About this site

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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Chapter Three: Unprepared

Soweto and All That, June 1976 - October 1978

Fifteen years after our commitment to armed struggle, we could mount no organised retaliation by armed groups using modern techniques.

- Joe Slovo1


The uprisings in Soweto and elsewhere in June 1976 created the opportunity for the ANC to break out of its 13-year strategic impasse. From exile, it was able to re-register as a significant actor in South African politics, primarily by sporadic armed activity inside South Africa from October 1976.

The previous chapter showed how the ANC's strategic emphasis on armed activity attracted to it elements of its potential constituency, particularly from within the black consciousness movement. Yet this military emphasis, which contributed to the destruction of the ANC's small underground inside South Africa between 1974 and June 1976, harmed the ANC's ability to organise an internal political base, which was not only desirable for a movement pretending to national leadership but was also necessary if the ANC was to be able to wage a sustained armed struggle. In the 28 months after June 1976 this paradox recurs, but more sharply.

ANC Operational Strategic Policy after the Soweto Uprising

The ANC felt the 1976 uprisings made the re-introduction of armed activity inside South Africa yet more urgent. Its military unpreparedness during the rebellion added to its earlier international embarrassment.

The Revolutionary Council recognised that the ANC's international allies were infected by 'a mood of scepticism' about the ANC's military capacity. So, too, were 'many of [the ANC's] own MK cadres' abroad.2 A more serious source of embarrassment was how the ANC's potential domestic constituency felt about its military impotence during the uprisings.

Joe Slovo recalls that the Revolutionary Council (RC) concluded in the months after the uprisings that it was an indication of serious failure that against the background of the biggest massacre in our modern history, we could count only two policemen killed in the six-odd weeks after the uprisings started. Fifteen years after our commitment to armed struggle, we could mount no organised retaliation by armed groups using modern techniques.3

The RC believed that whatever 'confidence and support' the ANC enjoyed inside South Africa could not survive further inactivity on the military front.4

In the ANC's view, the uprisings not only demanded armed activity; they also improved both the context within which, and provided the means with which, it could be waged. The uprisings had created new possibilities, which the ANC recognised.

First, the South African government was in retreat diplomatically on a number of fronts as a result of the uprisings. There was international outrage at its ruthless action against rioters. Prime Minister John Vorster's attempts to win conservative African states into an amenable relationship with South Africa had received a setback,5 and the ANC reasoned that armed activity could further undermine any African rapproachment with Vorster.6 Moreover, Vorster felt he had to accede to United States' demands that he pressurise the white minority government in Rhodesia into conceding the principle of black majority rule.7 In consequence, a further hole appeared likely in South Africa's regional cordon sanitaire. Meanwhile, Frelimo had consolidated its rule in Mozambique, and the ANC its operational presence there. The MPLA government in Angola had survived the South African invasion of late 1975 and was being buttressed by Cuban and Soviet military assistance; and the ANC had offers for military training in engineering (i.e. sabotage) and other specialisations in Angola.8

The uprisings also provided the ANC with largest-ever new recruits to MK. Some 4,000 young blacks went into exile over the 18 months after June 16 1976, about 3,000 of them to the ANC,9 and most of the latter into MK.10 The RC recognised that, for the first time since the early 1960s, 'the prospect existed for creating a trained fighting force of real youth'.11 Its guerilla forces recruited mainly in the early 1960s, had been 'growing into middle age and [were] becoming more and more cut off from home conditions'.12

Three central factors help explain why most of this new generation of young black exiles joined the ANC external mission rather its rivals. ANC ideological penetration of black consciousness appears to have been one of the lesser reasons, although some years later the ANC claimed that the black consciousness movement's leading spokesman, Steve Biko, and others had concluded by 1976 that the ANC [was] the leader of the [South African] revolution; that the Black People's Convention should concentrate on mass mobilisation; that the BPC should function within the context of the broad strategy of [the ANC];... 13

Arrangements for a meeting between Biko and the ANC leadership fell through when 'it proved impossible to bring [Biko] out of the country for the meeting'.14 Apparently reflecting the same tendency, black school student leaders, including a number of the pre-1976 South African Students Movement (Sasm) leadership, had joined the ANC in exile en bloc.15 Moreover, a series of trials involving young white intellectuals in late 1976 on charges of working for the ANC and SACP visibly challenged the view that whites were, as black consciousness suggested, definitionally 'part of the problem' of apartheid, personified 'the enemy', and would not join in a revolutionary challenge to apartheid. Indeed, Jeremy Cronin, one of the young whites arrested, believes that his unit's capture was, paradoxically, a 'victory':

[It] was important that we got caught... [I]t stood for something at a particular conjuncture, where [black consciousness] was rampant... [O]ne [SACP] comrade who I met again now in the underground...in Cape Town said to me: That trial was very important; we were picking up on the youth and channelling them out of the country for military training, and that was happening while your trial was happening...and we used the trial to say the enemy's a white system.16

It is doubtful, however, that clear political preferences determined the youths' choice of organisational home in exile.

