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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.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 Six: Towards A Broad Front

And Other Desirable Accidents, January 1981 - January 1983

. [B]y sheer accident, despite the [ANC] military's wishes, for the first time, military work was a complement to political work... [V]isibly through the media, the matter became presented as a unified thing: that military action was complementing political action, and political action facilitating military action.

Mac Maharaj.1


The two rationalisations central to ANC strategy, armed propaganda and the boycott of state-approved institutions, would serve the ANC well over the next two years. The former would continue to give it considerable political authority, while the latter would become the main criterion for the building of a popular political alliance in the legal and semi-legal spheres. There would, however, be no improvement in the ANC's ability to coordinate the political and military sides of its operations. Political mobilisation over this period would gradually achieve its own separate dynamic and, almost imperceptibly, perhaps a greater significance than the armed activity it was supposed to service.

The Anti-Republic Campaign

In early 1981, the South African government announced a month of festivities to culminate on May 31 in a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the declaration of a republic. Some on the Revolutionary Council (RC) saw an opportunity. The advance notice of the festivities - 'a critical blunder' by the state, in Maharaj's view2 - gave the ANC time to organise a counter-campaign. The state's scheduling the celebrations to last a month only compounded the error of the early announcement.3 The ANC could now 'take every little pocket of activity' which it and its allies had developed inside South Africa 'and give it a sense of belonging to something central'.4

More than 50 organisations - including churches, universities, political and student organisations - committed themselves to boycotting the celebrations.5 In exile, the separate political and military structures of the RC - internal reconstruction and development department (IRD), central operations headquarters (COH) and the special operations unit (SOU) - planned their campaigns.

The result was the ANC's most successful year inside South Africa since the Rivonia setback in 1963. MK mounted more than twice the number of attacks in any year since 1976. It was responsible for most, if not all, of 55 attacks in 1981.6 Ten of these were mounted in May, as the state-sponsored celebrations neared their climax.7

The year also saw MK end its unofficial moratorium on attacks against the bantustans. MK combatants in East London mounted three attacks on Ciskei bantustan security forces living in the township of Mdantsane;8 in Venda in October, they destroyed a police station at Sibasa, killing two constables; and, at Schoemansdal, in the KaNgwane homeland in November, guerillas attacked a small South African Defence Force barrack house with RPG rockets, grenades and rifles.

For the first time since 1976, the number of attacks (55) clearly exceeded the number of MK combatants arrested or killed by police (21).9 At least eight incidents involved the use of limpet mines, introduced the previous year; one involved RPG launchers; and one, an attack on the town of Voortrekkerhoogte outside Pretoria, the use of a 122mm rocket launcher, the largest piece of insurgent weaponry yet detected in South Africa.

On January 30 1981, however, South African security forces exacted a heavy blow. In an attack on the headquarters in Matola, Mozambique, of SOU and the Natal machinery of MK, they killed, among others, Slovo's right hand man in SOU, Obadi Mokgabudi, and the commander of MK in Natal, Mduduzi Guma.

For Maharaj, the success of the Anti-Republic Campaign lay in how,

[b]y sheer accident, despite the [ANC] military's wishes, for the first time, military work was a complement to political work... [V]isibly through the media, the matter became presented as a unified thing: that military action was complementing political action, and political action facilitating military action.10

The campaign evinced, for Maharaj, how much could be achieved with a modicum of political-military coordination. Progress could be accelerated, he argued, if political-military integration was achieved in operational structures. But the MK command believed that the success of the anti-Republic campaign vindicated the status quo in operational structures.11

First Call for a United Front

The alliance-building that occurred during the Anti-Republic campaign convinced some in the political underground that new conditions were developing, creating new possibilities. In May 198112, the young ANC-aligned Soweto activist, Popo Molefe, called in a speech to the national conference of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) for 'a united front'. He said:

The broad front envisaged here is the major challenge of the day and can be pursued in the following manner: By formulating initially an ad hoc committee consisting of all social, political, religious and cultural organisations from all sections of the oppressed masses. It must be noted that we are talking of political bodies, sports bodies, churches, teachers organisations, workers, nurses associations, etc. We mention the following few organisations as an example: Azapo, Azaso, The Committee of Ten and the [Soweto Civic Association], [Media Workers' Association of South Africa], [Teachers' Action Committee]... The purpose of the ad hoc committee would be to consult in order to formulate similar stances on national issues like commemoration, boycotts, etc...13

