Rethinking the Cold War: Reflections from An African Volk by Jamie Miller

I recently wrote a book about how the Nationalist apartheid regime in South Africa (1948-1994) responded to the emergence of a hostile post-colonial world. I came to this topic from an unusual angle: Cold War history. It was the Southern African theatre of the Cold War that initially attracted me to the topic, and from there my focus zeroed in on what became the subject of the final project.

Like many authors, seeing the book finally in print has prodded me to reflect on the journey. In that vein, the following are a few brief thoughts about how we might think about the Cold War in more interesting and fruitful ways moving forward.

Ideology and Social Control

The first is that we should understand anti-communism primarily as an ideology of social control.

One of the hallmarks of the apartheid regime was its relentless use of anti-communist norms to justify its rule and legitimacy. This process has often been seen by scholars as little more than a ruse, a ploy to gain support from Western countries like the United States (more on this later). But a more nuanced approach would be to explore how anti-communism as a self-sustaining ideology (that is, as a coherent set of ideas and tropes in its own right) performed important functions in terms of both gaining legitimacy abroad and establishing social control at home. This is hardly a new analytical key; authors of the New Left like Gabriel Kolko and his intellectual fellow travelers made similar claims in the 1970s about anti-communism in the United States. But this approach has fallen out of favour along with the politics of its adherents. (Who knows, with the rise of a post-Third Way Democratic Party, maybe both the politics and its history will re-emerge.)

South Africa provides a clear exemplar of the merits of this approach. Within the white power structure there, anticommunism had a long history pre-dating the Cold War. Already during the Rand Rebellion of 1922, the gov­ernment of Jan Smuts feverishly condemned the (largely white) miners’ strike as a “Red Revolt” and “Bolshevist conspiracy.” The 1925 decision of the South African Communist Party (SACP) to move away from activating the white proletariat towards targeting its black counterpart only fueled white anxieties. Communist opposition to the existing social structures accelerated during the 1930s and 1940s, as labor organisations championed a unified working class that transcended the color bar.

All of this should make us focus our attention on the value and benefits of anti-communism as a localised political ideology, indeed even in ways divorced from any association with the Cold War as a geopolitical conflict. That value and those benefits should be obvious: anti-communism served to articulate the dangers of widespread material distribution across the population as a whole and coalesce white political power on the basis of that fear. In 1948, the first apartheid Prime Minister, D. F. Malan observed: “Communism can be more destructive in South Africa than elsewhere not merely because of its ideology, but because of the fact that it makes a special appeal to the country’s non- European population, and if the communists achieve in South Africa what they want to achieve as far as the non- European population of the country is concerned, the death knell will have been sounded for white civilization in South Africa.” Quite so.

Geopolitics and Domestic Politics

The post-World War Two incarnation of apartheid South Africa as a staunch, pro-Western, anti-communist Cold War ally therefore served to fortify an element that already existed in the ideological structure of white power in the country. This should lead us down new intellectual avenues. As a concept, the “Cold War” tends to make one think of conflict between states, of geopolitics, and of the diplomatic and military dimensions of history. These are all important, and will continue to matter even as scholars broaden dramatically their understanding of the thematic scope of the Cold War (see the relatively recent Cambridge History of the Cold War). But it seems to me that any approach into the political dimension of the Cold War, which is undeniably central to the field, has to take account of the nexus between geopolitics and domestic politics.

Apartheid South Africa’s foreign policy was aggressively anti-communist. In the very early days of the Cold War, the National Party hastened to send deployments to both the Korean War and Berlin Airlift. It then unilaterally closed the Soviet consulate in Pretoria, and banned the Communist Party itself. (It is worth noting, for comparison, that in other major Western ex-settler colonies, like Australia, Soviet diplomatic offices remained open and active, and efforts to ban communist parties were crushed by the judiciary as unconstitutional.)

