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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.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 Seven: Planning For People's War

'Blow on the embers and it will catch alight',

January 1983 - March 1984

It was...a way in which we could give real meaning to people's involvement; to once and for all take away this myth that MK is their highly trained, professional army which would liberate [them]...

- Cal Saloojee1


If the idea which actually spawned the United Democratic Front was not the ANC's, whatever the prescience of the 1978-1979 strategic review, the ANC wasted no time in bringing the front under its suzerainty. The report of the Politico-Military Strategy Commission (PMSC) had, after all, argued that a broad front of organisations allied to the ANC might greatly extend the ANC's catchment in the legal and semi-legal spheres of domestic politics and facilitate progress towards the 'people's war' which stood at the centre of ANC strategy.

This chapter examines the early development of the front, the strengthening of its relationship with the ANC and whether it did advance the notion of a 'people's war'.

An ANC Front

Cassim Saloojee, who had chaired the commission into the feasibility of a united front, encountered 'tremendous excitement' when he went abroad to consult ANC external mission leaders on the proposed front shortly after the Transvaal anti-SAIC conference in January 1983. He felt that the way the front was developing 'was well beyond anything that they had imagined'.2 Michael Stephen, a Scot involved in ANC operational structures in Swaziland, recalls a 'tremendous traffic of people from Natal' to discuss the front's formation.3

Back inside South Africa, an ad hoc national secretariat established to oversee the formation of a front had a strong ANC and pro-ANC presence. It decided first to form regional and provincial United Democratic Fronts before constituting a national UDF.4 Saloojee5 found himself working with people who were in more frequent contact with the external mission. They were, he says, influential in deciding priorities.6 He says that

ANC activists...began to play very conscious roles. And guys like me [who were 'informal underground'] ...made up our minds that, look, we must, within this movement as it evolves, we must build support for the ANC and we must be clearer what [the] ANC's politics are all about and its approaches and all that. We made quite sure we got the [ANC's] documents.7

New Operational Structures - again

Meanwhile, in early 1983,8 as regional UDF's were being formed inside the country, the ANC leadership instituted another set of far-reaching changes to operational structures. These changes followed the decision in December 1982 to establish a fully-fledged military headquarters.

The Revolutionary Council was disbanded as the ANC's main operational organ and was replaced by a Politico-Military Council (PMC).9 The PMC, like the old RC, was to be chaired by ANC president Oliver Tambo, deputised by secretary general Alfred Nzo. Like the RC, it had two main operational arms, one political and one military.

On the political side, the PMC hierarchy consisted of a political committee chaired by Joe Jele10, with Mac Maharaj as secretary.11 The newly-created military headquarters was commanded by Joe Modise, deputised by Chris Hani, who was also MK political commissar. Third in the military hierarchy was Joe Slovo, who was chief of staff12. The ANC's security and intelligence organ, Nat, headed by Mzwai Piliso, was also represented on the PMC13.

The 'senior organs', introduced in 1980 to promote political-military coordination in the forward areas, were disbanded. There was now to be no provision at all for coordination of political and military operations in the forward areas (or inside the country).14 Each forward area would henceforth have a political committee and a military committee which operated separately. PMC military headquarters communicated with a military committee in each forward area, which then communicated with its MK units inside South Africa. And PMC political command had its own communications to a political committee in each forward area and, thence, to units inside South Africa. Coordination could occur only at top level, namely on the PMC15.

This imposed enormous responsibilities on the PMC - which it was unable to meet. Lines of communication into and out of South Africa were long and usually extremely slow. It inherited many of the RC's personnel and, with them, old mind sets and rivalries. While initially about the same size as the old RC, the PMC was soon larger than it.16 The PMC was not the small, muscular operational executive that had been recommended by the PMSC in 1979. The way ANC leaders were dispersed between different countries further complicated communications. On the military side, Modise often travelled in Africa; Hani had to spend much of his time in ANC camps in Angola; and Slovo was based in Mozambique. On the political side, Zuma's domicile in Mozambique created similar difficulties.17 Slovo estimates that the key individuals on the PMC were not in one place together for more than 25 per cent of the time18. Key decisions had often to be taken without the individuals formally responsible for them.19

The declared purpose of the changes was to make political and military forms of struggle mutually re-enforcing. According to Kasrils, the Soviet doctrine of 'military and combat work' (MCW) was the major influence on the changes - 'the need for a revolutionary movement to have a central leadership with direct command and control over all its forces and departments'. Kasrils believes that 'the [new structure] expresse[d] this desire...20

How Kasrils could have come to this conclusion is a mystery. For the effect of the changes was to worsen the dislocation between different operational arms. Within MK, preconceived notions of what a military headquarters consisted of meant a whole range of formal portfolios were created, each with its own head.21 And the new structures actually reduced the opportunities for coordination between military and political structures.

