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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Historical Background: 1960 - Founding MK

In South Africa, the decade following the slew of apartheid legislation was one during which the bureaucratic structures that were created to implement the legislation struggled to systematize both the machinery to administer the laws and to enforce adherence.

The State-Aided Institutions Act (1957) opened the way for segregation of libraries, cinemas and all places of entertainment. The Native Laws Amendment Bill (1957) empowered the government to prohibit the holding of classes, entertainment, and church services if Africans attended them. The Extension of University education Act (1959) made it a criminal act for universities, hitherto non racial, to register non- Whites without the approval of the Minister of Education. And, most importantly, perhaps was the Promotion of Bantu Self Government Act creating the Homelands with the intention of granting them independence.

In March 1960, the PAC organized an anti-pass book demonstration at Sharpeville, the African township outside Veereniging. The police, poorly trained and lacking discipline and mindful that nine of their colleagues had been murdered in Cato Manor less than months earlier, opened fire on the crowd, when they felt things were getting out of hand, and left 69 Africans dead. Most of the dead were shot in the back. Why the police opened fire was never established, since no investigation was ever carried out into the shootings. The government's only response was to assign the blame for the massacre to the victims.

Sharpeville catapulted South Africa into the international spotlight. The UN condemned South Africa's racial policies; all members of the Assembly voting for the motion save for one South Africa itself. Immediately thereafter South Africa voted to become a Republic the vote of 52 percent for and 47 per cent against reflecting the Afrikaner/English speaking division in the country. Later that year the new republic either severed all ties with the Commonwealth or the Commonwealth severed al ties with it. The pound sterling was replaced with a new currency the rand.

In the aftermath of Sharpeville, spontaneous protests began to erupt across the country. The government declared a state of emergency and when it was lifted in August over 18,000 people had been detained, of which some 5,000 were convicted of various offences real or imagined and imprisoned. The emergency regulations empowered the authorities to prohibit gatherings, impose curfews, detain suspects, impound publications and search premises.1 In short, they could do whatever they wanted in the name of keeping law and order. In April the government passed the Unlawful Organizations Act making both the ANC and the PAC illegal organizations.

A three-day workers' strike, organized by the National Action Council (NAT),2 which Mandela chaired, took place at the end of May 1961. The government went to extraordinary measures to curb the strike, detaining 10,000 Africans in the weeks beforehand. On the strike's first day, Radio South Africa broadcast at 6.00am police reports that the strike had collapsed, before workers had even arrived at their work places, deliberately false and picked up and published by the media.

On June 3rd, days after the stay-at home, Mandela released a long statement trashing the opposition media, the police and employers and preparing the groundwork for the future direction the liberation movement would take. The response to the strike, he said, was "magnificent, the result of the hard work and selfless devotion" of the organizers."

He drew on published reports from major news outlets indicating that between 40 per cent and 70 per cent of workers had stayed away from work, depending on which area of the country they lived in.3 A clearly irked Mandela said that the media had simply become instruments of government propaganda and were engaging in "deliberate acts of sabotage." In summarizing where the country stood at that time, he noted that: "Of all the observations made on the strike, none has brought forth so much heat and emotion as put on non-violence. Our most loyal supporters, whose courage and devotion has never been doubted, unanimously and strenuously disagreed with this approach [of non-violence] and with the assurances we gave that we would not use any form of intimidation whatsoever to induce people to stay away from work."

The heart of the matter: "Even up to the present day the question that is being asked with monotonous regularity up and down the country is: is it politically correct to continue preaching peace and non-violence when dealing with a government whose barbaric practices have brought so much suffering and misery to Africans? With equal monotony the question is posed: have we not closed a chapter on this question?''4

In Mandela's mind, the book was closed.

In 196I the SACP took the first step when it organized armed units. The ANC, after an intense and often tearful debate followed.5 They amalgamated their respective units and founded the MK, (Umkhonto we Sizwe The Spear of the Nation, MK), which would become the military arm of the ANC. Its aim: either to overthrow though armed struggle the government of South Africa or bring it to the negotiating table. Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo formed the High Command with Mandela as chairman. In the early years, MK confined its operations to acts of sabotage forays against military installations, power plants, transportation links and telephone lines. Sabotage was chosen because initially MK was not equipped to engage in other forms of violence and because it did not involve loss of life. The need for trained cadres was acute and limited the scale and type MK cadres could carry out.

Numerous considerations went into the ANC's decision, for it did not easily abandon a fifty year tradition of non-violence in the pursuit of its objectives: successful armed struggles in Algeria and in Cuba; the failure of passive resistance to achieve any result; there being no other option; the revolt in Pondoland, an area in a region that was home to Mandela, Mbeki, Tambo and Sisulu, the inability of the ANC to respond to the peasants requests for arms, a sense that the movement was lagging well behind popular sentiment, fear of being outflanked by the PAC, which had already established an armed wing.