Molefe now discloses that behind his call lay much clandestine discussion. There had been an ongoing debate in the ANC underground about the possibility of building a front. He and others believed that the ANC needed to draw a wide range of non-members into the struggle against apartheid, and a front might provide the best way of doing so.14 Moreover, says Molefe, ANC external mission officials, who included Maharaj15, had also been involved in the discussions which dated back to about 197816 - the year before the strategic review reported. Participants found there was broad agreement on the need for a front; but at no stage on this (or on any other) issue did the external mission issue an instruction to underground members.17

Molefe says that, when he called for a united front in May 1981, he had not been briefed on the 1978-79 strategic review - although he cannot discount the possibility that ANC external mission personnel 'might have used the contents of that document without expressly stating so'.18 In the event, Molefe's call in May 1981 for the formation of the broad united front in South Africa came to nought.

The Programme for Area Political Committees

Some in the external mission were also seized with exploiting the new conditions they saw opening up.19 In September 1981, a few months after the end of the anti-Republic campaign, the Revolutionary Council held an extended meeting20 to consider the way forward.21 The major problems remained the fractured character of the ANC domestic presence and the absence of internal underground leadership.22

The meeting suggested a remarkable remedy for these problems, which promised complete victory for the 'integrationists'. It recommended that the RC develop in each area of South Africa an underground leadership, or area political committee (APC), controlling all operational specialisations locally including military activity (see Figure 4 overleaf).23 Other specialisations under each APC's control would include intelligence and security, labour, logistics, mass mobilisation and propaganda.24 The area to be covered by each APC would be determined by 'political cohesiveness'.25 Each APC would reflect the overall leadership of a political structure.26 Military membership of an APC would probably be restricted to the political commissar of an MK group in an area.27 The remarkable aspect was that the MK command accepted it, so conceding that military units in the field could be controlled by domestic political structures.28 It is not clear if the military realised what it had done at this stage.

To ensure the APC programme worked, the RC decided that 'senior members' of the external mission should be sent into the country for short periods to help build these new organs.29 It believed the conditions now existed in which this could be done.30 Moreover, past failures meant the direct involvement of senior leadership necessary. Young political organisers and military commanders sent into the country to build underground structures in the past had usually lacked the authority maturity for the task.31 A number of people on the RC were moving towards the opinion that building the underground required 'top-down' building32 - first building a central command structure staffed by heavyweights and then recruiting for and setting up subsidiary structures.

The ANC's unusual generational profile greatly complicated its attempts to build an internal underground. The ANC was short of middle-level cadres of personal and political maturity. The reason was that the ANC lacked a 'middle generation'. Between 1965 and 1974, the external mission had received very few recruits, while inside South Africa the ANC's minuscule presence had not developed a new generation of militants. There had been some 200-odd recruits to the ANC between 1974 and June 1976. But the vast majority of ANC members - and even a greater proportion of ANC members involved on the operational side - were teenagers and individuals in their early 20s who joined after the 1976 Soweto Uprising. They were, in 1981, still young and inexperienced.33 Hence, to engage in top-down building seemed to imply sending in very senior leadership from the 1960s generation to build the APCs.. The RC did not define what it meant by 'senior' - it did not necessarily mean members of the RC or NEC but it did not exclude them.34

The 'APC document', as the record of this meeting became known, was a flexible guideline which ran to a mere three-quarters of a page. It had been painstakingly debated phrase by phrase before the extended RC meeting eventually adopted it35 after about a week of discussion.36 The RC also decided there would be a review of progress in implementing it one year later, in September 1982.37

In Maharaj's view, the document was based on the recognition that in some areas [of South Africa] we had a viable underground and military presence: these had to be the building blocks. But, in other areas...we had no infrastructure, and yet we had to move. So it accepted that there should be no common blueprint. What was important...[was] that the APC should constitute a leadership which truly emerged outside and inside. Because the Anti-Republic campaign had indicated a viable underground leadership that had grown up, with all its blinkers, and outside a leadership with its own blinkers. And that, if we merged the two, we would have something...of quality. It would be a problem to get this merged body really learning to work together as an integrated and unified body, as a collective. Hence also the need for senior people who would bring the stamp of authority of [the ANC].38