A more important factor was the ANC external mission's superior organisation in adjacent states. Its exile networks had been much improved after Mozambican independence in April 1974. At this crucial moment, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) was riven by serious leadership disputes. The chief antagonists were its chairman, Potlako Leballo, its military chief, Templeton Ntantala, and another central committee member, Vus Make. It culminated in 1978-79 first in Ntantala's and then in Leballo's expulsion from the PAC, followed by the murder of another central committee member, David Sibeko.17 Moreover, black consciousness members who had gone into exile in neighbouring Botswana in the early 1970s and obtained military training via the PAC in Libya would not have recommended the experience to the new exiles.

At the same time, the organisational coherence of pre-1976 black consciousness exiles who had established an independent presence in neighbouring states was breaking down in 1976.18 Many decided to join the ANC after the uprisings.19 And the ANC continued its efforts to throttle international assistance to a 'third force' of the kind that the black consciousness movement had the potential to become.20

Inside South Africa, ANC organisation appears also to have been superior to the PAC's in 1976, notwithstanding the serious setbacks the ANC's underground had suffered. The relations which Joe Gqabi's Transvaal underground network established with the students leading the Soweto uprisings, recounted below, helped steer this generation towards the ANC. Moreover, a number of people were involved in ferrying youths specifically to ANC external mission networks in neighbouring states, as subsequent political trials evinced.21

The major factor explaining the attraction of the ANC for this new generation of exiles appears to have been the ANC's commitment to armed activity. This commitment had been most recently evident in police disclosures following Joseph Mdluli's death in detention and the trial of members of the Natal underground. Senior ANC officials believe most of the new exiles had no particular ideological loyalty - to black consciousness, the ANC or the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). They were 'up for grabs', according to Slovo.22 The ANC external mission could, credibly, offer them military training - moreover, it wanted to give them military training - and military training was what the newly-exiled generation wanted. Armed struggle was the ANC's 'trump card'.23

Within about a year of the 1976 uprisings, the numerical strength of Umkhonto we Sizwe increased dramatically, by a factor of at least three to about 3,000; the ANC by only slightly less. Equipped with a new generation of foot soldiers, the RC set about analysing the new possibilities created by the uprisings and by Mozambican and Angolan independence, which offered the possibility of operational bases in countries contiguous with or close to South Africa.24

The RC formulated its strategy in much the same general terms as the ANC had seven years earlier in its Strategy and Tactics document at the Morogoro conference. The RC reasoned that it had to proceed from two premises:

Firstly, we could expect no quick victories. Our planning had to be based on the assumption that the struggle would be difficult and protracted. Secondly, the type of people's war we waged would require a continuous combination of political action with armed action. In particular, the mobilisation of the workers and peasants was of fundamental importance.25

But, in the event, the ANC neither prepared itself for a protracted struggle nor seriously sought to combine political with military action over the next 28 months. Rather, the ANC's practice was to betray the existence of a different premise: injecting MK combatants across foreign borders would slowly weaken the South African state and, in some undefined way, of itself stimulate, organise and dovetail with popular resistance.26

The RC elaborated plans for both rural and urban MK infiltration. The ANC was, the RC considered, now 'in the early stages of people's war'. As such, the primary activity should be engaging, harassing and dispersing the enemy's armed and police forces, and hitting enemy installations (administrative, economic, military, communications, etc.) in order to reduce its will and capacity to pursue the struggle.27

But the RC equivocated over the main terrain for its military thrust: whether it should be in the rural areas, as argued at Morogoro in 1969, or in the urban areas. The uprisings had exposed the ANC's earlier disregard for the potential for urban guerilla warfare; it was now an 'urgent priority' to remedy this.28 According to Slovo,

a few, well-chosen sophisticated armed actions against the enemy's forces and other major targets during the Soweto events would, we considered, have been of obvious political importance for the people and for our movement.29

Whatever the terrain chosen, there was one central weakness: the ANC lacked an underground with which guerillas could link up. RC analysis blamed the failure of attempts to develop an MK guerilla presence in rural areas in the early 1970s on this factor. Guerillas' involved in those earlier missions had been instructed to integrate themselves under false identities with local folk and organise local MK networks. 'Scores' had been successfully returned into the country but hardly any had survived for more than a short period. They had soon been exposed to state networks of officials and informers.30 Now, in order to avoid early detection, the RC decided that MK cadres sent into the rural areas should henceforth avoid contact with local people in the early stages of their penetration. MK units 'should initially operate from effective hide-outs in mountains, forests, caves or in tunnels of the Vietnam type'. Initially, they should be supplied from exile. The RC envisaged that this pattern would eventually change: 'politico-military guerilla combat actions would win over the local populace and attract the best elements to join [the MK unit in the area]'.31 This thinking went well beyond acknowledging the likely inspirational effect of armed attacks; it appeared to assume that armed activity was itself capable of organising the political base on which the long-term success of sustained armed struggle depended.

