How did South Africans and Soviets think about how to manage difference — in their home contexts and in decades of conversation with one another? In this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Julia Sizek, Matrix Postdoctoral Scholar, interviews Hilary Lynd, a PhD Candidate in the UC Berkeley Department of History, about the changing relationship between South Africa and the USSR from the 1960s through the 1980s. Lynd discusses how anti-apartheid activists were initially inspired by a Soviet model for a multinational society before a surprising about-face toward the end of apartheid and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
An edited transcript of the interview is below.
Julia Sizek: Hello and welcome to the Matrix Podcast. I’m Julia Sizek, your host, and today we’re recording across continents to talk with Hilary Lynd, a PhD candidate in history at UC Berkeley. Hilary’s work focuses on the former Soviet Union in South Africa, exploring the social history of ideas about race and ethnicity. She has published articles on Blackness and Africanness in the Soviet Union, as well as the land deal that secured Zulu nationalist participation in South Africa’s first democratic elections. Hilary’s dissertation project compares and connects the histories of difference in both places, centering the perspectives of Soviet and South African citizens who engaged each other as they moved back and forth. Hilary, thanks for coming on the podcast.
Hilary Lynd: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
Sizek: So let’s jump in to understand this relationship that you’re examining that is maybe not necessarily that well-known between South Africa and the USSR during the second half of the 20th century. Can you tell us just a little bit about the broad scope of this relationship, and also how you came to learn about it?
Lynd: Yeah, so let’s start on the South African side of things. From 1948 to the early 1990s, South Africa was governed under a system called apartheid, which means “separateness” in Afrikaans. Apartheid in South Africa, as people may likely know, was the most brutally racist society of its time. One important thing that makes it different from racism in the US is that white people, here where I am in South Africa, were a small minority, around 20% of the population or less throughout that period. So to dominate a black majority required a great deal of force.
The picture shifts with different eras and organizations, but there’s always different forms of resistance. And my work focuses especially on one strand of anti-apartheid resistance, which happens to be the strand that got involved with the Soviet Union. I look at the African National Congress, the ANC, as well as its ally, the South African Communist Party. The ANC was banned in South Africa in 1960 and, by 1963, most of the leadership, including Nelson Mandela, was arrested. So what was left of the ANC pretty much went underground or abroad. The ANC found itself in the situation of looking for help wherever they could find it – in Tanzania, Zambia, Angola, Britain, and also in Sweden and Europe, and then in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. So the question is, why did they end up in Eastern Europe? And the most important country in that sphere is the Soviet Union, which was the world’s first socialist state. And, during the Cold War, one of the two superpowers.
From this period, in the early 1960s onwards, the Soviet Union became a particularly important sponsor for the ANC, which meant providing educational scholarships, military training, medicine, weapons, funds, many different kinds of assistance. Parts of this story have been told before, and really shaped what I thought I was looking for going into the project. I thought I might tell a story about a kind of lost socialist alternative in South Africa, which is frankly a pretty standard angle to take.
But through fieldwork, combing through archives and personal collections, and interviewing people, what I found was something different, kind of surprising, and, to me, pretty interesting.
The premise of the project is that we’re used to thinking of the Cold War as an ideological competition between the Soviet Union and the US: it’s communism versus capitalism. But I’m telling a different kind of story, and at the center of that is how national, ethnic, and racial differences were organized. What I came to see is that Africans in the ANC, they weren’t just looking at the Soviet Union as an example of a noncapitalist economy. They were also paying attention to how the Soviet multinational society worked, and sometimes how it didn’t work, although that was often harder to see from the outside. What I’ve come to understand is that it’s an underacknowledged part of the story of this relationship, that when South Africans were trying to imagine what their country would look like after apartheid, one place that they drew inspiration was from Soviet policies for managing an incredibly diverse population.
Sizek: What were those policies for managing ethnic difference in the Soviet Union? What were the operating models that these two different countries were using to understand ethnic differences, and how to combine them into a single state?
Lynd: Both of them were structured as ethnoterritorial federations. And all that means is that ethnicity and land were correlated, people were divided up and parceled into ethnic homelands, where the idea was that ethnic elites would exercise a limited form of self-government. It’s a particular take on political legitimacy that says that self-determination means being governed by people who are like you. So in the Soviet Union, Georgia should be governed by Georgians. And in South Africa, Zulus should be governed by Zulus. Those homelands existed in the hierarchical relationship to the center.