The APC document, in Maharaj's view, took the ANC's thinking 'well beyond' the terms of the 1978-79 strategic review to 'grapple with the actualities'.39

External Strategic Debates, September 1981 - September 1982

A successful boycott of elections for the South African Indian Council (SAIC),40 when these elections eventually came in November 1981, represented a serious reversal for Prime Minister P W Botha and a considerable advance for the ANC. The president's attempts to draw sections of the Indian population into alignment with government policy lay in tatters. For the ANC the coalition-building approach of the Anti-Republic campaign had been greatly advanced. Moreover, public projection of the Freedom Charter had been a major tactic of the campaign.41 A national anti-SAIC conference in Durban shortly before the elections had attracted 109 organisations (of vastly different sizes and significance) which had declared their sympathy with the Freedom Charter and their intention to boycott any institutions and constitutional arrangement which did not arise out of national negotiations involving all interested parties (by implication, including the ANC).

Via the Gordhan unit and other individual linkages into the Natal Indian Congress and other allied organisations, the ANC exercised a significant degree of influence in this campaign. An important young Anti-SAIC activist, Ismail Momoniat, who was not himself a member of formal ANC underground structures, recalls the form of contact with the ANC external mission during the campaign:

[O]ur attitude was that we didn't need to have formal contacts in the sense where you would be a member. But clearly there were links with the movement. And one knew that; and we would get feedback. So, say we would have a grouping of a few people, we would meet, we would discuss things. If we felt there was a need to, we would send things out...we would then decide to approach one or two individuals... I think it was a very slow form of contact; it wasn't very reliable. Now and again we would get answers... And I must say, to the credit of the [ANC]...we never got the advice: "Do one, two three". Rather, it was: they would leave it to us to decide... Maybe offer their own advice and so on, but ask us to decide finally.42

A handful of MK attacks in the run-up to the SAIC elections, which included the bombing of the Durban offices of the Department of Indian Affairs on November 3, suggested the link between political and military forms of struggle which the ANC wished to convey. But the political-military symbiosis of the Anti-Republic campaign was not repeated.

The Anti-SAIC campaign also highlighted at least one serious political lacuna. It showed that ANC-aligned popular organisation among Africans remained weak.43 Maharaj and others believed the formation of civic organisations in African townships might remedy this. But the process needed to be accelerated. With this in mind, the RC decided it to encourage the setting up of a national civics association which might stimulate the development of local civics.44

In exile, a variety of factors were bedeviling establishment of APCs. Firstly, separate political and military lines of command continued to run into South Africa from the forward areas, which militated against the development inside the country of a single integrated underground structure.45 Secondly, a range of squabbles and conflicts between various external mission operational structures created havoc. One was a continuation of the earlier row between Maharaj and the political committee of the Mozambique-Swaziland senior organ, whose most forceful members were Zuma and Kasrils.46 Moreover, senior organs in various forward areas demanded 'a free hand' and independence of headquarters in Lusaka in implementing the APC concept, whereas IRD felt equally strongly that it should be involved.47 And thirdly, the MK leadership apparently belatedly realised that they had conceded operational leadership inside South Africa to political structures, began to stonewall on implementation of the APC concept,48 and persisted in mounting its attacks as before.49 To Maharaj's mind this meant that the military comrades, if they did appreciate the significance of it, still clung to the belief that the job of the political, and even of [the] leadership [of an APC], would be merely to facilitate [the] military.50

Meanwhile, MK's plans to mount a rural guerilla campaign in the northern Transvaal was making no progress. Critics maintained it was because MK's commander, Joe Modise, and other MK commanders were too impatient to begin military activities. Garth Strachan, Maharaj's personal assistant and later a senior official in operational structures in Zimbabwe, argues:

[The MK command] didn't have any understanding of the mechanisms and processes of establishing a political underground first and foremost to create the conditions for military work. So...what tended to happen was that people were sent in with political-military tasks and, unless they took initiatives themselves (as happened in Moutse),51 they very often quickly carried out military operations, or didn't spend enough time establishing themselves really well on the terrain before carrying out military operations. They also carried out military actions very close to their bases, which meant the enemy was able to locate and surround them very quickly. That is, they didn't have transport...so that they couldn't, for example, base themselves in Alldays and carry out an operation 100km away... The other problem...is that the lines of communication and supply were never worked out. So...supply and communication broke down. They therefore had this kind of imperative to carry out actions and then retreat, because they had problems of communication and supply. So that was a very serious problem - not to speak of the enemy's capacities, defence networks, etc.52

