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16 May 2024, Gateway House

Why insurgents struggle as governments

South Africa has just celebrated the 30th anniversary of its epic elections in 1994 which marked the end of apartheid rule. President de Klerk and Nelson Mandela avoided the expected bloodbath but, since then, the ruling African National Congress has not done well. Because the very qualities which make insurgent groups and liberation movements successful, are not the ones that make effective national governments.

Visiting Professor, Department of War Studies, King's College, London

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In Cold War Angola in the early 1980s, all the liberation movements were located in the Rua da Liberdade on the eastern outskirts of the capital, Luanda. They included FRETILIN from East Timor, Polisario from Western Sahara, SWAPO from Namibia and the African National Congress (ANC) from South Africa. The ANC was banned during the Apartheid era and much of its military wing was based in Angola, a former Portuguese colony run by the pro-Soviet MPLA. Even then one wondered at the wisdom of having so many liberation movements (described as terrorists by their home governments) in one line of half-a-dozen detached villas. Presumably the Angolans reckoned that the street was just beyond the range of South African aircraft.

In 1986 one SWAPO comrade asked for an honest opinion. Would he ever see his homeland again? At the time it seemed highly unlikely. The ANC military campaign was an irritation to the apartheid regime rather than an existential threat and international sanctions were damaging but not crippling. The stated intention of most white South Africans was to fight to the last man or woman. It felt harsh to deliver this stark message but better to be honest than to hold out false hope.

Imagine, therefore, the relief when, only four years later, President de Klerk announced his intention to unban the ANC with an eventual intention to hold elections in which they could take part.[1] It was always certain that the ANC would win those elections and that Nelson Mandela would become President. He and his colleague Oliver Tambo were determined not to make the same mistakes as other recently liberated countries in Southern Africa, such as Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. In particular, there was a desire to avoid the twin pitfalls of one-party rule and corruption. The hopes for the new Rainbow Nation were high whilst recognising the enormous task ahead.[2]

Thirty years after those famous elections South Africa has had multiple political parties but only ANC governments and corruption is widespread. So, what went wrong?

It is entirely natural that the group which is most associated with liberation should be voted into power. Nelson Mandela’s government was widely respected but under Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma the levels of competence dropped rapidly and corruption surged. The nadir was reached during the Gupta scandal of 2016-18 and the allegations of “state capture.”[3] The acting Director General of the South African Treasury recently outlined the features of “state capture” and the solutions in a blog for the International Monetary Fund (IMF).[4]

Needless to say, poor governance is not purely a South African phenomenon. There were also other factors to consider such as entrenched interest groups determined to resist change. However, there is a connection between poor governance and administrations run by recently successful insurgent groups or liberation movements.

Yasser Arafat’s Al Fatah movement returned to the West Bank and Gaza after the Oslo agreement in the mid-1990s. He and his successor Abu Mazen had to contend with almost impossible circumstances under tight Israeli control, but allegations of corruption soon followed them[5].

Hamas has been highly critical of Fatah’s performance but their own record of governance in Gaza has been far worse. Instead of focussing on the needs of the people they saw their control of the territory as a springboard for extending their fight against Israel itself.

The Taliban in Afghanistan ran an appalling administration from 1996 until 2001 with a complete lack of competence and a large measure of intolerance and brutality.[6] Their second term in power from 2021 offers limited scope for optimism despite being branded Taliban 2.0 by naïve observers in the West.[7]

The Muslim Brotherhood got their chance to govern Egypt in 2011 and had a year in power under Mohamed Morsi. However, it was a period marked by economic incompetence, religious intolerance and claims of abuse of power.[8]

None of this need surprise us. The key point is that the very qualities which make insurgent groups (including some terrorist groups) and liberation movements successful are the very same factors which are detrimental to good governance.

A rough checklist would include the following:

Secrecy: This is essential to the survival of such groups. Some limited secrecy is required in government too, but effective communication requires alternative skills. Once in government the tendency is for such organisations to form tightly knit cabals to devise policy.

