PICS: Algeria, the fulcrum of revolutions
Algeria was where the armed Struggle began and it became an inspiration for Mandela, writes Shannon Ebrahim.
Freedom fighters from across the African continent converged in Algiers this week to pay homage to the role Algeria played in Africa’s liberation. Algeria was a hub for Africa’s revolutionaries in their struggle for liberation, and it was the Algerian war of liberation from 1954 to 1962 that served as an inspiration and model for revolutionaries like Nelson Mandela.
In Algeria and South Africa, negotiations for a peaceful transition to democratic rule had failed, and with rising violent oppression against the majority in both countries, revolutionaries had no option but to launch armed struggle. That struggle began in Algeria in 1954, and became an inspiration to Mandela.
As early as 1952 Mandela had articulated the need to take up weapons against the apartheid state. At a meeting in 1952 in Alexandra township with Thomas Nkobi, Tennyson Makiwane, and Alfred Nzo, Mandela had said that the ANC would be given better weapons by the emerging independent African states than those used by the apartheid war machine. The question he had asked was how long the apartheid system would last - Konti koze kube nini?
Mandela’s banning and the Treason Trial followed, but what turned the tide in the ANC’s strategy was the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 when 69 peaceful demonstrators against the pass laws were shot dead and 178 wounded. It then became clear that the route of peaceful negotiations with the government was a non-starter. The ANC then sent Mandela abroad to mobilise support for the organisation’s armed struggle which was launched on December 16, 1961.
This was similar to what motivated the Algerian National Liberation Front to take up arms against French colonial oppression in 1954. When Algerians had engaged in peaceful protests against the French who had promised liberation in exchange for Algerians participating in World War II against the Nazis, the French had responded by massacring 45 000 Algerians in May 1945.
Algeria and South Africa had the largest proportion of European settlers on the continent, about 15 percent of their populations. It was more difficult to liberate the settler-colonial territories in Algeria and South Africa compared to other African states due to the entrenched settler population and interests. The settler governments were made up of local and not appointed people sent for a period by the colonial office.
While the system of racial discrimination and segregation was legalised in South Africa, it was unofficial policy in Algeria. Algerians lived under rules and laws preventing them from mingling with Europeans in public places such as beaches and gardens, and they had a limited presence in public services. This was apartheid in practice. As Noureddine Djoudi, Algeria’s former ambassador to South Africa told Independent Media this week in Algiers, the French settlers in Algeria used to own properties and businesses in town on which they put up signs saying, “forbidden for Arabs and dogs”.
It was Djoudi who had welcomed Mandela to the military training camps in western Algeria during the course of Mandela’s Africa Tour in 1961. As one of the few English-speaking officers, he had been Mandela’s interpreter as the rest spoke Arabic or French. Mandela had sought to learn from the strategy and tactics of the Algerian liberation war which was on the verge of victory against the French.
The Algerian experience in urban guerrilla warfare against the French served as an inspiration to Mandela. It wasn’t only the fighting ability that had impressed him, but the whole conceptualisation of liberation war that included revolutionary consciousness and the need for political mobilisation both at home and abroad.
When Mandela and Robert Resha arrived in the Algerian liberation army headquarters on the Algerian border with Morocco, he spent hours daily with the military officer Dr Mustfai Chawki, who Mandela described in his autobiography as a masterpiece. Chawki had advised Mandela not to neglect the political side of war while advancing the military option. According to Chawki, “international public opinion is worth more than a fleet of jet fighters”.
Mandela quoted him in his autobiography as having said: “Guerrilla warfare is not designed to win a military victory but to unleash the political and economic forces to bring down the enemy”. Chawki had imparted key elements of the Algerian revolution to Mandela, which were later adopted in the ANC’s strategy and tactics. The Algerian revolution, for example, had targeted French soldiers and avoided attacks on European civilians, and detainees were treated humanely.
In their interactions with Mandela, the Algerians had emphasised the need for an armed wing to find the right targets and bring in arms through neighbouring countries. There was a need for the ANC to have bases that could supply arms, water, food and money. “In 1957 Algeria had outside bases to support our revolution and through which to channel arms,” Djoudi explained. “South Africa’s challenge in those early years was that Mozambique, Rhodesia and South West Africa were controlled by the colonial powers.”
Mandela was inspired by the Algerian experience, and impressed the Algerian officers as having the true characteristics of a leader. Djoudi recalls that Mandela wasn’t only impressive due to his size and charisma, but “he was calm and listened carefully, asking very accurate questions”.
He had taken Mandela to the northern operational zone which was the headquarters of the liberation army, as well as the training camps. “We trained him as a leader on strategy and organisation, but also gave him basic training in firearms and explosives. We were careful to keep his mission an absolute secret. If information had leaked to the apartheid government that he was meeting with revolutionary fighters, they would have sought the death penalty.”
Mandela’s mission to Algeria was just months before Algeria signed the Evian accord with the French in March 1962, although war continued against French extremists who refused to accept France’s defeat until July that year.