The RC believed that MK's presence in the rural areas could grow to the point where the people's forces could look forward to achieving varying degrees of local and regional dominance, at which stage we might be able to talk of liberated zones of varying degrees of permanence.32

Moreover, rural guerilla action could 'be seen to be challenging the enemy for actual control of territory and, by clear implication, be seen to be engaged in a protracted struggle for people's power'.33

The urban vision was not much different. Here, the RC considered it was possible to 'aim at eventually transforming the [black] townships into [a] special sort of "no go" area for the enemy'. The local population would become MK combatants' '"mountain" and "jungle"' in which they could hide34. From those hideouts, urban combatants could then penetrate the surrounding 'white' areas where most state targets were situated.35 But, according to Slovo,

we were clear that serious planning for urban guerilla warfare on any major scale could not be undertaken by groups of MK cadres who were known to the authorities, either through their long absence from the country or through other means.36

Consequently, the RC resolved to develop properly the potential for MK 'auxiliary units', who would receive short military training courses in neighbouring countries and return to South Africa to live 'legally' and operate as part-time combatants.37

The RC reasoned that the state would have to employ restraint in counter-insurgency operations in black townships, so as not to endanger 'the allotted function of the township as a pool of labour power for the white metropolis'.38 Nonetheless, the RC estimated that it would have to undertake considerable political work in these townships to ensure residents defied the 'terror' the state would unleash in response to guerilla activity.39

The RC saw rural and urban guerilla activity as mutually re-enforcing. The two needed to be simultaneous in order to disperse security forces to the maximum so that the ANC could be seen by its potential constituency to be engaged in a 'protracted struggle for people's power' which was national in its dimensions.40 The strategic perspective developing was one of protracted people's war.

Others in the ANC believed the Soweto uprisings suggested a different strategic perspective. According to Pallo Jordan, then one of a small group of younger intellectuals in the external mission, the uprisings indicated a new and different revolutionary potential. Political general strikes in the 1960s had never carried the intensity and distribution now evident in 1976. Two worker stayaways in Soweto in August had demonstrated an altogether new potential for the political general strike. An insurgent spirit was abroad among ordinary people. A more urban-centric outlook seemed likely to be able to exploit this spirit than the doctrine of protracted people's war with its traditional rural bias. Some felt there needed to be a closer look at the work of revolutionary theorists like Carlos Marighella who had advanced an approach to urban insurrections, which included, in quasi-Bolshevik style, combining strikes and a wide range of other political actions by ordinary people closely with military activities.41 In short, Jordan and others began in late 1976 to 're-think the possibilities' for a revolutionary outcome in South Africa.42 Jordan recalls that some people began talking in terms of the possibilities of insurrection because one had had and seen a combination during 1976 of a number of tactics that are associated with insurrectionary situations: extensive street fighting for one thing, and times at which the regime lost control (very brief periods, of course) of townships. Then, apart from that, the sort of veld fire effect of the mass uprisings spreading from centre to centre to centre very rapidly in a matter of a few weeks, in some cases days. This was unlike anything one had seen in the past.43

The revision which Jordan and others were tentatively suggesting in the months after June 1976 had important implications for the ANC. The insurrectionary approach entailed a leadership with the ability to combine a variety of specialisations - from non-violent political work in popular organisations and trade unions to combat work. It was highly improbable that an exiled leadership could provide this level of tactical guidance.

This as-yet inchoate strategic perspective would, in the 1980s, crystallise into one side in a long and enervating dispute within the ANC. At times, the dispute seemed to divide the ANC along generational lines - with the older generation generally insisting (if not always verbally then certainly in practice) on a protracted people's war approach, while the younger insisted on an insurrectionary emphasis. In 1976, however, ANC strategic policy continued to be based on the doctrine of protracted people's war.

In the months after June 1976, the RC took a series of decisions on what structures and organisational principles should service its envisaged protracted people's war. But, before it had established the necessary structures,44 the RC hurriedly infiltrated a number of MK cadres whose brief was to mount immediate combat actions in addition to carrying out a range of other longer-term tasks. The first infiltrations had contradictory results: they were a considerable propaganda victory for the ANC but, in terms of increasing its organised internal presence, they proved a disaster.

The First Combat Actions

The first to break MK's 13-year silence in South Africa was a unit commanded by Naledi Tsiki, the young Soweto militant and MK recruiter of the mid-1970s. He had returned to Tanzania from training in the German Democratic Republic in May 1976. Neither Joe Modise nor Joe Slovo, the two key military figures on the RC, was expecting his group back so soon, so no plans had been made for their deployment. Initial discussions in Tanzania resulted in plans to locate the group in Botswana, from where they were to organise armed activity in the entire Transvaal.45 But, in the end, the group was sent via Mozambique to Swaziland from where Moses Mabhida, the RC secretary, told them they were to establish and oversee MK activity in both the Transvaal and Natal - a 'tall order', as Tsiki notes.46

Initially Modise and Slovo had insisted that Tsiki's unit should operate only in Swaziland, overseeing from there the setting up of MK structures inside South Africa, and later leave Swaziland to assist with political education in training camps,47 which were then being established in Angola to house the thousands of new recruits. But Tsiki and his unit argued they themselves had to be involved in actual combat, saying:

it would be improper for us to send people into the country to go and fight when we have got no combat experience ourselves... We should go into the country, have the experience, so that if and when we teach people about political education we are teaching them about something...we have experienced.48

The compromise was that they could enter the country, on authorisation, on specified missions. Their chance came in October 1976. Tsiki's unit entered the country twice, once to reconnoitre a section of railway line near Pietersburg and a second time to blow it up with plastic explosive.49 It was the first MK attack inside South Africa since the 1960s. Tsiki had returned to the country very nearly a year after leaving for what was supposed to be a three- to six-month course.