As my book shows, by the 1970s the apartheid regime eagerly looked to build relationships with black African states and distance itself from fellow white regimes in Rhodesia and South-West Africa, all to prove the viability of a multi-racial future for co-existence on the continent. Towards communist regimes, with the brief exception of Mozambique in 1974-75, however, Pretoria was unstinting in its hostility. Put another way, shared whiteness was not as strong a foundational principle for the regime’s statecraft and its vision for the future as anti-communism was. The rationale for this surprising reality is to be found by looking at how foreign policy served domestic ends. Actions like leading a multi-racial anti-communist coalition in the Angolan Civil War, or obsessing over the (very limited) ability of the distant Soviet Union to undermine the regime’s rule, or the launching of desperate, even pathetic efforts to ingratiate the regime with a series of (broadly) reluctant American administrations, were driven by the difficulties of sustaining the anti-communist raison d’être in the context of South Africa’s unique socio-economic situation far more than the actual, “objective” realities of the foreign policy problem in question. This led the regime to repeatedly overplay its hand in a series of extraordinary foreign policy blunders, because the stakes were distorted. Time and again, expert information about, say, the chances of a military success, or the disposition of a foreign government that the regime looked to cultivate, were wildly distorted as elites forced the information into the Cold War binary that suited them.

The ideological need to engage in such distortions only got greater with time. By the mid-1970s, culminating in the Soweto riots, it was evident that the rationale underpinning the homelands vision—that Africans wanted that vision as much as the regime did—was a vast fiction. From then on, anti-communism was virtually the only ideological pillar left entirely intact in a severely damaged Nationalist edifice. In a global perspective, the ensuing period saw Cold War dichotomies usually becoming less important in ideologies of rule, receding in the face of concerns with superpower détente, human rights, materialism, geopo­litical multipolarity, north-south disputes, economic liberalisation, energy sus­tainability, and emergent globalisation. Not so in South Africa, where anti-communism assumed the form of “total onslaught”: a doctrine mandating that any and all opposition to the regime was the result of a Moscow-oriented assault. Total onslaught may have originated in the South African Defence Force as a means of processing geopolitical hostility towards the regime, but it soon became the starting point for the regime’s entire political agenda. Prime Minister-cum-President P. W. Botha’s (1978-1989) biographers describe his approach to governance in telling terms:

South Africa was now struggling for its life, and the total onslaught against it necessitated one thing above all others, namely change—rapid, visible change: the replacing of outdated political principles, the restructuring of race relations, the rejection of baasskap, the removal of humiliating discrimination and injustice, equal opportunity and rights, fewer restrictions— and a new [constitutional] disposition.

Total onslaught fully externalised the mounting range of threats to the polity in ways that did not focus on apartheid policies. However, the casting of total onslaught in this pivotal role tethered the viability of the regime’s new ideology to the existence of a viable communist enemy as a counterpoint. This had much to do with why the fall of apartheid was (roughly) contemporaneous with the fall of commu­nism: once the existential foe was in terminal decline, the regime could no lon­ger avoid confronting that it was too split on what the future of South African society should look like to endure.Veg, 19 December 1969.

Veg, 19 December 1969.

Anti-communism as diffuse

Ever since Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War, historians have conceptualised the Cold War with much more geographic breadth. The trend in the field has been to globalise, bringing the motives and actions of actors in the global south into the picture. My book builds on this consensus by emphasising the intersection of the Cold War and local political agendas, looking at how Cold War ideologies shaped contests over different political visions within global south states.

Yet we should go further. If anti-communism is to be studied as a stand-alone ideology, and if anti-communism served to bolster diverse forms of rule and social control across the Western-aligned world, it follows that anti-communism was itself not a centralised or unified entity. To put it bluntly: anti-communism as an ide­ology was not only diffused outward from superpowers to other actors, it was defined and redefined by those on the frontlines in the global south for their own purposes. Indeed, superpowers had very little control over the concepts and principles that they created. They found this deeply frustrating—not least when the white South Africans insisted, repeatedly, that they represented a legitimate part of the Western value system.

But how did ownership of the anticommunist mantle become so diffuse in the first place? The answer is to zoom out, and look at common socio-economic factors. For the rise of Cold War discourses among the Nationalist power structure in South Africa was part of a much broader global process. The Second World War broke down social orders, undermined old ideologies, and exposed those serving both on the frontlines and on the home front to new ideas and forms of social organization. In many societies, the conflict broadened the political spectrum and expanded the realm of the possible. In this context, the Cold War as a political reality was sustained by an intersection of elite inter­ests in diverse societies around the world. By casting domestic struggles in the Manichean mold of the Cold War, those grasping the reins of power were able to control localized social ferments and impose their own particular agendas.