Mandela walked away from Algeria viewing it as the cornerstone of Africa’s liberation, and organised for ANC cadres to immediately be sent to Algeria for training. One of the first groups of MK soldiers to make their way from South Africa to Algeria was just six months after the formation of MK, the military wing of the ANC. About 25 cadres were sent on a long journey from South Africa to Dar es Salaam in the newly independent Tanzania.
As the attached graphic indicates, the cadres travelled through Bechuanaland (Botswana), Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) before reaching the Tanzanian capital. Travelling in cars, train, open truck and bus, the group masqueraded as a sports team. As one of the first groups to go abroad for military training, there was no suspicion concerning their mission and minimal danger.
Comrade MacDonald Masala was one of the group who left for training in June 1962, and he attended the symposium in Algiers this week. Speaking to Independent Media, he relayed how the training abroad was urgently necessary given that their early MK operations, which began six months previously, were amateurish and put the operatives in danger.
“We launched our first operation on the 16th of December 1961, on the day the ANC’s armed struggle was launched, on what was known as Dingaan’s day,” Masala said. “My unit was based in Port Elizabeth and we set off an explosion on an electrical transformer. We were all there when the explosion went off and were nearly killed.”
The PE unit were then given basic training on how to construct bombs and carried out sporadic bombings, but as Masala notes, “we were in desperate need of up-skilling”.
As a founding member of the Eastern Cape MK High Command, Masala led the group of MK fighters out of the country. “We left with only the clothes on our backs, there was no such thing as carrying a suitcase or a backpack. The little money we had was often spent on buying cigarettes for those who smoked, or sweets for those who didn’t. We were expected to be highly disciplined, and there was no drinking on the journey.”
When the group finally arrived in Dar es Salaam they got to meet their heroes Mandela and OR Tambo. “It was the first time we were meeting Mandela, and he was notably tall and wearing fatigues. He was an inspiration for us, and explained how he had visited Algeria and what he had learnt.”
After the group received basic training in Ethiopia for four months, half were sent on to Algeria for further training, and the other half were sent back to South Africa. Masala and his comrades proceeded to make the complicated journey to Algiers from Tanzania, travelling to south Sudan which was void of any kind of development, and then taking a steamer boat to Khartoum. “It was a different world. The Arabs owned the steamer; it kept stopping so that they could make their prayers five times a day. As we went up the Nile passengers were even braaiing meat on the boat,” Masala said.
As they travelled through various north African countries, they arrived in Algiers from where they were taken to Ougda training camp in the west of the country. Masala met other ANC MK soldiers who were at the camp like Reddy Mompane, who was also at the Algiers conference this week. Masala commanded a contingent of 78 MK soldiers in Algeria as part of the Luthuli detachment over six months. Basic common training in the Algerian camps lasted 45 days, so six months of training was considered advanced.
Masala described their training in Ougda camp as intensive where they were trained to use torpedoes, Molotov cocktails, weapons and assemble and dissemble carbines. The conditions were Spartan. The Algerian authorities had assigned them to bases that had been vacated by the French forces which had withdrawn, and the MK soldiers had to clean up the bases as they had been abandoned. During this training period the MK soldiers came in contact with revolutionaries from across the continent.
African revolutionary leaders were inspired by the Algerian revolutionary experience, including Tambo, Samora Machel of Mozambique, Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo of what was then Rhodesia, Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau, and Agostinho Neto of Angola. Many of those leaders received training in Algeria and sent contingents of their fighters for training in the Algerian camps. All fighters were given alternative names in order to keep their identity a secret.
Algeria’s President Haouari Boumedienne, who governed from 1965 to 1978, believed that it was Algeria’s duty to take care of the MK fighters and other revolutionaries, and to send Algerian officers to southern Africa to train fighters in the camps there.
Much of Algeria’s contribution to these liberation movements in the form of material, financial and military support was kept secret for security reasons. It’s known that the Algerians used food, agricultural products and oil tanks to conceal arms sent to the revolutionary movements which were destined for Cabinda in Angola, Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique. Figures are available for how much Algeria had contributed to the liberation struggles in 1963 compared to other African countries. Algeria had contributed £ 100 000 compared to £ 10 000 from Nigeria, £ 7 000 frrom Tanzania, £5 000 frpm Tunisia, £5 000 from Ethiopia, and £ 3 000 from Morocco.
In addition to Algeria’s tangible support, its newspapers published virtually daily articles about South Africa and the ANC up until 1994. South African freedom fighters were also given Algerian passports to travel on. In 1974, in recognition of the role played by Algeria at the UN for international justice, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected president of the UN General Assembly, from where he successfully spearheaded the campaign to get South Africa expelled from the UN.
Algeria’s role in contributing to Africa’s liberation is something that future generations of Africans should be made aware of in the hope of keeping the spirit of African solidarity alive. Without the support of countries like Algeria and Cuba, it would have taken that much longer to achieve southern African liberation.
* Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Group Foreign Editor