Inside the country, Tsiki's unit was serviced by members of Joe Gqabi's and Martin Ramokgadi's Transvaal 'machinery'50 (as a cell network came to be known in the ANC). Immediately after this first operation, the Gqabi-Ramokgadi machinery helped them stay briefly in Alexandra township, Johannesburg, before returning to Swaziland. Tsiki's unit concluded they could survive based inside South Africa itself. Back in Swaziland they pressured Mabhida into allowing them to establish themselves in Alexandra.51

After making arrangements in Swaziland that they would be joined later by reinforcements, who were to include Mosima Sexwale, Tsiki's unit established itself in Alexandra with assistance from the Gqabi-Ramokgadi machinery. But, no sooner had they settled there than a dispute developed over who should decide what the MK unit did, how and when. Should it be the MK unit itself or the Gqabi-Ramokgadi political machinery? Tsiki recalls that Gqabi and Ramokgadi argued that

All military units must be under political direction... [T]hey had the political machinery and therefore they needed to be in charge of this unit and tell us what operations to perform, when and how.

So we said: No, there is the ANC political structure; there is the military structure; we have come here under instructions from a military structure which takes its orders from the political structure; but at the level of operations we cannot be told that we must actually get mixed up with the political structure; it would not be proper. But, in terms of having to obey political orders, we have to; but those orders will be conveyed to us by our military commanders.52

MK's very first armed attacks in its resumption of military activities had raised an issue that would haunt it henceforth. The two sides decided to take the matter to adjudication by the external mission.53 Its response would come rather too late.

Meanwhile, the unit set about its work as it saw fit, with continued cooperation from the Gqabi-Ramokgadi machinery. The unit quickly established contact with members of the Soweto Students Representative Council which, to the extent that any group was able to, exercised some measure of influence over the continuing unrest around Johannesburg townships. Tsiki's unit provided rudimentary political and military instruction to SSRC members Billy Masethla, Super Moloi, Murphy Morobe, Titi Mthenjane as well as Khotso Seathlolo, who served briefly as SSRC president and whose uncle, Jacob Seathlolo, was part of Ramokgadi's machinery.54 Through Mthenjane and others, the unit also had contact with Paul Langa, head of the SSRC's Soweto Suicide Squad,55 which carried out a number of attacks, among others on a Soweto nightclub,56 Langa was convicted for an attack on Jabulani police station in Soweto on October 24. Security police themselves blamed the ANC for this attack,57 and a member of Tsiki's unit, Charles Ramusi, claimed it for the ANC on a visit to Swaziland in December 1976.58 Through Ramokgadi's links into Sekhukuniland, which centred on another former ANC political prisoner, Petros Nchabaleng, the group also provided training to a handful of youths there.59 Tsiki estimates his unit trained about 20 people in all.60

Sexwale, in the first of two attempts to enter the country to take over command of Tsiki's unit, clashed with police on the Swaziland border on November 30 1976 and seriously wounded two constables when he threw a grenade at them,61 so spilling the first blood in MK's resumption of armed activity. On his second entry, Sexwale took over command of the unit, then based mainly in Alexandra, on December 6.62

The unit operated in a hurry63 to achieve a near-impossible list of tasks: ranging from the short term, like immediate combat and the training of militant youths, to the long-term, such as establishing MK machineries in both the Transvaal and Natal. They travelled persistently, conducting a blizzard of meetings. The unit - behaving entirely in accordance with the overriding operational importance given on the RC to military matters and imperatives - felt unable to accept the political command of an in-place underground political structure which was familiar with local conditions, led by two men of considerable experience, Gqabi and Ramokgadi, and which would probably have demanded more moderate behaviour of it.

When the end came for the unit on December 30 1976, the entire Gqabi-Ramokgadi machinery was also destroyed. At the end of a trial lasting nearly a year, Sexwale, Tsiki, Ramokgadi, Jacob Seathlolo and two others were imprisoned; Gqabi had to leave for exile after his surprising acquittal; and scores of other members and contacts of the group were exposed.64 In Tsiki's words, what was left of the machinery in Transvaal was:

nothing...worth speaking of. There were some people who didn't go to jail. I remember two people - one a trade unionist65 and another one an intellectual person - they remained in Alexandra. The rest had to run.66

The external mission's adjudication on whether the unit should accept the Gqabi-Ramokgadi machinery's command came only once they were in custody on trial.67 Apparently because of Gqabi's military record dating back to the 1960s, the unit should have accepted him command. The decision was an irrelevance - not only because the MK unit had now been picked up, but because, now that the Gqabi-Ramokgadi machinery's destruction, 'there was no question of control from inside the country' anymore.68 There was no longer any capacity for underground political leadership in the Transvaal - or anywhere else in the country for that matter.

