In “The Phoenix Effect of State Repression: Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust” Evgeny Finkel argued that rebel groups that have been forced underground in the past learn the “resister’s toolkit”. Essentially they learn how to maintain “operational security,” or how to operate discreetly to avoid getting caught. Finkel argues that rebel groups that do not have this experience are more likely to die out. He used Germany, a Western country, as a case study. Shibashis Chatterjee, a professor at Jadavpur University and author of “Western Theories and the non-Western World: a Search for Relevance” argues that oftentimes Western theories do not apply to non-Western countries.1 While this is true, I argue that this is not the case for Finkel’s piece. In this blog I use South Africa as a case study to show that Finkel’s argument can be applied to non-Western countries.
South Africa is a former British colony. 2 As such, the colonists enslaved the native population. After slavery was abolished, whites ruled the government and repressed blacks. In response, blacks created organizations to fight the government. The largest two were the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and the African National Congress (ANC). In 1961, state repression forced these groups underground. In response, the organizations shifted from non-violent strategies to violent ones. To do this, the PAC founded Poqo and the ANC created Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Although Poqo and MK were both new organizations, MK’s leadership had experience with underground rebellions whereas Poqo’s did not. As a result, MK learned the “resister’s toolkit” and would remain a sustainable rebellion until the 1991 ceasefire and peace talks. Poqo, on the other hand, lacked the toolkit so they died out.
Poqo was unable to establish the resister’s toolkit. Instead of remaining stealthy, they openly attacked white South Africans and performed guerilla warfare.3 Their attacks were often gruesome and they did not spare women and children.4 This put a bigger target on their back. The apartheid government enacted laws that allowed people to be arrested without formal charge. They also increased funding for the police and military, whom, in turn, increased their violent repression of blacks.5 The consequences of these new policies did not just affect Poqo, it affected MK as well. However, Poqo leaders were the main target. During this time, Poqo leaders began to fight amongst themselves. At one point, Potlako Leballo, one of the leaders of the movement, blatantly violated clandestine rules by publically announcing Poqo’s plans for a terrorist attack and a nationwide uprising during a press conference.6 The government responded by raiding PAC offices where they obtained membership lists with thousands of names and addresses. Poqo struggled to recover for a few years, but ultimately died out prior to 1970.
MK was more resilient. Although many MK leaders were arrested because Poqo’s antics escalated the government’s response to all anti-apartheid movements, MK maintained their armed struggle until the 1991 ceasefire. Part of the reason was because MK was led by the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP).7 Prior to assisting MK, the SACP had functioned underground for almost a decade. This experience enabled them to teach MK how to maintain their operational security. One such decision involved what MK attacked. They mainly selected symbols of the apartheid movement such as government buildings and infrastructure projects.8 These attacks usually occurred when the buildings were empty and no one was around. Part of the reason for this had been to avoid loss of life, which they feared would start a civil war. This choice also strengthened MK’s resister’s toolkit by ensuring the movement was less likely to be caught. The toolkit was further strengthened by MK’s control over violence. They did not allow every ANC and SACP member to participate in MK; instead they restricted participation to a select group of individuals. This reduced the likelihood that someone would share information with government forces.
Poqo and MK were both new organizations. Poqo leaders did not have experience operating underground. As a result, they did not learn the resister’s toolkit and died out within a few years. The leadership of MK, on the other hand, had had this experience. This helped them to maintain operational security and sustain violence until the 1991 ceasefire. This shows that Finkel’s argument can aptly be applied to non-Western rebellions.
- Chatterjee, Shibashis. “Western Theories and the Non-Western World.” South Asian Survey 21, no. 1-2 (March 1, 2014): 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1177/0971523115592470.
- Hazlett, Thomas W. “Apartheid.” Econlib. The Library of Economics and Liberty. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/Apartheid.html.
- Stevens, Simon. “The Turn to Sabotage by The Congress Movement in South Africa.” Past & Present 253, no. 1 (November 2019): 240. https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtz030.
- “Poqo.” South African History Online. South African History Online, March 30, 2011. https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/poqo.
- Stevens, “The Turn to Sabotage,” 240.
- “Potlako Leballo.” South African History Online. SAHO, February 17, 2011. https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/potlako-leballo.
- “South African Communist Party (SACP).” South African History Online. SAHO, March 30, 2011. https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/south-african-communist-party-sacp.
- Stevens, “The Turn to Sabotage,” 241, 243.