The unfolding events in Pondoland, a revolt of the peasants, revealed a dichotomy in the ANC's tradition of non-violence. In a context where there is no opposition to non-violence and the proponents are willing and able-to withstand the inconveniences, unnerving circumstances they often faced at the hands of the authorities, arrest, brief periods of imprisonment and humiliation, non-violence was, nevertheless, at least tolerable for its practitioners; but continuing non-violence where each endeavor leads to not marginal gains that at least allows for a case to be made for their ongoing use, but no gains at all, indeed negative outcomes as each act of passive resistance is greeted with greater displays of force by the police, more brutality, more intolerance compels practitioners to ask: "what are we achieving," and when the answer is clearly nothing, it begs the next question, "Why don't we try something different?' But the only thing that can be different is to supplement peaceful protest with a lethal punch acts of violence directed at either things or human beings or both.

In Pondoland the peasants had revolted because they thought they were being removed from their lands as some part of a government plan to dispossess them.6 They beat back the forces the government had sent to crush them. They fought back and the ANC watched in silence like well-behaved spectators at a cricket match.

"Umkhonto we Sizwe was founded...in order to give coherence to the spontaneous revolutionary violence our people were beginning to assert in response to the repressive violence of the apartheid state. During the late 1950s, there had already been a number of armed uprisings in various parts of the country as the oppressed fought back to claim their rights, which were being ruthlessly suppressed by the Verwoerd regime. In the Northern Transvaal the peasants had risen against the imposition of the Bantustan system. In the Western Transvaal the rising of the peasants had been suppressed with great violence. In the Transkei the imposition of the Bantustan system had provoked the most sustained peasant uprising in six decades, and in many portions of that region the rule of the puppet chiefs and the regime had been superseded by popularly elected peasant committees. The struggle in the urban areas had also reached a high-water mark. The massacres at Sharpeville and Langa in 1960, the slaughter of a peasant demonstration at Ngquza Hill in Pondoland in 1960..."7

In the following months Mandela went abroad to seek support for an armed struggle. He visited many newly independent African states. All were sympathetic to his cause, but many were mystified with the involvement of whites and Indians and the ANC's associations with Communists. Pan -Africanism was the African flavor of choice at the time and the unadulterated nationalism of the PAC was more to the liking of most than the hybrid nationalism the ANC seemed to embrace.

The ANC in exile, now under the leadership of Oliver Tambo, began to regroup. Tambo set up offices in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and London while the SACP established offices in London. Later the ANC would relocate to Lusaka, although the London office would continue to play an important role, if only because it was London, a pivotal cross- road in the international community.

Since resort to violence had been the brainchild of the SACP, the MK turned to the Soviet Union and its satellites for military hard ware, financial assistance and training for its cadres. East Germany was among the first countries visited by Slovo, a prime mover in the SACP. His reception was warm and the East Germans promised to help in any way it could, which, in the end proved top be aside from the USSR most generous.

The MK's founding manifesto, which it released with its first acts of sabotage in Durban on 16 December 1961 declared that: "The people's patience is not endless. The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our powers in defence of our people, our future and our freedom."8

But Umkhonto we Sizwe's sabotage operations were not intended as an end in themselves; indeed, MK operatives not to engage in actives that might result in the death of civilians, thus restricting their modus operandi and the range of targets they could choose from. Operations were a stage towards building a people's liberation army in South Africa.

The dye was cast.

Explaining the ANC's decision to turn to armed struggle Nelson Mandela said during the Rivonia trial in 1964 that: 'It is a fact that for a long time the people had been talking of violence of the day they would fight the white man and win their country back and we, the leaders of the ANC, had nevertheless prevailed on them to avoid violence and pursue peaceful methods. When some of us discussed this in May and June 1961, it could not be denied that our policy to achieve a non-racial state by non-violence had achieved nothing and that our followers had begun to lose confidence in this policy and were developing disturbing ideas of terrorism." 9

Grand apartheid, which was envisioned by the Bantu Self- Government Act, was Verwoerd's creation. It was designed to endow the ideology of apartheid with an intellectual and moral coherence that was at least defensible in terms of its own premises. This ideology was called Separate Development, and it would ensure, Verwoerd was convinced, that the issue of White domination would become redundant, because he intended to construct a South Africa in which there would be no Blacks to dominate.

Separate Development preceded independence in subSahara Africa. It was an attempt to pre-empt what national liberations in the region were calling for an end to colonial rule and the enfranchisement of the masses. By denationalizing the majority of South Africa's inhabitants, Separate Development would rid the country of Africans. South Africa, according to the Separate Development theory, was not a single country consisting of African and White people. On the contrary, it was comprised of a number of ethnic and cultural minorities.

There was not one nation in South Africa, it argued, but many nations, each at a different stage of development, but each, nonetheless, entitled to its independence. Just as Europe, as colonial masters, was assisting other African nations towards nationality and independence, so, Verwoerd argued, the Whites in South Africa had a duty to assist the African ethnic tribes on their roads to independence. The 1913 and 1936 Land Acts had set aside traditional African land, comprising thirteen percent of the landmass, for Africans. These lands, which were called Homelands in the South African state's parlance, would provide the territories for the different African nations to realize their own individual political aspirations. These lands, however, constituted just 13 per cent of the country's land mass thus 80 percent of the South African population, consisting of non-white people, mostly African, had only 13 percent of the land and 20 percent of the population that is, the whites, owned 87 percent of the land.