Sizek: In these homelands, where you have limited forms of self-government among a group of ethnically similar people, how did the states imagine these homelands supporting the broader state project? In the USSR, how do they imagine these groups coming together to support the broader socialist project?
Lynd: This is one way that the two systems are quite different from each other. In the Soviet Union, the premise was that by letting ethnic nationalisms flourish in the present, you would provide conditions for them to ultimately become politically relevant and to disappear somewhere in a communist future, where national divisions would no longer exist. So the Soviet state was simultaneously pursuing a project of deepening ethnic identities and also trying to transcend them at the same time, which leads to all kinds of interesting contradictions and shifts throughout the Soviet period.
On the other side of things, in South Africa, ethnic homelands only existed for black Africans who were classified as inferior in the apartheid racial hierarchy. And there were no homelands for other racial groups, as seen by the apartheid state. So white, Coloured, and Indian South Africans didn’t exist under that kind of model. And the point of homelands in South Africa was to ultimately strip black South Africans of citizenship and make them into foreigners who would no longer have rights in a South Africa that would become whiter and whiter.
The emphasis is really different in both places. The Soviet Union has a kind of contradictory and complicated commitment to mixing and merging, whereas apartheid means separateness, and the commitment here, particularly in cultural terms, certainly more than economic terms, was to keeping people as separate as possible.
Sizek: So it seems like the systems are quite different. And at the same time, the ANC which as you mentioned, was outlawed in South Africa, and many of its members were exiled to different locations, including the Soviet Union. They are thinking that they should go to the Soviet Union for inspiration. What do they find inspiring about the Soviet model during this time when apartheid in South Africa is so challenging? Because apartheid effectively creates this horrible hierarchy in which they are trying to live.
Lynd: One thing that’s really important about the timing of all of this is that apartheid comes into its own at precisely the same moment as decolonization across the African continent. And as that process was unfolding in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were a lot of visions for what decolonization might mean that involved some kind of federation that would include the colonizer and the colonized, particularly in French West Africa. And those visions ultimately amounted to nothing, and the model across the African continent became partition into nation-states. So the meaning of decolonization got narrowed down to this one outcome of independence for the colonized population.
The ANC was always committed to something quite different in South Africa, where the idea was that because of the particular history of colonialism and capitalism in South Africa, populations have become interdependent in a way that made them impossible to unscramble. And ultimately, a post-apartheid future was going to include the colonizers and the colonized as part of a South African population.
There were very few models in the world at the time for trying something like that. The Soviet Union was really one of the only places to look to for an example of a place that’s marked by legacies of empire, by the types of inequality and histories of conquest, that have some similarities to what happened in South Africa. And yet, the Soviet project was to try to dissolve those historical inequalities in a system that incorporated, for example, affirmative action for previously colonized populations, and developmental subsidies for regions of the Soviet Union that had been excluded from the benefits of European modernity, and a variety of policies promoting the cultures of peoples other than Russians who dominated the state. This kind of package of policies that were aimed towards integration and undoing historical inequalities, but in the context of one shared society, was a really unusual model that I think meant a lot to South Africans looking around for inspiration as to what kind of world they wanted to build after apartheid.
Sizek: I think that’s really fascinating, because it points to the limits of models of multiethnic and multiracial states at this time, that folks from South Africa feel like there are so few viable options for understanding how to undo the structures of apartheid. How did these folks, the different ANC members and other people from South Africa, interact with the Soviet state? Did they go to Russia? What are the practical day-to-day interactions between ANC members and Soviet officials looking like?
Lynd: The answer is there were a lot of different things. South Africans came to the Soviet Union for quite a few different reasons starting in the early 1960s and continuing up until the late 1980s. One category of people who went is students, someone like Sindiso Mfenyana, who went to university in Kyiv. They spent several years living in the Soviet Union, they learned Russian. The idea was to develop technical expertise that they could ultimately bring home and put to use in whatever order was constructed after apartheid. There were also soldiers, people like Chris Hani, and Joe Modise, who came for military training. Some of them went to Moscow. Some of them went to Odessa. Some of them went to Crimea. Usually they stayed for shorter periods of time. They didn’t learn Russian or learned very little Russian, and they had much, much more limited exposure to their surroundings in the Soviet Union.