Ivan Pillay, who worked in political structures in Swaziland, considered the formation of the PMC 'a setback'22. The UDF had created new opportunities, and needs, to combine popular political struggles with underground political and military forms of struggle, but the ANC leadership had deprived itself of some the organisational mechanisms capable of doing so, particularly the senior organs.

Debating the UDF

Inside South Africa between January and August 1983, there were three important debates on the form the United Democratic Front should take. One concerned the front's ideological breadth. Some activists suggested that allegiance to the Freedom Charter, the ANC's lodestar, should be made a condition of membership. Though the Transvaal Anti-SAIC conference (TASC) in January had itself adopted the Freedom Charter,23 the commission report on the feasibility of a front avoided making the Charter the basis for front membership;24 Pravin Gordhan's Natal-based underground unit had helped ensure this.25 Gordhan was later supported by influential ANC underground members like Popo Molefe,26 as well as by Maharaj.27 According to Molefe:

Our perspective...was that [the front] should be capable of drawing in forces which had previously not been part of the Freedom Charter camp. It should [be] able to draw in the churches, even the Azapos and other black consciousness organisations like Cusa28...and a number of civic associations which were a-political or had no definite political orientation. Now, any move towards the adoption of the Freedom Charter would have been a contradiction in terms - it would have defeated that purpose.29

In the end, conditions for membership amounted to a restatement of the TASC commission report on the feasibility of a front. These were manifest opposition to apartheid and the constitutional reform proposals; and commitment to democracy, to non-racialism and to a unitary state in South Africa. Although these conditions were broad enough to draw Cusa briefly into the front, they failed to attract Azapo and other black consciousness organisations who objected particularly to any organisational unity with whites30.

A second debate arose around the compatibility of the front's non-racial principles with ethnically orientated political organisation. The TASC conference's decision to resuscitate the long-dormant Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC) as a vehicle for pro-ANC organisation among Indians in the Transvaal drew sharp criticism from black consciousness and the far-left.31 They alleged it was a 'retrogressive step' which would make the front a 'conglomerate of ethnically orientated groups', whereas 'the oppressed should be rallied together in a single organisation which is not structured on an ethnic basis'.32

The debate irritated front activists.33 'Terror' Lekota34 explained that the resuscitation of the TIC was not a legitimation of apartheid's separation of the races but was, rather, a realistic response to it and an attempt to bring people into non-racial unity through joint activity: 'You cannot just declare non-racialism,' he remarked, 'you must build it'.35

A third debate arose out of the decision of a number of the best organised of the emergent trade unions - the Food and Canning Workers' Unions, Western Province General Workers Union and those in Fosatu - not to join the front.36 This debate centred on how a broad national democratic alliance should relate to the organised working class. The debate was conducted against the background of tensions between officials of these unions and ANC-aligned activists over the formers' avoidance of direct political involvement.

The unions' refusal to join the UDF was informed by their analysis of Sactu's history. They considered that Sactu's alliance with the ANC in the 1950s and 1960s had swamped working class interests in a broad nationalist struggle.37 They argued that the unions had to build their own organised strength and develop one national trade union federation. Some of these union leaders did not rule out a subsequent alliance between a more powerful independent trade union centre and the front.38

ANC-aligned activists were, consequently, not as successful as they had hoped to be in broadening the front's catchment. Black consciousness and Trotskyite organisations, as well as the best organised emergent unions, had declined to join.

