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