So there’s students, there’s soldiers. There’s also a cohort of bright, young elite intellectuals who came for advanced ideological training at a place called the Lenin School. And some of the Lenin School alumni ended up in very powerful positions in post-apartheid South Africa. So among them are Thabo Mbeki, who became the president eventually, and someone like Essop Pahad, who was a very powerful figure in Mbeki’s presidency. And then beyond these kinds of formal programs that had people in the Soviet Union for a longer time, top ANC leaders were passing through Moscow quite frequently for political consultations. Many of them came for medical treatment, and there were a few that spent their last years in the Soviet Union. Famously, Moses Kotane and J.B. Marks were buried there, and, to my understanding, are the only black Africans in the most prestigious cemetery in Moscow. You can go visit their graves; it’s fascinating.
Sizek: So one of the things that seems potentially obvious from a methodological point here is that you’re trying to track all these people who are traveling across multiple continents, and who are, to some extent, elites, but also attending normal institutions, like the Lenin School. How did you track them down and find the traces of these people across all these different institutions?
Lynd: The picture is different for those different groups. I’ve tried to cast as broad of a methodological net as I can. So people who are still alive and people who are willing to speak, I’ve tried to interview. That runs into some problems, because many of these people are still quite active in politics in South Africa, and have reasons to be a little cautious about talking to an American researcher. There’s more and more a crop of memoirs that have been useful for me, less in terms of establishing hard facts and more in the realm of perceptions and attitudes. And I’ve worked extensively in archives, both in Russia and in South Africa, which operate really, really differently in both contexts. In South Africa, a lot of the most important archival collections end up at universities, and they’re quite open and easy to access. And you can take photographs and go home and read your PDFs later. And in Russia, there’s restrictions all over the place in terms of what you can see. And then once you have a document in front of you, you’re not allowed to photograph it, so you end up transcribing everything that you might think is important. And then if later, you have a question about what was there, what you didn’t write down, that’s just your bad luck, you can’t go back and find it. So I’ve worked also with different published sources related to institutional actors who were involved on the Soviet side. My approach has kind of been to rule out nothing as a way to try to access very complicated stories of people moving back and forth.
Sizek: Yeah, so you said that you use these sorts of memoirs and unconventional sources, what have those been able to show you about the relationship, both perceived and real between South African exiles and USSR ideals?
Lynd: So the traditional telling of the story relies, or has relied, on writings by a small cohort of highly educated white South Africans who were involved, and I’ve always been a little cautious about that. I wondered what other kinds of stories there were to tell.
Part of what that does is it replicates the inequality of the apartheid system itself, where white people had much better access to education than black Africans. That’s one of the principal ways that inequality worked. And that became part of the liberation movement, both in terms of how it functioned internally and especially in terms of how its story has been told.
I tried to circumvent that in whatever ways I could, but that often means going outside of more formal and obvious sources. I’m trying to pick up scraps of experience wherever I could. That’s meant more interviews, to some degree memoirs, although it’s only been much more recently that more of the black South Africans who were involved have been publishing memoirs. They came out as a later cohort. And then picking up whatever I could, whatever traces I could find in the Russian archives as well, which often point to types of questions and interactions and experiences that don’t show up in the memoirs of these highly educated white South Africans who have, in my view, had a probably disproportionate influence on the way this story has been told.
Sizek: What were some of the specific interactions that happened between these Russian folks and South African people socially? What were their interactions beyond the sorts of formal trainings or formal institutional settings that they were in? How did they get along socially? How did they envision themselves as being involved in a similar process at the microscale?
Lynd: This is also an answer that really depends on who you’re talking about. Because, for example, the elites went on highly curated visits, where they were set up to have really, really positive experiences, and most of them did, and remember the Soviet Union as a really wonderful place where they were treated with utmost generosity.