There was deep concern among ANC-aligned activists in mid-1983 that the national launch of their front might be preempted by an initiative launched by an unlikely alliance of the black consciousness movement and one faction of the Trotskyite Non-European Unity Movement.39 The two planned to form a rival umbrella group, the National Forum, on June 11 and 12.40 The forum's inauguration drew several hundred delegates representing some 200 organisations, a number of them more naturally aligned to the future UDF.41 Organisationally the forum had an even looser structure than that proposed for the front.42 This organisational laxity, and the stridency and sectarianism of some of the forum's positions,43 did not, in the event, promote its growth.44

The eventual formation of the national United Democratic Front was the climax of a seven-month-long process. By the time delegates gathered at Mitchell's Plain in Cape Town on August 20 for its inauguration the UDF already had three constituted regions45, each with its own leadership and several others were in the process of formation.46 Probably the largest anti-apartheid propaganda campaign hitherto inside South Africa preceded the arrival of delegates from some 320 organisations at the launch. Some 400,000 copies of a UDF pamphlet were distributed nationwide in the two weeks before the launch, plus posters and other media.47

The UDF restated its commitment to the broadest possible unity. It was intent on uniting all our people, wherever they may be in the cities and countryside, the factories and mines, schools, colleges, and universities, houses and sports fields, churches, mosques and temples, to fight for our freedom.48

Sensitive to union suspicions, it declared it believed in 'the leadership of the working class in the democratic struggle for freedom'.49

The tenor of the conference implied clearly that, at the apex of the UDF project, stood the ANC. The UDF's visible national officials, national secretary Popo Molefe and national publicity secretary Terror Lekota, had relationships with the ANC.50 The conference elected a series of presidents and patrons whose political histories indicated the UDF's allegiance was to the ANC,51 while it coyly declared that it did not 'purport to be a substitute movement to accredited people's liberation movements'.52

The formation of the UDF clarified three broad ideological currents within militant anti-apartheid politics.53 All three declared that the working class should lead the political struggle against apartheid, but they differed on how this working class leadership should relate to race or national issues.

The ANC-UDF strand stressed the potential involvement of most sections of the community, regardless of race or class origins, in a broad political struggle against apartheid in which the interests of Africans should predominate. While rhetorically committed to working class leadership of this struggle, it nonetheless argued that, at this stage, distinct class mobilisation should be largely subsumed within a broader national democratic struggle; it postponed a putative working class struggle for socialism to a later phase. Tactically it insisted upon non-participation in state-created structures.

The second strand, new alliance of black consciousness and Trotskyite left stressed non-participation and 'non-collaboration' more strongly. It emphasised the exclusion of whites from anti-apartheid struggle; it included the black middle class in its demonology; it stridently declared the leadership of the black working class in national political struggle; and it conceived of a simultaneous overthrow of both capitalism and apartheid.

The third current, known as the 'independent worker' position,54 insisted upon non-racialism; it held that industrial or political organisations of the working class should maintain their autonomy outside multi-class alliances, at least temporarily, whilst they developed their strength and distinctive political programme. And it considered that participation in state-approved or state-created institutions could be tactically justifiable.

The insistence upon racial or class exclusivity by the latter two currents left the ANC-UDF in almost proprietary control of an all-embracing unity project in the ranks of the militant opposition. It was a position the ANC moved to secure. As the national UDF was being launched,55 the PMC released a formal guideline to forward area and some underground units on its vision of the way forward for the UDF. According to Maharaj, the guideline outlined what we needed. It talked about the need to pull together all these independent structures, allowing their independence to flourish, creating a vehicle that will encourage other independent locally-based bodies to grow, but not being slavishly a united front in the sense that it should have rapid decision-making capacity...56

The UDF Starts Campaigning

The UDF's first major campaign - for a boycott of elections for 29 black local authorities and community councils in African townships in November and December - was a success. There were lower percentage polls than usual in African local government elections in some areas.57 In the process, the UDF helped undermine the legitimacy of a pillar of the state's constitutional reforms, namely Black Local Authorities Act and the Black Communities Development Bill. But the campaign's greater significance was the improvement it wrought in fledgling civic associations and popular organisation generally in the African townships.

At this early stage, the UDF supported a second campaign: for a No vote in the white referendum in November 1983 on the government's constitutional proposals. Its input was marginal to the outcome - a two-thirds endorsement of the reforms in a 75 per cent poll.