Precipitate and ill-designed military action, decided upon and prioritised by an external leadership with little sense of its practical difficulties, and mounted with courage and keenness by a group of young MK combatants, had propagandised the ANC's name and advertised its will to fight but destroyed a significant segment of the ANC's organised domestic presence - the very basis on which the ANC had to depend if it was to develop a sustained armed struggle.

As awaiting trial prisoners, the MK combatants, Gqabi and Ramokgadi wrote a document outlining how they saw the lessons of their experience. They argued that, without a well-developed underground and organised domestic political base armed activity should not be commenced. Gqabi would take the document with him into exile.69

A similar armed venture in the months after the Soweto uprisings had a similarly devastating effect on the residue of the Natal underground, which had still not recovered from huge losses in December 1975. Judson Khuzwayo, Shadrack Maphumulo and Petros Nyawose (alias Nzima) were among the more prominent and experienced survivors of the 'smashed' network.70 They had re-established contact with the external mission in Swaziland.71 They had also linked up in Natal with Mac Maharaj, who had been a leading member of ANC's underground command in the months following the Rivonia arrests in 1963 and had been released from Robben Island shortly after the June uprisings.72 The survivors had developed a 'well-oiled' though small structure by the time they spirited Maharaj out of the country in early 1977.73

Maphumulo became the major link man between the regrouping Natal underground and the ANC in Swaziland.74 He was told on his first visit to Swaziland that

I was to create MK...cells within the country, recruit cadres willing to undergo military training abroad and create suitable conditions for survival for trained cadres returning to the country from abroad.75

Maphumulo himself had been jailed for MK activities in the early 1960s and must therefore have been a prime target for security police surveillance.

Maphumulo and others leased a small farm to be used 'as a place for cadres hiding from the system, or...as a training base for crash courses in urban and rural guerilla warfare'.76 He also bought three vehicles for MK cells. In about June 1977, the group tried to take advantage of the glut of traffic to a royal wedding in Swaziland to smuggle a large quantity of weaponry back into South Africa. But their loaded van encountered an army roadblock, tried to evade it, overturned, and two of the occupants were arrested.77 A good portion of the newly renascent Natal underground was again in panic.78 The ANC in Swaziland was 'frantic'.79 Maphumulo was told to leave the country, and instructed to ensure that Khuzwayo and two others did the same.80 Maphumulo did not, however, leave in time and he and a number of others were detained and thus exposed (Maphumulo himself was not brought to trial), and Khuzwayo and several others fled into exile.81

Precipitate armed activity had led again to the destruction of an important segment of the ANC's underground in Natal. It had been well-placed, if given time, to build a significant organised ANC presence.

ANC Operational Structures after the Soweto Uprising

In the 1976-78 period, the RC continued to pay lip service to the need for ANC political work by political means inside South Africa. But its behaviour indicated it believed that non-violent political work inside South Africa had little to contribute towards organising support among the ANC's potential constituency for armed activity. The underlying premise, sometimes contradicted verbally,82 though starkly evident in practice, was that armed activity could deliver all - whether it was an organised political base or ultimate revolutionary victory. These elements of actual ANC strategic policy after the June uprisings obtrude through both the design and workings of new operational structures that were brought into operation in late 1976 and early 1977.

The RC took a series of decisions on what structures and organisational principles should service it through 'the early stages of people's war'.83 The new structures and principles were intended to avoid a repeat of the destruction of the Transvaal and Natal undergrounds. Yet they reproduced a number of the old problems and introduced a few new difficulties. To show how they did so it is necessary first to examine how the new structures were supposed to operate in the ideal.

The RC accepted that it had to improve its own hitherto lackadaisical operation. It accepted that it had to increase its internal coordination and monitoring of its decisions. There had also to be an end to demands on its members to perform other administrative or diplomatic tasks; members had to be free to give their full attention to operational work.84

Shortly before the 1976 uprisings, the RC had decided to revamp its military administration which also served as an operations and planning department. Implementation of this decision began in the following months.85 The overhauled military operations section became known as central operational headquarters (COH).86 Joe Modise, who had headed its precursor, became its commander; Slovo was his deputy.87 Formally, COH did not constitute a 'high command' or military headquarters. It did not have overall command and control over MK; full command over MK still resided in the RC as a whole.

At the same time, the RC said that its propaganda and political work inside the country had to be improved drastically.88 Accordingly, it ended the amorphous arrangement under which the entire RC had in the past been responsible for doing non-violent political work inside South Africa. At the end of 1977, it created a specialised committee for political work, known as the internal reconstruction and development department (IRD).89 It gave the chairmanship to John Motshabi,90 a member of the National Executive Committee (NEC).

