Book Review by Terry Bell

If We Must Die is a major myth buster; a massively detailed autobiography that provides one of the finest insights to date of life in the ANC’s exiled uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) army in the crucial years following the 1976 student uprisings in South Africa.

But it is also much more than that: it provides a classic account of the political awakening of youth through the experiences of a poor, academically bright and initially a-political student from the Karoo. For a generation that did not experience the often petty viciousness of apartheid, this is essential reading.

It is also essential reading for all who wish to gain greater insight into our recent past in order better to understand what is happening in the present. For Stanley Manong who eventually became a civil engineer, is an erudite and keen observer who survived the hardships and nastiness along with the comradeship of the exile years to retain a generally compassionate outlook.

For any who have read the excellent and prize-winning Askari by Jacob Dlamini, this book will provide still more understanding of the backgrounds to some of those who turned from being volunteers in an anti-apartheid struggle into killers for the apartheid regime. Not that Manong attempts any analysis: he simply simply provides the facts.

There are facts aplenty here and, overall, they do not provide a very good image of the ANC in exile, although Manong does state that the executions and torture carried out in this exile movement was at a lower level than that in other southern African liberation movements including, he says, in the PAC.

This is not given as an excuse, merely, again, as a fact to be discussed and debated. Certainly the MPLA in Angola perpetrated human rights abuses at a much greater level than did the ANC. As indeed, did Namibia’s Swapo. But it was the MPLA that was also in alliance with the ANC and whose Fapla troops played a role in crushing the mutinies that broke out in MK camps.

The contradictory statements and downright lies that underpin so much of the myth about these mutinies being provoked by “enemy agents” is also conclusively exploded by Manong. In the process, he highlights many of the abuses suffered by young men — and a few young women — who had left South Africa in the idealistic hope of joining a democratic army of liberation.

Although he does not analyse the military thinking behind the way in which MK volunteers were trained and the tactics that flowed from this, it becomes clear that the hand of Soviet foreign policy, extended via the Moscow loyalists of the SA Communist Party, continued to dominate into the 1980s. The idea was that MK, in alliance with other “progressive liberation movements”, would eventually trundle south with Soviet supplied T54 tanks in conventional formations to defeat the apartheid state.

Such a fanciful and frankly romantic notion ignored the strength of nationalist feeling and the reality on the ground. But it persisted, even to the extent that terms were borrowed from the Soviet military lexicon. So Angola came to be referred to as the “Eastern Front”.

What all this meant was that idealistic youth often ended up stranded for months and years in harsh conditions in camps or were sent to fight on one side in the Angolan civil war. To contain the frustration and anger that emerges in such conditions, a
brutal security system — Imbokodo, the grindstone — was given full rein. Anyone raising any objections or daring to protest, was immediately labelled an enemy agent. Manong correctly highlights this approach with a quotation from Adolph Hitler’s
Mein Kampf on the “art of leadership”. Hitler wrote: “The leader of genius must have the ability to make different opponents appear as if they belonged to one category.”

He also points to this being the approach of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as outlined by Nikita Khuschev’s statement that Stalin demanded “absolute submission to his opinion”. In the same vein he compares the actions of Imbokodo chief, Mzwai Piliso with Stalin’s notorious security chief, Beria.

However, throughout this period and beyond, Stanley Manong remained a loyal member of the ANC and MK, holding to the principles he feels were betrayed by the excesses and abuses carried out in the name of the organisation. His position is summed up in a reference to the novel The Living and the Dead by Konstantin Simonov that resonates strongly in the South Africa of today. Simonov’s hero, finds himself faced with the choice of supporting the Soviet Union and, by implication, the tyranny of Stalin or surrendering to the Nazis.

Writes Manong: “To him there was no alternative. The excesses of Stalin were in no way comparable to the mass genocide that was committed by Hitler...” And this, says the author, served as an inspiration for himself and others facing the daily threat of death and torture in the prison camps of the ANC. The only alternative would be to betray the fight against apartheid.

Now that fight, in a political sense, is won. And Manong again provides a telling quotation: “Those who plan the future do not have a right to forget the past.”

— Terry Bell