When each Homeland eventually became independent, its citizens would lose their South African citizenship, and become foreigners, who would be treated like other foreigners when they visited what would then be White South Africa. When all the 'African nations' became independent, the problem of White domination would have disappeared, since there no longer would be Africans to dominate.

A new State structure began to emerge.

Grand apartheid had at its core a vision of a South Africa that belonged to whites and where Black people either lived in Bantustans or were temporary residents in urban areas, while working for whites.

Implementing this vision was a decades-long process that entailed large population removals as part of an elaborate social and geographical engineering exercise. The Surplus People Project, which has produced the most authoritative documentation of the history and scale of forced removals, estimated that between 1960 and 1982 over 3.5 million South Africans were moved as part of this policy. Tens of thousands of other people lived for many years under constant threat of losing their homes, while yet others lost their South African citizenship as boundaries were redrawn to incorporate them into homelands that were earmarked for "independence."

These processes resulted in untold human suffering and misery. Communities were broken up; families were separated and lost their homes and productive resources such as livestock, trees and farming implements. In many cases people were not compensated at all. Resistance to forced removals was met with severe repression by the state and resulted in people being killed and jailed.

The social dislocation caused by forced removals and the destruction of viable and cohesive communities was arguably the most devastating consequences of apartheid.

In most cases communities were put in places far from their original homes and places of work. Jobs were lost, or people forced to become migrant workers in order to support their families. Conditions in resettlement camps were appalling. Often, people were dumped with little more than tents, tin toilets and trucked-in water. Poverty levels increased dramatically in these areas. As a result of forced removal, many children and old people died from diseases related to malnutrition and poor living conditions.

The policy of forced removals was met with fierce resistance by the affected communities. In many cases long and expensive legal battles were fought. Most of these were lost as the legislation in terms of which removals took place was authoritarian and relied on the powers of administrative decree and did not allow for review, or recourse. Section 5 of the 1927 Black Administration Act, for example, allowed the State President to order a community to move from any one place in South Africa to another within a specified period of time. Forced removals were implemented as a "normal" part of the running of government. Armed with an arsenal of authoritarian legislation and policy, and backed by the repressive arms of the state, civil servants carried out actions that destroyed lives, families and communities. In the process of each struggle against removal, the state used its repressive powers to a greater or lesser degree. In the forced removals and the resistance of the 1980's, detention without trial, torture, and shootings became a feature of many struggles.


By 1985 Grand Apartheid had spawned thirteen houses of parliament or Legislative Assemblies, including three legislative chambers in the Central Parliament, six legislative Assemblies in what are called the "Non-independent" Black states, and four legislative Assemblies in the "Independent" states. There were 1,270 members of parliament, 206 cabinet ministers, five state presidents and ten prime ministers; one hundred fifty-one government departments, eighteen Departments of Health and Welfare, fourteen Departments of Education, and fourteen Departments of Finance and Budget.

The original idea was that all these duplicative assemblies and governance structures would reach a certain critical mass of performance, "take off," and thereafter develop separately and independently.

Thus, the Transkei homeland was granted its "independence" in October 1976, Bophuthatswana in December 1977, Venda in September 1979, and Ciskei in December 1981. Citizens of the "independent" homelands who were not living and working in South Africa were not entitled to South African citizenship. However, South Africa was the only country to accord diplomatic recognition to the "independent" homelands. And they were, with the possible exception of KwaZulu, non-sustainable economically, dependent on huge subsidies from the South African government to maintain the illusion of self-autonomy, and some were scattered over several non-contiguous geographical areas making the claim of self-government a chimera.

The "take-off" points became blips on the receding political horizon, rationalization of governance structures became stuck in the quagmire of a bureaucracy that grew by feeding on itself, and homeland self-sufficiency was wishful thinking in the absence of investment, the "pull" of labor opportunities in the Witswatersrand, rapid urbanization, and the inability to develop even the semblance of a manufacturing sector.

Moreover, as time went by, those involved in developing and administering Separate Development had, of course, a vested interest in keeping the system going. Afrikaner nationalism consolidated itself in the civil service, which became the major channel of Afrikaner economic mobility, and the partisan nature of the State became more obvious. At one point 40% of employable Afrikaners worked for the government. The public sector employed one civil servant for every twenty-seven people. The bureaucracy's salary bill consumed about one-quarter of GNP. In fact, in 1989, the number of people who voted for the National Party-approximately one million-was roughly equivalent to the number of Whites on the government payroll plus their spouses. Given the differential rates of population growth of Blacks and Afrikaners, it was mathematically possible that all employable Afrikaners would have to be conscripted into the public sector in order to administer the mammoth bureaucracy that would continue to grow exponentially.

And then what?

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.