The design of subsidiary implementation structures ensured that political and military operational personnel operated completely separately from, and in parallel to, one another.91 On the military side, COH set up subsidiary regional military 'machineries' in the independent African states immediately adjacent to South Africa - 'forward areas' in ANC parlance - Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland.92 Each COH forward area machinery tended to oversee armed activity within the adjoining region of South Africa,93 so that Botswana was responsible for the western Transvaal and northern Cape, while Swaziland oversaw the eastern Transvaal and Natal.

On the political side, IRD's structures operated in similarly separate fashion. To the limited extent that IRD operated coherently before 1978, it had its own lines to the forward areas and into South Africa. There was no provision at all for liaison or coordination between COH and IRD machineries at forward area level.94 let alone inside South Africa. What formal coordination there was of political and military activities could occur only at the top; that is, on the RC itself.

In the year after the uprisings, COH developed operational rules for MK units infiltrated into the country. They were intended to avoid a repeat of the disasters visited upon the Natal and Transvaal undergrounds. They certainly appeared capable of doing that - not that there was any underground left to protect. They had unintended consequences, however, major among them being that they made it night impossible to rebuild an underground. On the face of it, the rules merely reflected standard requirements of clandestinity. They were based on the assumption that, upon capture, every person would be forced to divulge everything he or she knew. The principle of 'vertical communication' applied: a combat group operating inside South Africa could be commanded by, and could communicate with, only the regional COH machinery in the forward area under which it fell; the forward area machinery alone could take the decision to put two combat groups inside South Africa in touch with each other. Second, the forward area machinery was responsible for supplying each combat unit inside South Africa with its finances and arms. Third, communication was to be kept to a minimum; couriers would be provided by the forward area machinery; and, if personal communication was necessary, it was to be achieved through a member of the combat unit leaving South Africa to visit the forward area machinery, not the other way around. Fourth, each combat unit was itself responsible for creating the conditions for its own survival inside the country and depots for the storage of their arms. Fifth, the combat unit itself had to reconnoitre suitable targets, and plan and execute attacks.95

Target designation was up to a combat unit, but COH laid down certain priorities:

railway networks, though avoiding civilian casualties; oil, petrol and power installations; established informers; and police and other enemy personnel and installations. We also specified that combat groups would from time to time need to decide to undertake actions against targets with special local or national significance, such as supporting mass political actions, hitting enemy personnel during any Soweto-type upsurge, or dealing with particularly hated officials. The general guideline was that any action undertaken had to have an ideological content...it had to be consistent with our political aims and should be clearly an attack against the ruling class, its property and personnel.96

Combat units had also to be influenced in their selection of targets 'by the fundamental principle of [the ANC] that [the] fight was not a racial one but one for national liberation'.97 In other words, whites should not be attacked merely because they were whites. Moreover, combat units were to undertake operations only if they were satisfied they had a safe escape route to their base. The frequency with which a combat unit mounted attacks was its decision, but COH cautioned them against being over-ambitious.

Finally, combat units were to remain completely separate from any domestic ANC or SACP networks which included cadres known to government security forces, 'except where the cadre known to the enemy was completely underground or could not possibly deduce the whereabouts or identity of the combat group'.98 This last stipulation was an attempt to avoid the string of disasters that had resulted from involving well-known activists and ex-Robben Island prisoners in illegal and military work.99 The RC felt it had to assume that 'all known leaders and activists who were leading normal lives were under perpetual surveillance by the Special Branch [security police]'.100 It was an accurate assumption, according to then-major Herman Stadler of the security police.101 But all this caution, much of it justified, left the ANC without any strategy to build a domestic political base capable of integrating an armed presence or sustaining armed struggle in the medium to long term.

Post-1976 Strategy and Structures at Work

The RC's resolution in 1976 to improve its own performance continued to be hampered by frequent absenteeism.102 The RC's long-standing prioritisation of military work continued. Past ANC strategy had conceived of political work as satisfying overriding military imperatives, and this continued.

In practice, COH controlled MK. In coming years, at any one time, MK had about six camps operating in Angola and used about nine locations in all until 1989.103 It established MK training camps in newly independent Angola initially at Fundo and Nova Katenga and later also at Viana, Quibaxe, Pango and Quatro.104

It is difficult in this as well as in subsequent periods to develop a full and clear picture of MK activity. Available statistics either come from South African security forces or rely on information gleaned from trials conducted under security laws. The ANC has not released comprehensive statistics of its own, and the indications are that it never consistently kept any reliable statistics of MK's actions.105 Fortunately, however, the best available independent statistics correlate largely with those made public by the South African Police. According to Stadler of the security police, the PAC managed 'not more than 10' attacks over the 1976-90 period;106 the PAC is, consequently, only a minor statistical complication.

Under its new operational structures, MK attacks into South Africa gradually gathered pace from October 1976. It mounted two modest pre-planned attacks in 1976, both associated with Tsiki's unit, one rural and one urban.107 The next year there were 20 incidents involving MK,108 three of which appear to have been battles which guerillas had not themselves sought.109 Fifteen of these incidents occurred in the latter half of the year,110 indicating that infiltration of cadres was increased as the first of the 1976 generation completed their training. And all but two of the 1977 incidents occurred in urban areas.111 And there were 13 MK attacks in 1978.

