I have personally met Suttner on a number of occasions, first as a member of a UDF delegation here to meet secretly with the ANC, then at the time of his release from prison in the ‘80s when he emerged with his prison friend, a bird, perched on his shoulder, to be welcomed by what can now be called the ANC family, a concept that he writes about in this book. I met him again later in Stockholm as South Africa’s Ambassador to Sweden after a spell as chair of the foreign relations portfolio committee in Parliament in Cape Town. I think he would agree if I say that I believe that he sees his life as an ANC underground operative as his most important contribution to the “struggle”.
It is therefore to be welcomed that he has now taken time to write about it in more general terms. In the book he underlines a few themes which he believes needs that. One is that the ANC was never totally silenced, as has often been said, e.g. about the period after the incarceration on Robben Island of the Mandela/Sisulu/Govan Mbeki-generation. First of all, the prison itself became a “university” for the movement and an important recruiting ground.
In a chapter explaining how the ANC could come out in an almost hegemonistic position after the student uprising of 1976, Suttner describes how organizations which were initially seen as threats to the ANC either themselves came nearer to the analysis and leadership of the ANC or whose leaders joined the ANC. He lists many other reasons for ANC’s dominance: the townships, which ironically made it easier to organize, the use of other organizations as arenas for political activity, such as the labour unions, the way that the ANC took care of its members and leaders, including channeling of funds for defense in political trials and to families of activists, the fact that it had an armed wing, even if it could never seriously challenge apartheid’s forces…
He describes the role of the Communist party, SACP, as a “vanguard” without necessarily using that word. The SACP was forced underground before the ANC as such and could develop strategies and tactics which became useful for the ANC later. Building organization, standardized political education, breaking the race barrier are some elements of SACP’s contribution.
Suttner does not shy away from difficult and touchy subjects such as the risk and indeed prevalence of abuse of both people and resources by some in operations of secrecy. He mentions the killings of suspected informers. He talks of the loneliness often experienced by operatives, whose real tasks and role are known only to very few, and of the personal sacrifices made by people who cannot even keep in touch with their families, sometimes for decades. But he also describes how the ANC tries to deal with these issues and how some leaders, such as Chris Hani, obviously stood out.
The question might be asked if there is anything that Suttner has missed, or where he could have written more. I for one would have welcomed more about the build-up and work of the United Democratic Front, which was not underground but which must have built heavily on the underground structures of the ANC. He talks about the welfare policies and work of the ANC but does not mention the important contributions made in this field by outside forces, not the least by governments such as the Swedish one and certain individuals. A seminar was held last year on this issue at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which also produced a brochure afterwards.
He also does not go into the role of diplomats stationed in South Africa during apartheid. I was one of those and was often called to “protect” rallies, funerals and other events by being present. Our reports on developments facilitated increasing assistance given to anti apartheid work inside and outside the country.
Suttner bases this book on own experiences and on a large number of interviews. I hope that the interviews themselves are kept and can be made available as they should be important for others who wish to do research on the important issues discussed. Besides, I am sure they would make interesting reading.