For students who were there for longer, there’s archival traces that make it clear that students faced a great deal of racism in their immediate surroundings. I have found that in interviewing people, it’s something they’re very hesitant to talk about for the most part. There’s a pretty strong commitment to keeping a positive image of the Soviet Union alive, and remembering the negative aspects comes as more of a challenge to a lot of people. But the story ultimately is mixed. There are people who fell in love and got married and had children and their Soviet families came with them. There are people who made lifelong friends that they still visit; there are people who felt incredibly alienated by their surroundings. It’s a really complicated patchwork of experiences. And there’s been a really strong desire, I think, from Western observers all the way back into the Cold War and the propaganda war, to decide that the Soviet Union was one thing and that it was racist. And this is opening a whole other can of worms, but my interviewees have definitely taught me that there’s a more complicated picture than that.
Sizek: This raises a question about the relationship between ideas of the USSR and the project of the USSR, and then its realities specifically for the project of Soviet internationalism. Listeners might be familiar with how the Soviet state supported a lot of projects in what became known as the “Second World,” the Soviet world. How was the relationship with South Africa considered to be different from these other projects of Soviet internationalism?
Lynd: So there’s two main eras of socialist internationalism, the earliest one is in the 20s and 30s, run through the Communist International (Comintern). And my work touches on that, but I’m mostly focused on the later era and the Cold War. And for that era, there’s a huge explosion of Soviet interest in the Third World in general, and Africa in particular, from the late 1950s, which is the era of African decolonization. Ghana became independent in 1957. Then most African countries had become independent by the mid-1960s. And in that first flush of optimism about the prospects for postcolonial countries, the Soviet Union got involved, particularly in the role of advising on economic strategy. The Soviets had a theory of noncapitalist development as a kind of path to prosperity for postcolonial societies. Their main types of involvement were developmental aid, technical assistance, university scholarships, and things like that.
That emphasis changed over time. By the mid 1970s, development assistance wasn’t going very well, the noncapitalist road to development didn’t particularly look like it was going anywhere. And many of those leftist governments had been overthrown by coups. And there’s no one document that you can point to prove this shift. But if you spend enough time in the archives, you can’t help but notice that there’s a change in emphasis away from economic development and towards arms, which also came with a geographical shift away from West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, and towards the south.
South Africa, in particular, started out as a pretty minor priority for the Soviets. But by the mid-1970s, supporting the anti-apartheid struggle became a much more important selling point for Soviet foreign policy in the Global South. And at that point, South Africa was still under white minority rule, which made it quite an exception. It’s a different kind of project and a different type of involvement to develop ties with a national liberation movement that is trying to overthrow a state, as opposed to an independent government. An important turning point in South African history is the Soweto uprising in June of 1976, which inaugurated a new era of popular revolt that more or less never stopped until apartheid was overthrown. And particularly after that, and after a kind of renewed international outrage about the brutality of apartheid, the Soviet Union had quite a lot of reputational dividend that it could get from being a primary international supporter of the anti-apartheid movement. And that became, I think, if anything more important through the 1980s, as a lot of the rest of Soviet foreign policy projects were not doing so well.
Sizek: Let’s talk a little bit about the 1980s, because this is both a really pivotal time in South Africa in the lead up to the end of apartheid, as well as in the USSR, which is slowly crumbling. What happens to the relationship as both of these state building projects, to a certain extent, are falling apart?
Lynd: This is initially what drew me into this project. I stumbled across a set of primary sources from precisely this moment, and found that something really strange had happened that I didn’t know and didn’t have the tools to understand at the time. The late 1980s is a moment when both societies were changing in big and really unpredictable ways. Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union and launched reform programs of Glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, restructuring. On the South African side, the white government spent the 1980s trying to reform on the one hand and repress on the other as a way to get out ahead of popular revolt, but it never really worked.
As both of these changes are happening internally within the societies, the relationship between them got turned completely topsy-turvy. The National Party that was in power in South Africa had for a very long time had the Soviet Union as its main bogeyman, a kind of the obsessive incarnation of evil. The idea was that Moscow couldn’t wait to get its hands on South Africa and its mineral riches, and the Soviet Union stood for everything that the apartheid government was against. The Soviets were godless, atheist, hated the family, and definitely were opposed to white prosperity. And given this background, where the Soviet Union had been not only the bogeyman, but also a kind of a governmental excuse for why political reforms were impossible, the premise was that if you gave black South Africans political rights, very quickly, South Africa would be manipulated and turned into a Soviet satellite state.
