutu Pro­fes­sor of So­cial Sciences at the Vrije Univer­siteit in Am­s­ter­dam.

He died of leukaemia three years af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed. He is sur­vived by his wife, Pro­fes­sor Ger­rie ter Haar. — Chris Barron

ANC’s se­cu­rity ser­vices co-opted many of the hard men of the apartheid era’s gang­land

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