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Jonathan Ball

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Stephen Ellis’ External Mission: The ANC in Exile Launched at The Book Lounge

Stephen Ellis

“There’s a standard version of how the armed struggle came about,” said author and academic, Stephen Ellis, addressing an enthusiastic crowd that filled the available seating downstairs at The Book Lounge for the launch of his book External Mission: The ANC in Exile, last night. According to him, the well known version found in Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, is not the full story.

Anthony Butler and Stephen Ellis External Mission“I wrote this book because South Africans need to be informed about this organisation,” he said. “Times have changed. Knowing the ANC much better, there is more interest in its recent history.”

Looking in the archives, he realised that Mandela’s version is “only a part of the story. Even in the late 1950s there were some in South Africa who decided that the armed struggle was inevitable”.

He spoke about consulting ANC archives, which are located at the University of Fort Hare, the State Archives and Military Archives, as well as archives located in Botswana, where ANC members were in exile. Ellis also had at his disposal the private papers of many individuals. Particularly illuminating was the content he discovered in the archives of Stasi, the former East German intelligence. This was where much of the training of the ANC’s security personnel occurred. He said, “I could find the training manuals that were used to train ANC security officers. One gets quite a good idea of the mentality of a teenager from South Africa sent to East Germany.”

Ellis was joined in discussion by Anthony Butler who challenged Ellis on some of the key issues in his book, in particular the influence and role of the Communist Party. He pointed out that the SACP travelled widely, including to the Soviet Union and to China. “It was able to secure significant resources without which the armed struggle couldn’t be. Who was using who? The Soviets were handing over the money. They were training. What were they getting out of it? The ANC leadership, simply because of the co-option, can’t be viewed as in some way ideologically transformed or indoctrinated,” said Butler.

This multi-layered and complex critique was taken up by Ellis and a vibrant question and answer session followed in a discussion that ended all too soon for those in the audience.

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Liesl Jobson tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:

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