As the African National Congress (ANC) fetes its 100th birthday this weekend, tribute will also be paid to neighbouring nations who lost blood and treasure for their oft-forgotten role in the fight against apartheid.
The creation of the ANC on January 8, 1912 inspired similar movements to rise up across the region.
As European powers began granting independence to neighbouring African nations in the 1960s, the ANC — then banned at home — founded bases in exile, moving its headquarters to Zambia’s capital Lusaka.
But South Africa’s whites-only government saw the rise of independent black states as a threat and its retaliation unleashed a wave of warfare.
“Our relationship is cemented in blood,” said Simon Khaya Moyo, chairman of Zimbabwe’s long-ruling Zanu PF party, recalling the ANC activists who shared “trenches” with his country’s liberation fighters.
Defending its actions as a fight against Soviet communism, apartheid South Africa sought to shore up the white Rhodesian regime in Zimbabwe, which fell in 1980, and afterwards staged innumerable covert attacks.
In Namibia, then under South African rule, the military battled liberation forces for decades. When Angola won independence in 1975, South Africa invaded and sparked a conflict that drew in tens of thousands of Cuban forces and lasted 13 years.
South Africa aided rebels in Mozambique, where the government in Maputo blamed apartheid forces for the death of its first President Samora Machel in a mysterious plane crash on the border.
Zambia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland all suffered raids by covert forces who bombed and abducted ANC activists.
But the role of the countries, then known as the Frontline States, has been largely forgotten by South Africans today, said Albie Sachs, an ANC activist and former Constitutional Court judge who lost an arm during a 1988 car-bomb set by apartheid forces in Maputo.
“South Africans are generally unaware of the price Mozambique paid. It was not only economic sabotage and the death of their President,” said Sachs.
“It was also the constant raids and civil war. Simply because Mozambique supported the struggle against South Africa.”
The wars devastated Mozambique and Angola. Mozambique remains among the poorest countries in the world, while Angola has only recently begun to rebuild thanks to its vast oil reserves.
The Frontline States won few military victories against South Africa’s vastly stronger forces. Many found their room to manoeuvre even diplomatically hampered by their economic dependence on the regional powerhouse.
Landlocked nations needed access to South African ports, while Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland depended on a colonial-era regional customs regime which provided their governments with desperately needed income.
It was this economical muscle that prompted Malawi’s then-dictator Kamuzu Banda to declare he was “prepared to co-operate with the devil for the sake of Malawi”, according to Malawian historian and author Desmond Dudwa Phiri.
Banda never joined the Frontline States and discouraged ANC militants from basing in his country.
Despite their public support for the ANC, other countries also came under pressure to discourage its armed wing from staging attacks from their territory — for fear of the inevitable reprisals.
Zambia cut trade ties completely, which cost the country $19 billion in lost trade and investment, a staggering cost to one of the world’s poorest countries, according to a 1998 study by the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, in Lusaka.
That history will be remembered during the weekend celebrations, with current and former African leaders set to attend the centennial, ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete said.
“History is the witness,” she said.
“They actually died, the people of the Frontline States, alongside our own people, so their own role and participation and involvement is written in their own blood.”