'Planning for People's War'

Amid great expectations of what the UDF could deliver, Slovo prepared, and the PMC adopted,58 a major new statement of operational strategy in late 1983, called 'Planning for People's War'.59 It reasserted the central strategic formulation of the 1978-1979 strategic review that people's power in South Africa will be won by revolutionary violence in a protracted armed struggle which must involve the whole people and in which partial and general uprisings will play a vital role.60

Moreover, it argued that conditions had ripened to the point where the ANC could move towards 'people's war'. That is, towards a war in which a liberation army becomes rooted amongst the people who progressively participate actively in the armed struggle both politically and militarily, including the possibility of engaging in partial and general uprisings.61

Since 1979, the document asserted, the 'broad base' of support for the ANC had 'widened immeasurably'.62 The ANC and its allies stood 'unchallenged in the eyes of almost all the oppressed as the guide of [South Africa's] revolution' and as 'the potential replacement for the racist regime'.63 On occasions, people had virtually legalised the ANC inside the country.64 There had been a 'dramatic advance made...in the growth of mass organisations at regional and national level'.65 At the same time, state strategy on black local government was provocative. It was shifting an increasing portion of the costs of administration and services in black townships onto residents.66 As a result, there was growing resistance, with 'rent struggles and bus boycotts of a protracted nature...occurring with greater frequency'.67

The underlying argument of the document was precisely that outlined by the SACP in 1970. Then the formulation had been that 'every political action, whether armed or not, should be regarded as part of the build-up towards a nationwide people's armed struggle leading to the conquest of power' [my emphasis].68 Now 'Planning for People's War' asserted that the 'masses were receptive to violence as the only real answer to [their] situation'[my emphasis]69 - a surprising conclusion given that the one clear contemporary pattern in anti-apartheid resistance was the growth of political organisation employing political means.

The document identified several factors circumscribing the ANC's ability to develop armed struggle on the scale necessary. It had very limited base facilities in countries adjoining South Africa. Inside South Africa there were no 'political revolutionary bases'70 where MK cadres could base themselves. The ANC's ability to create them was constrained by the weakness of the underground and the failure of the APC programme.71

Nonetheless, according to Slovo,

we believed that the objective situation favoured preparations for the raising of our military struggle to a new level. We felt the political and military activities of the intervening years had helped to prepare the ground for the people's involvement in the armed struggle not merely as spectators but also as participants.72

This could be done if two additional conditions were met. First, there needed to be closer cooperation between political and military operational organs.73 Secondly, MK had to defy what had in the past been continuous pressures to 'meet deadlines for sabotage blows' and, instead, go in for some long-term preparations.74

Both points were perhaps a little disingenuous coming form Slovo. MK had repeatedly opposed institutionalising closer political-military cooperation. Moreover, the MK command was as much to blame as any other section of the ANC for MK's seemingly perpetual resort to cross-border hit-and-run sabotage and armed propaganda attacks which had no military significance at all.

Slovo suggested creating a special structure in each forward area MK command structure charged with increasing attacks against enemy personnel, so that 'the remainder of the command could then concentrate on long-term tasks of entrenching [the ANC's] combat presence' inside South Africa.75 And he suggested that SOU be strengthened to take on the former task.76

Slovo also elaborated a plan for rural guerilla warfare in a 'people's war'. He argued that the PMC should identify areas of the country which could be developed as 'guerilla zones' - areas which had the potential to safely accommodate, whether in the terrain or among the people, trained armed cadres and which could constitute the nuclei for the internal recruiting, training, formation and survival of guerilla units...77

He envisaged the campaign in almost entirely military terms. Developing these guerilla zones would

[i]nitially...involve the infiltration of highly trained MK combat groups of a commando type, comprising a handful of cadres, with the capacity to train and command local recruits. Our thinking was that in the early stages of its establishment, [a] unit would avoid military action or engagement with the enemy unless forced to defend itself or unless a specific action would facilitate its growth and entrench it among the people.78

This was precisely the perspective which had failed in the 1969-76 period and ever since!

There was, however, a caveat:

It was vital that the selection and preparation of these zones had to involve the closest collaboration between relevant political and military machineries. This would, among others, make it possible to determine which areas needed a prior period of sustained political work before we could inject a military presence, and which areas should remain clear of military activity.79

Yet this level of political cooperation - either within the proposed guerilla zone or the closest forward area - was all but impossible; the new operational structures made it so.