The cost to MK of the reintroduction of armed activity proved high. COH believed that news of some MK incidents was being suppressed by the state. The Minister of Police appeared to concede this in February 1978 when he said that a number of clashes between ANC guerillas and security forces had remained unpublicised.112 But Stadler insists that all guerilla incidents are reflected in his statistics,113 kept during his career in the security police, which included his posting as head of the security police intelligence department. Whatever doubts there are about the final accuracy of the statistics,114 it is reasonable to conclude that, in the 1976-1978 period, between two and three guerillas were captured or killed for every three attacks.115

By mid-1978, according to COH, a 'good proportion' of new recruits from the 1976 exodus of militant black youths who had already completed their guerilla training had been deployed.116 The low intensity of MK activities in 1976 and 1977, delays caused by the need to set up camps in Angola and elsewhere before training could commence, and other problems of exile, suggest that the 'good proportion' referred to probably embraced no more than about 100 to 200 trained personnel out of the 3,000-odd who had joined the external mission since June 1976. A few of the 100 to 200 would have been in combat groups inside South Africa. Other deployments would have been in service functions - reconnaissance or ordinance work inside or outside the country and in various other COH sub-departments in the forward areas.117 Some of these newly-trained recruits were, much to the satisfaction of COH command, already 'beginning to show a capacity to discharge leadership and command duties'.118

RC members felt in mid-1978 that 'the flow of combat actions had significantly raised the prestige and following of the ANC both inside and outside the country'.119 A number of leading anti-apartheid activists, some of whom had their political origins within the black consciousness movement testify to this.120 This had been one purpose of renewed armed activity: to spread the ANC's name, to 'raise and sustain the level of morale and militancy among the masses inside the country' as well as to maintain 'the battle-readiness and level of morale of [the ANC's] own cadres'.121

But the weakness of MK activity was apparent to some RC members who felt they had to 'find a way of overcoming both objective obstacles and obstacles which we ourselves had created by a bad style of work'.122 By mid-1978, some major urban areas still had no MK combat presence.123

RC practice in 1977 and 1978 reveals it attached little importance to IRD's domestic political reconstruction work. This work was important to most RC members only to the extent that it facilitated military work - because it was a 'precondition for the long-term success of armed struggle'.124

IRD was inappropriately staffed to carry out its tasks and starved of resources. Military considerations still predominated on the RC when IRD commenced work in late 1977. Whereas several emergent military sub-departments were bunched around COH, IRD was alone in being concerned with political work.125 The choice of Motshabi as chairman of IRD was disastrous for IRD. He had a reputation for tribalism and incompetence. Politically he was no match for the military chiefs, Modise and Slovo.126 IRD's other members also lacked the organisational influence of their RC military counterparts.127 Moreover, Motshabi carved out a peculiar position for the IRD: he claimed IRD was answerable to the NEC when it suited his purposes of evasion and, at other times, that it was answerable to the RC.128

Financial and other resources earmarked for operational work were channelled mainly into military tasks and training. The great majority of the ANC's new recruits from the 1976 generation had wanted to go into MK, and that was where they had been sent.129 Those of the 1976 generation who did display political maturity and aptitude also ended up in MK. Attempts to transfer some promising cadres from military to political work could involve 'tortuous' difficulties.130 IRD also suffered a paralysing shortage of resources and personnel. The result was a remarkable failure: between the 1976 uprisings and mid-1978, while COH was regularly putting MK members over the border, IRD did not infiltrate a single trained cadre into South Africa specifically to do political work.131

From early 1978, this imbalance was very gradually moderated through a series of bitter disputes. The appointment as IRD secretary of Mac Maharaj, newly arrived in exile, was a major factor in this. A combative and innovative personality, Maharaj soon became a major antagonist in chronic battles over strategy waged on the RC from early 1978. Their root cause was the RC's prioritisation of armed activity. Maharaj argued that internal political reconstruction work had to be given priority to secure any kind of progress, military or political.132

When Maharaj became IRD secretary in 1978, he called for the department's file of operational reports from inside the country. The file comprised two covers; inside, it was completely empty.133 IRD had to start, as if for the first time, with the most basic political spadework. At that stage the size of the formal domestic political underground in 1976 numbered less than 50 units 134 - and quite probably only a fraction of that. Maharaj recalls reasoning with himself about just how basic its work would have to be:

For the first phase, we will not touch the known [people]; we will have to get to another layer that the enemy does not know. That must be the thing. And therefore we need to compartmentalise ...internal work. We need what I called 'functional units' - propaganda, etc. - completely cut off from each other, not in any relationship with each other on the ground. I saw, to be quite frank, propaganda as a detonator... I saw propaganda distribution as enabling [us] to go into the community and probe and listen [to] who was impressed by it and how they were reacting to it - to guide [us] to who we could consider for cultivating, to recruit.135