Drawing on his research into postwar East Asia and the United States, histo­rian Masuda Hajimu writes: “[T] he actual divides of the Cold War existed not necessarily between Eastern and Western camps but within each society, with each [divide], in turn, requiring the perpetuation of the imagined reality of the Cold War to restore and maintain order and harmony at home.” The conflict was, in essence, about localized social warfare and domestic politics. In South Africa, Nationalists engaged relentlessly in this process. The rigid bifurcation of the Cold War paradigm, coupled with the Nationalist community’s legend­ary group- think and intolerance of dissenters, flattened perceptions of the volk’s predicament into crude dichotomies. The African opposition was continually presented as Moscow’s stooge (which it was not), while Southern Africa was portrayed as one of the prime targets of communism’s worldwide march (it was not; it was just low-hanging fruit given the surging power of nonracialism in global political discourse).

In the name of anti-communism, non-whites in South Africa were violently denied real political agency. But they were not the only tar­gets of such politics. At a time when the interests and social values of Afrikaners were diverging, the mobilization of anti-communist tropes served to coalesce different social classes in order to keep the regime’s claim to “national” representa­tion credible. In this sense, anti-communism served as an agent of social control within Afrikanerdom, not only within South African society more broadly. Moreover, anti-communism was one of the central mechanisms (the other being race) by which the National Party reached out to English-speaking whites. In 1958, the National Party received only about one per cent of the white anglophone vote. But starting in the 1960s, a number of developments caused the National Party to move away from its identity as a uniquely Afrikaner party and towards this unlikely bloc. Anti-communism did not elevate Afrikaners over English-speakers in any significant way; it thus hastened the political rapprochement of the two white communities. Why talk about old antagonisms between the two groups when one could talk of common fears? Again, Pretoria’s foreign policy was both reflecting and reinforcing domestic political needs, often in surprising ways.

Cold War as discourse

The final point is that we need to look at the Cold War as a discourse. The Cold War was a way of thinking about and processing the world, and anti-communism was an ideology that existed within that paradigm.

On a recent trip to South Africa, I gave a series of talks on the book. Invariably, somebody would ask a version of this question in the Q&A: “But surely the regime realised that it was black political aspirations that were the real threat to its viability? I didn’t realise it was all about the communists.” Such questions themselves are a product of the extraordinary success that the regime had in fusing the swart gevaar [the black threat] to the rooi gevaar [red threat]. The regime’s localised political need (to maintain white privilege and security) was expressed in an ideology of global currency. Some leaders stood outside this process, fully cognisant of what they were doing. But discourses have a power of their own, and often serve to capture their own drivers. One 1966-67 survey showed that only 9 percent of (white) respondents saw domestic African nationalism as “the greatest threat to South Africa,” while fully 73 percent chose global communism. These ordinary respondents were not all in on the con. Their votes reflected the awesome power of anti-communism as a discourse through which to express political fears in South Africa at the time.

In short, the waving of the anti-communist banner was no ruse to gain foreign support in the West, whether from states, nongovern­mental organizations, or public spheres. Instead, the Cold War had far-reaching and diverse impacts upon the most fundamental ways in which the architects and supporters of apartheid understood the merits of their system. It was a self-perpetuating belief system. Instead of scoffing at such notions as “delusions”, we would do well to think about how political classes represent “objective” problems through similarly “irrelevant” discourses today.

It is here that the post-linguistic turn approach to political history holds out so much promise. We need to focus on how people understood the world, and how these beliefs were refracted into political languages and worldviews, not chase some chimeric objectivity of how the world “was”. Perception itself, as expressed through discourse, matters a great deal to understanding the motivations and actions of political actors, both in Cold War history and beyond.

— Dr Jamie Miller (@jamiemiller85) is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh

An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival is published by Oxford University Press.