'Planning for People's War' also addressed the issue of insurrection.80 Some in the ANC had long argued that it was unrealistic to hold out the prospect of insurrection in South Africa because of the persistent unity of security forces in their support of state policy. But, by late 1983, insurrectionary pressures in the Ciskei and elsewhere, the increasing number of blacks being drawn into combat roles in state forces, and the success being registered by the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) had led some to reconsider their opposition. Slovo's document argued that successful insurrection depended upon winning over, or neutralising, a portion of the state's armed forces. It suggested that, in the South African context, a 'fundamental transformation' was under way in the composition of state security forces. An increasing number of blacks were being integrated into state armed forces in combat roles, as opposed to merely service functions. Slovo argued that there was a potential for either neutralising of winning over the majority of black troops to the side of the revolution. We saw it as our task to begin immediately to devote all resources possible to the different sides of work in and among these forces.81

Similar efforts should be directed towards white members of the security forces to 'reduce their morale and will to risk their lives for white supremacy'.82 In the event, the PMC devoted no resources at all in concerted fashion to undermine the political cohesion of state security forces.83

A central dictate of the doctrine of military and combat work (MCW) was ignored in practice.

On paper, the document sought a synthesis of the 'people's war' approach and the basically insurrectionary MCW doctrine. As such, it also sought to marry the doctrinal experiences of different ANC generations: the 'people's war' orientation of the 1960s generation and the insurrectionary influence of MCW on the post-1976 generation. In practice it had little effect.

Slovo's document implied that the forces developed in the course of 'people's war' could readily be transformed into the forces of insurrection. But Slovo argued forceful that, whereas one could directly plan a 'people's war', one could not plan uprisings or a national insurrection; they were spontaneous chains of events which depended upon ordinary people; the ANC could only plan to be ready for them.84

Being ready meant, said the document, echoing the 1980 Revolutionary Council resolution, having built up arms stores near major urban complexes inside South Africa and having a plan for distributing them as they could not be handed out 'indiscriminately...to whichever members of the oppressed wanted them'.85 Readiness also meant having the ability to combine 'urban and rural action...at crucial moments'86 in order to disperse state security forces. Being able to do so seemed to imply having a centralised underground leadership commanding all forms of struggle, political and military - as the MCW doctrine demanded. But the new operational structures, which enforced almost total political-military parallelism, made this impossible.

Responses to the 'Planning for People's War' document were mixed. The PMC accepted it. But some on the newly constituted political committee (which had replaced IRD) were intrigued by Slovo's drift towards the insurrectionary scenario and the inconsistencies between his writings and actions. They wondered whether Slovo was not preparing the ground, sotto voce, to discount the failure of years of ANC military planning which had produced no real military threat - and certainly no 'people's war' or anything approximating it. If, as Slovo suggested, insurrection was a spontaneous phenomenon engaged in by ordinary people which could not be planned, it followed that the burden of making insurrection must rest with ordinary people, that the revolutionary movement could play only a supportive role, and that the revolutionary movement thus had fewer obligations as an organiser - certainly fewer than were imposed by notions of protracted people's war. Maharaj detected a 'blow-on-the-embers-and-it-will-catch-alight' approach in Slovo's document, one in which:

all that [is necessary] for us to do is to be ready when the moment arrives; we have not been ready these previous times, but now let's get ready for the next one. [The document] doesn't say what work...we have to do to bring about the next one.87

The External Environment

Other developments seemed to demand more urgency in the ANC about building a senior underground leadership soon. South African assassinations of operational officials in neighbouring states, together with pressure on those states' governments, were seriously undermining the ANC's already limited ability to reinforce its domestic activities from abroad. To the list of members assassinated in earlier years was added, in November 1983, Zweli Nyanda, one of the commanders of MK's Natal machinery, who had been based in Swaziland.88 Also in Swaziland, scores of exiles believed associated with the ANC had been rounded up and confined to a special camp.89 About 120 ANC exiles had been obliged to leave Lesotho since the raid on Maseru in December 1982.90 In Botswana, South African pressure led to the departure of several ANC exiles.91

South Africa did nothing to disguise its intention to remove the ANC from neighbouring states. The chief of the SA Defence Force, General Constand Viljoen, said as much in November.92 And, in February, Prime Minister P W Botha had made a public offer to neighbouring states of non-aggression pacts with South Africa.