Given that background, what happened in the late 1980s is really weird. The National Party went from hating the Soviet government to flirting with it in the late 1980s. And from about 1989 to 1990, there’s a real kind of fascination and admiration that developed between the dying apartheid state on the one hand, and the dying Soviet state on the other.
Sizek: It just seems very bizarre that this relationship developed. Can you explain what it looks like and how they became infatuated with each other, and also, how you could see this infatuation in the archives and in the oral histories you did?
Lynd: There are many dimensions and a lot of things that feed into this, but one of them is a growing consciousness within at least some parts of the National Party that the Soviet model for managing diversity through ethnic homelands had some weird parallels with what the apartheid project was trying to do. Once that awareness dawned on people — that the Soviet Union wasn’t the same thing as Russia and actually had had quite a diverse population, and that diverse population was segmented off into these little territorial units where they were supposed to have limited self-government — light bulbs went off for a lot of National Party politicians, thinking, “that sounds maybe a little bit like what we’re trying to do.” And it became a kind of way of justifying the apartheid project as it was running out of all remaining justifications for its existence.
There’s also quite a pragmatic element, as both of these governments were looking for friends and allies in a hostile world, coming out of an experience of being more or less pariah states, and trying to shun that status. But there’s a particularly close affinity between Afrikaner nationalists and Russians in particular. I think part of that is premised on what I’m calling “frontier masculinity,” which is a sense that Russians, unlike Westerners, knew what it was to be tough at the edges of civilization, and to be brutal when a situation called for it. There’s a kind of alcohol-fueled, deeply masculine bonding that I have heard a great deal about in interviews. One of the most interesting interviews to shed light on this has been with Niel Barnard who was the head of the National Intelligence Service in South Africa at the time. Dr. Barnard, as he likes to be called, is best known for being the person who conducted secret negotiations with Nelson Mandela in prison in the late 1980s, and being part of brokering Mandela’s release in 1990.
But he also had this other project of wooing the Soviet Union and trying to break the tie between the ANC and their Soviet sponsors. And I think what started out for him is, again, quite a pragmatic foreign policy type of project turned into a very deep and powerful affinity that he didn’t know he was looking for, and relates in quite stark terms. There’s stories of — in July 1991, he went with his deputy to the Soviet Union, and they went to the circus and got drunk in the banya and sang Afrikaner nationalist ballads to their hosts. They went to Stalin’s dacha and took photographs in his bathtub. And there’s a general alcohol-soaked male bonding exercise that repeats itself over and over again in these stories.
Sizek: So, it seems like there’s a form of a social relationship that forms between the Russians and then Afrikaners who are going to Russia during this time, based in a shared form of masculinity and then also potentially feeling like they should be on top of a multiethnic hierarchy. How did they start implementing or thinking about this relationship between the USSR and South Africa at a policy level, in addition to at the social level?
Lynd: So the kind of connections that I was just describing were very unpopular in some circles, as they started to develop in 1989 and 1990, and particularly within the Communist Party, and the conservative parts of the Communist Party that were loyal to the old way of doing things. But ultimately, they were run out of power in 1991, after the attempted coup in August, and by the end of that year, the Soviet Union didn’t exist anymore.
Post Soviet Russia, under Boris Yeltsin, was a completely different operating environment. And in that space, support for the ANC was basically cut down to nil. And there was a really strong preference for working with the National Party white government. The Soviet Union and South Africa had broken off diplomatic relations in 1956, and from 1991, started working to establish them again, and by June of 1992 had embassies in either place again.
There was a real expectation or hope that the payoff from all of this would come in economic terms, to rescue them. Both sides were hoping that the other one would rescue them from a dire economic situation, with very, very unrealistic aspirations in both directions. And ultimately, nothing really ever came of those hopes. There was a big deal with De Beers in 1990 that caused a lot of controversy. And then there’s some interesting stories of arms connections that began in the 1990s and then continue. They have complicated and maybe unsavory afterlives after 1994 into the post-apartheid world. But those ended up becoming the types of connections that result in an opening of diplomatic relations, and a real search for economic connections, that ultimately didn’t really go anywhere.