MK's plans to extend its armed activity from Zimbabwe received an unexpected setback in February 1982 when the Zimbabwe government used the discovery of huge arms caches on farms belonging to Zapu crack down on the ANC's old ally. MK cadres, who enjoyed close relations with former fighters in Zipra,53 were also rounded up, a number were jailed briefly, and some were tortured. ANC weaponry in Zimbabwe was among that seized.54 Tight restrictions were placed on the ANC in Zimbabwe.55 It was not allowed to set up even 'minimal bases' for the transit of men and materiel from Zambia.56 MK's infrastructure in Zimbabwe was neutralised.

MK's armed activity in 1982 dropped off - down from about 55 incidents in 1981 to about 39, while it suffered the capture or death of 28 cadres.57 Apart from the limpet mine attack on the Koeberg nuclear power station outside Cape Town in December 1982, dealt with below, all attacks were modest in their dimensions.

When, in September 1982, the RC reviewed progress on APCs, it found senior organs had made next to no progress.58 A major reason for the failure was that some senior organs had sent junior or middle-ranking cadres into the country to build APC's;59 they had not known quite how senior their choice of personnel could be.

The commission investigating the failure to implement the APC concept 'ran into trouble', according to Maharaj, when discussion turned to naming external mission individuals who might or might not be suitable for deployment inside the country on the APC project. Matters became personalised. The commission's report to the RC was inconclusive and no new mandate was given to senior organs about building APCs.60 Squabbles, rivalries and a lack of strategic clarity had neutralised the APC plan and delivered a serious blow to the 'integrationists' in ANC operational debates.

The MK leadership began to reassert itself. In late 1982, COH lobbied strongly to become a proper military headquarters with full, formal control over MK. For all practical purposes, COH had long controlled MK, although strictly speaking it was merely an operational military agency of RC, with the RC responsible for MK.

COH felt that it was being constrained by demands from some senior organ personnel that its activities be coordinated with political activities.61 It alleged there was uncertainty over lines of command and control flowing out of senior organs and that this was creating special problems for military operations.62 But COH's conducted its campaign for a military headquarters largely on less well-contested ground. Various frontline states, among them Zimbabwe, which was now softening its hostility to the ANC, said they wanted to deal with a defined ANC 'military headquarters'.63 COH seized upon this development to argue its case.

Maharaj recalls how, at an RC meeting on December 9 1982, external events destroyed the effect of his argument against frontline state pressure as a justification for a military headquarters. He was arguing:

That's not the reason why we need military headquarters; it can't be a good reason.

Others were saying: That's not the only reason...

[T]hen we [had] a break, I think [it was] a tea break in the morning. We receive a message; we [had] just finished tea; we reassemble.

The president announces the Maseru massacre [in which 42 people were killed by South African security forces when they raided...Lesotho, 19 of them members of the ANC].

Now, when we come [back] to this item, I...haven't got the heart to say: No military headquarters. Because [one argument] on why we needed a military headquarters was to give ourselves better military capacity.64

A military headquarters was conceded.

Ten days later, on December 19, explosions seriously damaged the Koeberg nuclear power station outside Cape Town. To many, the attack appeared to be a quick and effective MK response to the devastation the ANC had suffered in Maseru. The truth was more complex. The attack had been planned over many months before the Maseru massacre. Moreover, it would not have been possible had IRD not pursued political contacts which were initially rejected by MK; these contacts were eventually handed over to an individual in SOU.65 Ironically, the kind of changes to operational structures which the MK leadership now demanded would make the kind of cooperation that had fostered the Koeberg attack more difficult.

The ANC and the Emerging Trade Unions, 1981-82

Developments among the emerging trade unions were similarly fractious. The question of union registration was, if not the actual casus belli, then the major issue over which underlying disagreements were fought out. At talks on forming a union super-federation held in Cape Town in August 1981 and at Wilgespruit in April 1982 unions, registration dominated proceedings.

Sactu,66 and with it those most visibly associated with the ANC inside South Africa,67 supported the most vociferous of the anti-registrationists. These included Saawu, Gawu and Macwusa which, while also among the most politically militant unions, were among the weakest in terms of their shop floor organisation. ANC approval of the anti-registration position was now seriously threatening its relationship with the better organised emerging unions - those in Fosatu, as well as the Cape Town-based Food and Canning Workers' Unions (FCWU) and General Workers' Union, whose suspicions about registration had now softened.