Apart from propaganda units, IRD decided on other specialisations for these 'functional units': dealing with border crossings, internal reception, trade unions and 'mass work' in emergent popular organisations.136

Another Strategic Impasse

IRD's attempts to develop a working perspective for political reconstruction were repeatedly frustrated on the RC during 1978 in the course of disputes which saw COH chafing in a strategic vice essentially of its own making.137 The disputes centred on the absence of an organised ANC political base inside South Africa. This absence, COH argued, was the main reason it could not develop armed activity beyond sporadic cross-border incursions. Maharaj agreed that there was no organised political base. But that was as far as agreement went. The antagonists were divided on how to build that political base, what proportion of ANC resources should be assigned to doing so, and whether or not the purpose of that base would be solely to service armed struggle.

In mid-1978 COH officials opined that casualties in confrontations with South African state security forces 'represented a small proportion of those on active service'.138 The casualty rate was, however, evidently high in relation to the number of often modest armed incidents MK mounted. Moreover, COH's successes were, some two years after resuming armed activity, being scored mainly through short-term cross-border incursions by MK units into urban areas. Attempts to achieve longer-term penetration by guerillas and to settle them inside the country, particularly in the rural areas, developing a classic guerilla war in the process, were proving notably unsuccessful.139

Problems of guerilla settlement were mitigated to some degree by the RC's improved ability to provide false documentation to infiltrating units.140 Some regional COH machineries had also improved their capacity to provide short-term military training, but still very few recruits were being given crash courses in neighbouring states and being returned to South Africa as 'legal' MK auxiliaries. These limited improvements could not substitute for the serious lack of reception and settlement networks inside the country for returning MK combatants. Correcting these internal inadequacies was all the more urgent given that COH had long recognised that a huge practical obstacle to its envisaged protracted people's war was its 'lack of sufficient facilities in adjacent territories'.141

In Mozambique, the ANC's main operational bridgehead, ANC political and military units had a relatively free hand. The ANC had an understanding with the Frelimo government under which it was free to conduct military operations into South Africa provided it did so indirectly via Swaziland and not directly across Mozambique's borders.142 There had been 'some innovation' to overcome stringent constraints on ANC military activities imposed by other forward area governments143 - Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. This had involved mainly the use of underground methods of operation by some ANC and all MK cadres in these forward areas.144 But COH activities were concentrated in Mozambique, where Slovo was based, which simplified considerably the South Africa security services' surveillance tasks. And these 'innovations' did not offer a solution to the ANC's operational difficulties, which required an ANC organisational capacity inside South Africa - as Slovo himself was arguing.145

Again and again, the explanation for the weaknesses of the COH's armed activity returned to the lack of an organised political base inside South Africa. The irony in this was that COH, which had prioritised armed activity, given itself a virtual monopoly of operational resources and undermined IRD's attempts to build a domestic base, now criticised IRD most vigorously for its failure to provide such a base. Moreover, COH had largely been responsible for structures which ensured there was a complete dislocation between political and military operational structures, the better ostensibly to be able to conduct military activities. The effect of these structures was to render impossible any political-military symbiosis, and hence redress of military a-symmetry between the South African state and the ANC, even if IRD were to have succeeded in building a political base on its own.


The ANC's 13 years of near irrelevance to South African domestic developments ended after the uprisings in Soweto and elsewhere in June 1976. By October 1978, the ANC had re-registered as a quite significant actor in South Africa. The major means by which it had achieved this relevance was sporadic armed activity inside South Africa from October 1976. This military activity exercised a powerful attraction on the ANC's potential constituency. In this way, armed activity appeared to create fertile conditions in which the ANC could develop an extensive domestic political presence. Yet, while ANC popularity increased, it failed to engage in the political work necessary to develop such an organised internal political base.

An upsurge of political conflict within South Africa had led to a demand from within for military training and a concern by the ANC to embark upon military action. The ANC conceived of this early armed activity as the opening phase of a 'people's war' for the seizure of state power, but an important subsidiary purpose of it was to establish the ANC's political credentials. As in the two years before 1976, so in the two subsequent years, the ANC's response to a political upsurge was to give priority to armed struggle and the recruitment of cadres for military training, rather than building up internal political organisation and pursuing political rather than military strategies.

To the extent that ANC saw (non-violent) political work as having any importance, the ANC continued to conceive of it in much the same way as it had in the 1960s: as stimulated by, or as separate from, or as subject to the imperatives of, or as of less importance than, armed activity. The ANC's failure to act upon the theoretical importance it sometimes attached to domestic political work severely curtailed its progress. Not only did it undermine the ANC's pretensions to national political leadership in South Africa; it also undermined the efforts of the ANC's military leaders, whose ability to develop a sustained armed capacity inside the country depended upon an organised political base.

By late 1978, some ANC strategists had begun to see that they were imprisoning themselves in another impasse. The paradox was that the ANC's very emphasis on armed activity was harming its ability to develop a sustained armed struggle. How the ANC tried to unravel this paradox is the subject of the next chapter.

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.