Education: Whether fighting in urban conditions, in the mountains or in the bush the lives of insurgents do not often lend themselves to academic study of governance, business administration, prudential finance or communications. Rudimentary Marxist philosophy was available until the late 1980s but proved to be of little practical help in government.

Finance and procurement: Insurgent groups are adept at acquiring money and weapons, but clandestinely. Smuggling, protection rackets, and secret funding from diasporas or sympathetic countries are common. The competencies required to run a national economy are entirely different. The ingrained habits developed in the clandestine past lead directly to corruption once in government.

Security: No insurgent group can tolerate internal dissent. The slightest acceptance of differing views can lead to a schism within the group and its exploitation by opponents. Such are the consequences of betrayal that security departments are always paranoid and brutal. This, of course, is the exact opposite of diversity of opinion and challenge which makes a modern organisation successful in tackling new predicaments.

In an ideal world, an insurgent group would dissolve itself upon winning political power and fight the subsequent election as separate political parties. But that is never going to happen. Neither is it likely that, after a decade or more enduring risk and privation, any guerrillas are going to let others enjoy the fruits of victory. Human nature tends to trump good intentions.

Looking back at Angola the Viana episode in February 1984 provides some clues. Viana was an ANC transit camp just outside the capital, Luanda. Dissatisfaction among trainees about awful conditions was portrayed as a mutiny by the local ANC leadership and brutally suppressed with the help of the Angolan army. A secret ANC commission sent to investigate the event concluded (amongst other things) that “the security department has become totally isolated and alienated from the general cadreship. Their power and privileges, their lifestyles, their image and methods of work (notoriety) had placed this department apart from, and in appearance hostile to, those living in camps.”[9] An even more frank analysis was published in 2016.[10]

In 1996 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa considered the case and made the mitigating arguments that, “The ANC was a banned organisation, and every effort was made to destroy it. The Movement did not have the resources of a state; it had limited material means and was operating in impoverished and developing countries where apparently elementary necessities were very difficult to organise. Communications were unreliable and intensively monitored; transport was always a problem. Angola was in the grip of a devastating civil war in which UNITA bandits were receiving the support of South Africa and certain Western countries. To travel in Angola in certain areas was a life-threatening exercise. All these factors contributed significantly to the lack of effective management of structures in general, particularly in Angola.”[11]

This was all true, but it serves as a reminder of why the same people who can overcome such adversity should not be entrusted with taking over a national government until after a lengthy period of retraining.

On a more positive note, the honest answer to the SWAPO member in 1986 turned out to be completely wrong. He was back home with his family before the end of 1990.

Tim Willasey-Wilsey is a Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London, a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI in London and an expert at Cipher brief in Washington DC. He is a former senior British diplomat who served in Pakistan.

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[2] Mark Austin, ‘Desmond Tutu coined the phrase ‘Rainbow Nation’ and his hope lives on,’ Sky News, 26 Dec 2021,

[3] Neil Arun, ‘State capture: Zuma, the Guptas, and the sale of South Africa,’ BBC, 15 July 2019,

[4] Ismail Momoniat, ‘How and Why Did State Capture and Massive Corruption Occur in South Africa ?,’ IMF Blog, 10 Apr 2023,

[5] Megan Giovannetti, ‘Palestinians furious and fed up with corruption of Abbas’s ‘mafia’ PA,’ Middle East Eye, 15 Feb 2019,

[6] M. Bashir Mobasher, Mohammad Qadam Shah and Shamshad Pasarlay, ‘The Constitution and Laws of the Taliban 1994-2001,’  Idea International, 14 Dec 2022,

[7] Saim Saeed, ‘Taliban 2.0: Older, media-savvy and still duplicitous,’ Politico, 20 Aug 2021,

[8] ‘Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi: A turbulent presidency cut short,’ BBC, 17 June 2019,

[9] ‘Stuart Commission Report,’ South African History Online,

[10] ‘James Stewart – the ANC fighter who spoke truth to power by Martin Plaut, 1 February 2016,’ South African History Online,



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