Sizek: So it seems like rather than coming up with meaningful solutions or technical support, that everything just sort of falls apart between them, by which I mean South Africans generally and the USSR at the end of apartheid and the Soviet Union. What do you think we can learn from this crumbling relationship and the wild trajectory of the relationship, in which it starts out where the Soviet Union is supporting this radical exiled party, and then eventually they become buddy-buddy with the ruling apartheid regime?
Lynd: I would answer in different ways for both of the different contexts. One thing that happened in post-Soviet Russia is that there was a really strong appetite in the late 1980s to withdraw from Soviet entanglements and obligations all across the Global South. And ultimately, one outcome of that withdrawal was a collapse in Russia’s status as a global power. And certainly beginning in the 1990s, but we see it much, much stronger in the present day, there is a lot of resentment and nostalgia about having lost that status, and going from the Soviet Union being a place that was looked to by people all over the world with admiration, fear, or respect — as a model, as an enemy, any of the above. The Soviet Union was a really key player in international politics in a way that no longer described Russia’s position in the world in the 1990s. I think that loss is felt pretty keenly, at least in some political circles in post-Soviet Russia.
On the South African side, it’s pretty common to cite the collapse of the Soviet Union as a closing of possibilities for some more socialist path in post-apartheid South Africa. And the somewhat tragic coincidence of circumstances is that the ANC came to power at a time when its longtime sponsor no longer existed. The world was no longer divided into communist and capitalist blocs. But there was one game in town, and it was neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus, and that same old story. So there’s a sense on the South African left that the collapse of the Soviet Union cut short the potential to transform South Africa’s economic situation after apartheid.
Sizek: As everything is falling apart between the fall of the USSR as well as the end of the apartheid regime, what happens to these ethnic homelands that the USSR and South Africa were talking about in the 1950s and 1960s?
Lynd: To put it simply, these places were moving in opposite directions. South Africa opted for integration, and the Soviet Union went towards disintegration. South Africa took 10 black ethnic homelands and four white provinces and smashed them together into a unitary nonracial state, and the Soviet Union decomposed into the Russian Federation and 14 basically ethnically defined sovereign states. So in South Africa, they threw out the idea of ethnonational independence, and in post-Soviet space, ethnonational independence is pretty much the defining political principle.
Sizek: Given that, South Africa decides that they are going to create try to create this multiethnic state, and then Russia separates from the rest of the Soviet bloc into the different states, how do we think about these projects today that Russia has, for example, in the invasion of Ukraine, with trying to create a new kind of multiethnic federation on the part of the Russian government?
Lynd: What happened in the early 1990s seemed like natural and good solutions at the time. Part of what intrigues me about those parallel processes of decomposition and integration happening alongside each other is that, 30 years later, they don’t look like as clean solutions as they did then. And the complicated legacies look different in either place.
In post-Soviet space, part of the challenge has been that for more or less all of the 14 independent states, with Russia as their neighbor, they all have in common a kind of anti-Russian orientation and a geopolitical position of either not wanting to antagonize, or worrying about the consequences of antagonizing, their Russian neighbor. And I don’t pretend to have a solution to that question.
In the last year, since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, there’s been a big push within the field towards what people are calling “decolonization.” And what they mean by decolonization tends to be doubling down on ethnonational independence. And part of what I’m trying to do in my work is to excavate other alternatives and things that were tried in Soviet space. Ethnonational independence has had a long history of admirers in that part of the world. But also it’s a place that has been home to a lot of interesting experimentation with living together and trying to undo empire.
Within the field, and in some places, there’s been a real desire to look at Russia and see a history of empire and domination all the way down — that all Russia has ever done is to oppress the peoples of Eurasia. And I’m interested in experimentation during the Soviet period that pointed to other ways of approaching the problem of living together and egalitarian ways and progressive ways of thinking about how a multinational society would be organized. That is not Putin’s vision, obviously. And so there’s a lot of careful work to be done about sorting out difference and hierarchy and where power ultimately lies and what self-determination means. And I think it’s part of the thrust of my work to try to recognize that those things are really tricky and complicated, and that, for example, different parts of the Soviet Union were governed differently and had different attitudes towards ethnonational independence as the ultimate fate of the Union.
Sizek: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast and telling us more about this complex history of these multinational states.
Lynd: Thanks for having me.