The death in police detention of FCWU organiser Neil Aggett in February 1982, rather than mitigate the conflict, exacerbated it in two instances. Firstly, of the unions attending the unity talks, only Fosatu and FCWU unions honoured on any scale a pledge to hold a work stoppage to protest Aggett's death. Secondly, a large ANC banner was placed at the head of the procession through Johannesburg which took Aggett's body to its grave. Fosatu and FCWU unionists considered this an opportunistic ANC attempt to advertise itself and challenge their attempts to retain their political independence.68

A United Front is Formed

In 1982, the government gave notice it intended to implement constitutional reforms which had first been hinted at in 1977, then been refined by a commission of inquiry into the constitution in 1980, then been reformulated by the President's Council in May 1982 and later been substantially endorsed by the ruling National Party in July. The central thrusts of the proposals were:69

* the creation of a three-chamber parliament comprising separate white, 'coloured' and Indian houses under an arrangement in which the predominance of the white chamber would be guaranteed;

* persistent exclusion of the African majority from the central polity and the consignment of its political aspirations to the bantustan system;

* and the creation of an executive presidency with wide-ranging powers.

The government also re-introduced into parliament three bills which promised to intensify the exclusion of many Africans from metropolitan areas, increase government control over residential resources in black African townships, and also provide for the establishment of a new black local authority structure70.

In exile, IRD wanted to extend the coalition which had developed out of the anti-Republic and anti-SAIC campaigns71. According to Maharaj, 'different people, without calling it a "united front", were seeing that something could gel together'. He thinks that, in late 1982, IRD sent a guideline to leading underground units on the need now to pull all these groupings together in structures, maintaining their independence, creating the vehicle to [allow] more grassroots structures to grow, and yet having a centralised thrust and a decision-making capacity.72

An additional motivation was, according to Maharaj, to ensure that ANC-inclined organisations eroded the black consciousness movement's support base, because there was a 'hell of a fight going on with Azapo'.73 The directive would, if issued, probably have reached, among others, individuals like Molefe and the Gordhan unit inside the country before January 1983.74

Meanwhile, in late 1982, leading Indian activists in the Transvaal decided on a conference in January 1983 of Transvaal-based Anti-SAIC campaigners.75 The intention of the convenors, a number of whom had links to the ANC and Communist Party (SACP), was to resuscitate the dormant Transvaal Indian Congress.76 These activists were in irregular contact with the external mission.77

When, in early January 1983, the 'coloured' Labour Party surprised the political community by endorsing the government's constitutional proposals, some anti-SAIC convenors argued successfully that the planned conference for the Transvaal should pursue a broader agenda and draw in a wider range of forces. Among those calling for broader participation was Cassim Saloojee, a prominent activist and ANC 'informal' underground member.78 Anti-apartheid leaders from as far afield as the eastern and western Cape and Natal were invited.

During preparations for the conference, scheduled to start on January 22, Saloojee and others speculated about the potential which had been created by the growth of hundreds of popular anti-apartheid organisations and the success of the campaigns against the republic and SAIC. They began to suggest - Saloojee among them - that it might be feasible to form 'a united front' of some kind.79 These discussions in mid-January 1983, says Saloojee, occurred 'outside the ANC context'.80

Meanwhile, in his annual New Year address to the people of South Africa on January 8, ANC president Oliver Tambo81 outlined four basic tasks for ANC members and supporters:

* we must organise the people into strong mass democratic organisations;

* we must organise all revolutionaries into underground units of the ANC;

* we must organise all combatants into units of Umkhonto we Sizwe;

* we must organise all democratic forces into one front for national liberation.82 [my emphasis]

But, given the inefficiency of the ANC's Department of Information and Publicity and of its propaganda efforts generally,83 the contents of this address could have reached few people inside South Africa before the TASC conference began on January 22.84

Saloojee recalls two arguments during preparations for the TASC conference. One centred on his suggestion that Dr Alan Boesak85 be the guest speaker. Saloojee's reasons for suggesting Boesak were that he thought him a 'very articulate' person who might bring some 'freshness' which other, more familiar and 'exhausted' speakers could not give proceedings.86 Other conference convenors eventually agree reluctantly to Boesak.87

A second argument continued late into the night before the TASC conference. It pitted Saloojee against most other activists involved in the planned TIC resuscitation, a number of whom were members of the ANC underground. The issue was a united front. Saloojee recalls:

[T]hey were saying: Look, man, this is no time for united fronts...

