Third Force (South Africa)

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The "Third Force" was a term used by leaders of the ANC during the late 1980s and early 1990s to refer to a clandestine force believed to be responsible for a surge in violence in KwaZulu-Natal, and townships around and south of the Witwatersrand (or "Rand").[1]

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found that:

while little evidence exists of a centrally directed, coherent or formally constituted "Third Force", a network of security and ex-security force operatives, frequently acting in conjunction with right-wing elements and/or sectors of the IFP, was involved in actions that could be construed as fomenting violence and which resulted in gross human rights violations, including random and target killings.[2]

Uses after 1994[edit]

Today, the high rate of protest in South Africa is often attributed to a "third force",[3][4][5] often assumed to be linked to foreign intelligence agencies, opposition political parties and white intellectuals.[6][7]

However, S'bu Zikode of the shackdweller's movement Abahlali baseMjondolo has deconstructed the term by claiming the third force is the anger of the poor.[8] Abahlali baseMjondolo has also argued that "it is clear that the third force is just another name for the organised poor".[9]

The ANC also often refers to protestors and other critics as "counter-revolutionaries".[10] Cosatu President Sdumo Dlamini has claimed that popular organisations active in local politics are linked to the CIA.[11]

The Mail & Guardian has reported that: "According to grassroots activists the accusations of 'criminality' and 'third forces' are familiar: used to delegitimise and dismiss dissent and grievances - and perpetuate the notion of a society homogenously content with an ANC-led government."[12] The newspaper also quoted activist Ayanda Kota as saying that these allegations "take the agency away from us. It's the same argument used for the mineworkers fighting for a living wage: they are being used by some 'third force' . . .Poor people…apparently can't organize. It was the same with Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement - the CIA were behind them."[12]

The xenophobic pogroms in May 2008 were also ascribed to 'the third force'.[13] In 2015 Malusi Gigaba also ascribed xenophobic violence to a "third force".[14] Protest at mining on communal lands,[15] independent trade union action,[16] student protest[17] and the formation of new political parties has also been seen in conspiratorial terms by the ANC.[18] Gwede Mantashe, secretary general of the ANC, has ascribed strikes on the mines to the agency of 'white foreigners'.[19] The ANC controlled eThekwini Municipality in Durban has repeatedly claimed that 'the third force' is behind land occupations in the city.[20] Charles van Onselen argues that the ANC uses the idea of 'the third force' as a conspiracy theory to deflect attention from its own failings.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ellis, Stephen (1998). "The Historical Significance of South Africa's Third Force". Journal of Southern African Studies. 24 (2): 261–299. doi:10.1080/03057079808708577. hdl:1887/9519. ISSN 0305-7070. JSTOR 2637528.
  2. ^ "Section 4 Appendix: The 'Third Force'" (PDF), Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, vol. 6, 2003, p. 584, archived from the original (PDF) on 19 August 2005
  3. ^ ANC: "Abahlali and opposition a third force", Mhlabunzima Memela, The Witness, 17 October 2013
  4. ^ 'Third force' link to unrest GRAEME HOSKEN and SIPHO MASOMBUKA, The Times, 7 February 2014
  5. ^ A revolution’s dreams betrayed, Malaika wa Azania, Sunday Independent, 30 March 2014
  6. ^ Abahlali's Vocal Politics of Proximity: Speaking, Suffering and Political Subjectivization, Anna Selmeczi, Journal of Asian and African Studies, October 2012 vol. 47 no. 5 498-515
  7. ^ On the Third Force, SACSIS, 2012
  8. ^ Zikode, S'bu (2006), We are the Third Force, Abahlali baseMjondolo
  9. ^ The Third Force is Gathering its Strength, Abahlali baseMjondolo, 3 March 2010
  10. ^ The ANC's imagined and real enemies: 'Creeping counter-revolution' vs. creeping scandals, Ranjeni Munusamy, 21 January 2012
  11. ^ Conspiracy theories tell us much about South Africa, ANTHONY BUTLER, Business Day, 23 AUGUST 2013,
  12. ^ a b Activists decry talk of 'third force' at Marikana, Niren Tolsi, Mail & Guardian, 24 August 2012
  13. ^ Michael Neocosmos, From Native Foreigners to Foreign Natives, CODESRIA, Dakar, 2010, p. 118
  14. ^ Outbreak of xenophobic attacks ‘shows lack of leadership’, Staff Writers, Business Day, 16 April 2015
  15. ^ Mining is a 'done deal', Fred Kockott, IOL, 2008
  16. ^ Gwede's Swedish diplomatic row, By LOYISO SIDIMBA AND CANDICE BAILEY, Sunday Independent, 23 June 2013]
  17. ^ a b The top 10 ANC conspiracy theories, Charles van Onselen, Rand Daily Mail, 25 May 2016
  18. ^ New parties a sign of 'foreign agents', says MK Vets chairman, COLLEEN GOKO, Business Day, 30 APRIL 2013,
  19. ^ "White foreigners": The danger of history repeating itself, Terry Bell, GroundUp, 13 June 2014
  20. ^ .eThekwini says third force behind increased land invasions in Durban, Se-Anne Rall, The Mercury, 17 January 2019