A conference of ANC strategic planners met in Luanda in December 1983. It was presided over by Oliver Tambo and brought together members of the PMC and all senior military commanders from the forward areas.93 Notwithstanding growing pressure on the ANC in the forward areas, there was a 'new enthusiasm' and optimism that MK could raise both its urban and rural combat presence 'to a qualitatively higher level'94.

Armed Activity, 1983

MK actions had escalated in 1983 after a hiatus in 1982, in the course of which Modise and Cassius Make had been jailed in Botswana and MK's plans for the year had been seized.95 The number of reported acts of armed insurgency in the latter half of 1983 (37) was double that for the earlier part (19).96 Yet the old pattern of sabotage persisted: over half of the 56 attacks (29) targeted economic installations; only six were directed at government security forces,97 of which the most aggressive was an MK car bomb outside the headquarters in Pretoria of the South African Air Force in which 19 people were killed, at least four of them military personnel. With 43 ANC guerillas killed or arrested over the year, the statistics showed that about three MK combatants were being neutralised for every four attacks.98

There were probably still no more than a few score active MK units inside the country at any one time. And the most optimistic estimate (from the ANC's perspective) of MK's total strength at the time was that it had, since 1976, trained about 8,700 men and women.99 A number had since been deployed in other departments of the ANC. But most MK combatants remained in Angola where, since August, they had been engaged in a concerted campaign against Unita rebels. By late 1983, they were showing signs of discontent about fighting in Angola rather than inside South Africa, which became the genesis of a serious rebellion in a number of MK camps in Angola.100

The South African state, on the other hand, could muster at full stretch a well organised force of some 400,000 troops101 and had a police force whose complement was projected to rise from 43,000 to 69,000 members.102 The loyalty of neither force was in question; they enjoyed a high degree of mobility; a proportion had gained battlefield experience in Angola, Namibia and inside South Africa; and they had an intimate knowledge of South African terrain. Moreover, the state was spending more than R3-billion a year equipping, training and paying them.103

Grenade Squads and a Spirit of Rebellion

Slovo's document, 'Planning for People's War', provided some encouragement to moves within political machineries during 1983 to develop what were termed 'grenade squads'104 - groups of militants systematically attacking state and state-related targets with petrol bombs and light explosives. The idea was a variant of the 'MK auxiliary' concept which MK had failed to develop. The grenade squads seemed to answer the search for [a means by which] to involve the people and...to transform...[the] earlier...theoretical precept of classical guerilla warfare with liberated zones to what really we meant by people's war and the involvement of people - beyond the concept that people's involvement was merely infrastructural support, eyes-and-ears, to direct involvement in struggle.105

Groups of young militants had banded together autonomously of the ANC inside the country by 1983 and started attacking targets associated with the state.106 ANC political structures were trying to track them down in order to transform them into grenade squads while the first of these groups were, simultaneously, trying to contact the ANC.107

Encouragement for the 'grenade squads' also came in the ANC NEC's New Year address on January 8 1984. The NEC said that it wanted 'a spirit of rebellion and frame of mind which puts to the fore the politics of revolutionary change' inside South Africa, adding that '[i]t is in the attack that we shall find victory'.108 The NEC said:

We must begin to use our accumulated strength to destroy the organs of government of the apartheid regime. We have to undermine and weaken its control over us, exactly by frustrating its attempts to control us. We should direct our collective might to rendering the enemy's instruments of authority unworkable. To march forward must mean that we advance against the regime's organs of state power, creating conditions in which the country becomes increasingly ungovernable.

You are aware that the apartheid regime maintains an extensive administrative system through which it directs our lives. This system includes organs of central and provincial government, the army and police, the judiciary, the bantustan administrations, the community councils, the local management and local affairs committees. It is these instruments of apartheid power that we must attack and demolish, as part of the struggle to put an end to racist minority rule in our country. Needless to say, as strategists we must select for attack those parts of the enemy administrative system which we have the power to destroy, as a result of our united offensive. We must hit the enemy where it is weakest...