[The night before the conference], I was still arguing - I was the only person in the [interim] TIC executive committee arguing fiercely for a united front.

Without exception...they said: Forget anything else; what we have to do is to begin political work in the Indian community... The time is not ripe [for a united front].88

At about 10pm that night, when the meeting adjourned briefly, prominent members of the Gordhan unit arrived.89 Saloojee recalls:

[They] said: Listen man, we should really use this occasion to moot the idea of a broad effort against the tricameral system. and I said 'a front'... [T]hey said they had discussed it [in Durban] too, and, you know, they, too, are clear in their mind that we should...develop the idea of a front.90

Other participants in the planning meeting shifted position immediately, possibly because Saloojee later found out) some of the younger among them had connections with the Gordhan unit.91 Saloojee adds:

As soon as [Gordhan etc] said it's OK, suddenly [the embryonic TIC leadership] said it's OK.

Now, last minute, they tell me I must go and pick up Alan Boesak at the airport. And now, on the way from the airport, I must make quite sure that I tell Alan Boesak that he should make a call for the front...

I go and fetch Alan Boesak... On the way, you know, we are talking about what the Labour Party did and all that. I didn't want to sound like a commissar coming from some place and [saying], Now you must toe the political line for us and all that.

And Alan actually said: You know, the Labour Party's doing this; we can't be indifferent to it...this is not just a thing for the coloured people...

[H]e saw the political issues very clearly.

Then I just told him - you know, I was trying to be a little subtle - I said: We also met for the Anti-SAIC and thought it's a damned good idea, you know, if we try and call for a front of organisations and people against the tricameral system and all that.

He said, I am going to make a plea for that in my speech.

Now this, I think, history must know...92

Excited at what was developing, Saloojee hurriedly ensured that as many local and foreign journalists as possible attended the opening of the conference on the afternoon of January 22 to hear the call for a united front.

When Boesak delivered his speech late that afternoon he outlined a manifesto for what he termed 'the politics of refusal'.93 It was premised upon a boycott of all government-created institutions. Boesak argued that it was tactically senseless and immoral to maintain, as the Labour Party had, that it was possible to fight 'the system' of apartheid from within; participation necessarily amounted to a compromise of principles and collaboration. To take forward the politics of refusal, Boesak argued,

[W]e need a united front. Most of the Christian Churches and all of the democratically minded organisations in our communities have unequivocally rejected the proposals of the President's Council and our participation in them. We are all committed to the struggle for a non-racial, open, democratic South Africa, a unitary state with one nation in which all the people will have the rights accorded them by the ordination of Almighty God Himself.94

Immediately Boesak had finished his speech, the conference convenors activated a plan to persuade the conference to set up a commission to look into the feasibility of a united front was enacted. Saloojee remembers:

We...put it to the meeting that, look, we can't wait, there is an urgency about it.

A group of people were selected to have a meeting that night, Saturday night.

We sat all night. I was chairman of that commission... And I know Zac Yacoob and myself worked out the declaration. We finished it in the early hours of the morning...95

The statement of the commission, delivered in the form of a draft resolution, called for the rejection of the constitutional proposals and for the delegates to the TASC conference to 'form [them]selves into a united democratic front (UDF) to oppose the implementation of this devious scheme disguised to divide the people'.96 Basic politico-moral positions of the ANC resonated through the document: among them a commitment to a 'non-racial, unitary state' and 'adherence to the need for unity in struggle through which all democrats regardless of race, religion or colour shall take part together'. The call for a united democratic front dominated the conference and elicited an excited response from other anti-apartheid organisations.

Saloojee considers that the decision to form a united front was 'not a conscious decision taken by the ANC outside or inside' South Africa. Rather it was a result of the 'broad talk that was going on' about the need for unity.97 Momoniat, a leading activist at the Anti-SAIC conference, agrees. He recalls no input from the ANC abroad about forming a front. He also doubts that leading members of the Gordhan unit - Pravin Gordhan, Yunus Mahomed or Professor Gerry Coovadia - had consulted the external mission on launching a front at the conference: communications to and from the external mission did not move sufficiently fast for that.98 He believes people merely picked up on Boesak's idea.99.

