by Hannes Wessels
For someone who well remembers the era of the ‘Red Menace’ and the ‘Total Onslaught’, reading ‘The Hidden Thread’ by Irina Filatova and Apollon Davidson was revealing in that they explain Soviet policy towards Southern Africa was not quite as simple as many of us thought.
While there was much synergy between the ‘Liberation Movements’ and the USSR which led to a natural alliance leading to solid support in all forms there were doubts at all levels about exactly what action to take to achieve mutually agreed goals. Despite the bombast throughout the ‘Cold War’ period there was a lingering fear among the Soviet leadership of committing to a course of action that might lead to a confrontation with the USA and this possibility was always at the forefront of Soviet-African policy formulation.
Most of us were led to believe the big, bad ‘Russian Bear’ was determined to grab, at almost any cost, control of the mineral riches of southern Africa, thereby monopolising the production of important minerals like chrome and platinum while reaping the richness of the gold and diamond deposits. We were also warned, and believed, the ‘Commies’ wanted the Cape so as to control the sea-lanes thereby cranking up their strategic leverage over the West. The authors explain this seems to have been at best overstated by our erstwhile leadership, if not a figment of a fertile and slightly paranoid imagination. It appears Moscow was more than happy to be in the game and grab the opportunities that became available but never seriously considered an armed invasion of South Africa and was ambivalent about the value of the country’s minerals. However it is also clear that the Nationalist politicians believed their own zeitgeist and the perceived ‘Red Threat’ was the primary catalyst that triggered the process leading to the construction of nuclear weapons.
Further confusing the conflict was the fact that few in the Soviet leadership had a really solid grasp of the dynamics that drove South Africa because the country had been terror incognito for so long. And this lack of understanding was mutual; the South African decision makers were similarly out of touch with what was motivating their communist adversaries. This point is well made in general terms but must be understood in the knowledge that the KGB, primarily through the efforts of Commodore Dieter Gerhardt of the South African Navy, had comprehensively penetrated virtually all branches of the country’s security services. Gerhardt’s story is fascinating reading and one cannot help but wonder if he didn’t do everyone a favour because the intelligence he supplied left his principals in no doubt they were up against a formidable military machine in the SADF. This knowledge probably forestalled any rash armed adventurism.
As a result of this and through real lessons learned in the field, by the early ‘80’s strong doubts had surfaced in Moscow about the real prospects of success through further backing of ‘Umkhonto we Sizwe’, the armed wing of the ANC which some in the Soviet hierarchy referred to contemptuously as a ‘nice word for a fund-raising operation’. While the politicos fervently believed the road to victory was open, the generals were far less certain and a significant schism emerged between the two branches. Viacheslav Shiriaiev, who was the head of the first group of Soviet advisers attached to ‘Umkhonto’ in Angola, states that the military hierarchy were firmly of the opinion, that no ‘internal forces in South Africa were capable of shattering the basis of apartheid at that stage’. These reservations persisted despite the upsurge in resistance to the regime in the ‘80’s and continued right up until the eve of the ANC breakthrough.
Further confusing the nexus was the diamonds. The symbiosis between De Beers and the Soviets through mutual control of the ‘Central Selling Organisation’ led to a very strong commercial link between Pretoria and Moscow, as diamonds sold through the CSO became Moscow’s third largest source of hard currency. Ironically, some of these proceeds were then recycled to pay for plans aimed at destabilising the SA government that oversaw these transactions. This link was formed in the early 50’s and continued almost through the entire period until the end of Nationalist Party rule in the country. Interesting to learn Harry Oppenheimer was an annual VIP attendee at the Bolshoi Ballet premieres during this time.
An intriguing question that does receive attention from the authors is just what part did the Angolan war play in the final collapse of the Soviet Union. There is no concise answer to this, but it is beyond doubt, that the imbroglio north of the Cunene and the potency of the South African military, delivered the communist super-power a painful bloody nose and prompted a great deal of head-scratching within the Kremlin. Giving voice to their concerns, Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoly Adamishin stated at the time; ‘our involvement in Angola has to be terminated. Afghanistan is quite enough for us.’
With that decision came the realisation that maybe they did not have the will or the means to be a serious imperial power. This was one of the watershed moments that soon saw the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ironically this was at much the same time as their political adversaries in South Africa were also losing their grip. Just when the ‘Red Threat’ was least threatening the Afrikaner Nationalists decided to throw in the towel.
Surprisingly, despite the ideological conflict that existed between the ‘liberators’ and the ‘oppressors’, the authors touch on an incipient form of racism among some of the communist leaders who were not as ‘comradely’ with their ANC allies as one would have imagined. This sentiment went as far as some of the Soviets quietly expressing some affinity and even sympathy, for their Afrikaaner, fellow members of the Caucasian group who they sought to destroy.
The book covers the whole history of the relationship between the two countries going back to the initial settlement of the Cape which included at least one Russian émigré, through the early developments with some interesting facts about the Russian involvement in the Boer War. It is a detailed history that covers all the angles and the authors appear to take no sides. It helps us all better understand how we got here and plenty to mull over.