Maharaj, who was in charge of ANC internal political reconstruction, substantially agrees with Saloojee and Momoniat. The idea of a 'united front' contained in the report of the politico-military strategy commission (PMSC) had been a 'passing' phrase as far as he was concerned. After 1979, he had not seen himself as working for the creation of a united front as such.

Maharaj adds that, despite the fact that Tambo and Mbeki had written the NEC's New Year address broadcast on January 8 calling for a united front, the birth of the UDF 'shocked' them. He adds: 'They didn't believe it [a united front] would happen.'100

In Maharaj's view, what the ANC contributed to the genesis of the UDF, without appreciating the extent of its own influence, was its repeated emphasis in earlier years on the need for unity in action against apartheid.101 He believes that it amounts to reading history backwards to argue that the UDF resulted from the PMSC report or came at the direct instigation of the ANC per se.102 He believes that the strength of the UDF at its birth was that it had 'the primary appearance that it grew from the ground'.103


The two rationalisations central to ANC strategy, armed propaganda and the boycott of state-approved institutions, served the ANC well in the two years from January 1981. Armed propaganda gave the ANC the authority, and 'non-collaboration' gave it the basic platform, to build a coalition of organisations for the Anti-Republic campaign of early 1981. The two sides of operations, political and military, had once again seemed to benefit each other. The campaign raised the ANC's level of involvement in domestic politics beyond anything seen since the destruction of its internal organisation in 1963-1964.

Disagreements between ANC strategists on the lessons of the Anti-Republic campaign resulted in a surprising victory for IRD. The military command had contended that the campaign vindicated existing operational structures and methods. IRD, however, had argued that there needed to be closer political-military cooperation. IRD got its way when the military leadership agreed to the APC concept, which planned to create area-based underground political leaderships inside the country, whose members would include senior ANC leaders, to give tactical direction to all forms of struggle, including armed struggle. The APC concept was the most ambitious programme to move operational leadership from exile into the country, and to move from political-military parallelism in operational structures towards 'integration'. Its underlying argument was that a putative revolution in South Africa required an internal and united operational leadership.

The APC concept, however, was starved to death mainly by military inertia, behind which lay rivalry between political and military operational structures. The MK command did nothing to set up APCs. And as the APC concept died in 1982, the MK command reasserted its independence and lobbied for the establishment of a fully-fledged military headquarters.

The demand for an MK headquarters was inappropriate to securing progress in the armed struggle and movement towards a 'people's war'. MK's successes during the Anti-Republic campaign had resulted from close planning from abroad of missions conducted from abroad; these successes had not stemmed from any qualitative improvement in MK's domestic armed capacity. The raid on the headquarters of SOU and MK's Natal machinery in Mozambique in January 1981 was only one of many indications, although perhaps the sharpest, that South African counter-insurgency still sought to keep ANC operational leadership abroad and to disrupt its lines into South Africa. While general political support for the ANC was expanding dramatically inside South Africa, MK cadres were evidently not benefiting from it and showed little ability to integrate themselves securely into it. In these circumstances, the MK command could not afford to do anything which might lessen MK cadres' ability to integrate themselves into the ANC's domestic political base. But that is precisely what a military headquarters threatened to do; it was likely to increase the separation between political and military structures and so reduce the opportunities for cooperation in the field between political and military cadres.

Political structures, on the other hand, could, and did, thrive when operating on their own. The important role the political underground managed to play in building the coalition that launched the UDF evinced this. Although operating almost entirely separately from military structures, the political underground could, and did, benefit from the lustre and authority given the ANC by MK's attacks. Yet two years after the Anti-Republic campaign, it did not need MK's imprimatur to flourish in a situation in which hundreds of thousands of people were evidently convinced of the potential advantages of open political organisation.

There was a certain irony to the debate over ANC structures in this period. Those supporting separation between political and military operational structures, who were mainly the MK command, appeared blind to the fact that they had most to lose by such separation. On the other hand, those opposing this separation, mainly the political operational structures, had most to gain by it. For, with separate structures, there was no way that those who wanted to subject political struggle to military imperatives could actually do so. With separate structures there was, similarly, very little prospect of progress towards a 'people's war' - a subject dealt with more fully in 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.