...Having rejected the community councils by boycotting the elections, we should not allow them to be imposed on us. We do not want them. We must ensure that they cease to exist. Where administration boards take over their functions, then these must be destroyed too.109

To take forward this perspective, people should form 'fighting organisations to organise and lead the struggle for the destruction of these racist institutions of oppression'.110

This pivotal section of the NEC's annual address amounted to a call for a new round of uprisings and attacks against the local state in black areas. This was certainly the interpretation given the address by some ANC underground units inside South Africa.111 In the weeks following the broadcast of the statement over the ANC's Radio Freedom, several hundred pamphlets were distributed, mainly to leading activists, putting across the message 'Destroy the outposts of apartheid administration'.112

The grenade squad idea caused excitement in the ANC. Cal Saloojee, an ANC member based in Botswana who was involved in training groups from inside South Africa to become grenade squads, found that 'every single individual who had any kind of responsibility or authority [in the ANC] was wanting to bring their particular individuals to us for training'.113 Saloojee's training unit comprised only three people and, since it had only minimal resources, it was soon overstretched.114 It found itself training people on whom security checks had not been done. There was, in Saloojee's opinion, a lack of guidance from senior political and military officials.115

Despite the problems, Saloojee and his comrades considered their work too important to stop. Grenade squads seemed to provide a way forward for the ANC's armed struggle. In the field of military activity, the squads provided a way in which we could give real meaning to people's involvement; to once and for all do away with this myth that MK is their highly trained, professional army which would liberate [them]...116

By late 1983-early 1984, the Botswana-based training group had several squads inside the country, of which about five were 'functioning properly'.117 A number wanted to identify themselves with the ANC, but the ANC leadership refused to allow this until it had assessed the response to the squads' attacks, among its potential constituency, from the state and within the ANC.118 The main reason for this reticence was that the squads were targeting some civilians, usually people serving in state-created black local government structures, who did not clearly qualify as legitimate targets under criteria laid down in 1976; they were not 'officially in enemy structures'.119

A number of the grenade squads chose to call themselves 'suicide squads' - something the ANC did not like. But the ANC accepted the name as it signalled grenade squad members' determination to the black community and might confirm white and state apprehensions.120

Throughout the development of the grenade squads, the South African security services had, however, kept themselves well informed. Maharaj estimates that perhaps one in 10 of those trained in Botswana for the grenade squads from 1984 was an undercover South African agent.121 Saloojee believes that the very first squad that he trained - a group from Soweto - had been infiltrated by the security services.122 By mid-1984, the grenade squad campaign was facing serious problems.123

Armed Struggle and Some Unjustified Assumptions

Conditions in MK camps in Angola had never been easy,124 but had become increasingly difficult as the South African-backed Unita insurgency against the MPLA government gathered force. MK camps and personnel had come under attack but it was not until August 1983 that MK was committed to full scale operations against Unita. Then, the ANC had marshalled an entire brigade to clear Unita out of the Malange region, where MK had several camps.125

By January 1984, six months later, the campaign against Unita had magnified grievances within MK: over shortages of food and supplies; over how few had been deployed inside South Africa; and over the brutality of the ANC security department which, ever since the chance discovery in 1981 of a plot against the ANC leadership, had operated as a law unto itself within the ANC126. More than 900 MK combatants mutinied after their grievances were ignored by ANC president Oliver Tambo and other leaders and the rebellion was brutally suppressed.127

The document on 'Planning for People's War', assumed a loyal and motivated guerilla force. The mutiny, and the brutality with which the ANC security department suppressed it, seriously undermined MK's morale.

Slovo's document also assumed that the ANC would be able to operate from countries like Mozambique. But this assumption disregarded contrary indications in this period. In February 1983, Prime Minister Botha had offered non-aggression pacts to neighbouring states, to which Tambo responded that he did not think neighbouring states would take up the offer.128 Yet, by May 1983, Mozambique and South Africa had begun talks at ministerial level on security concerns and economic cooperation. At the time, Mozambique was facing extreme economic difficulties, a serious deterioration in its security situation and was receiving little economic assistance from the Soviet Union. It wanted an end to South African support for Renamo rebels. For its part, South Africa wanted an end to Mozambican support for the ANC.

The ANC sought, but was denied, a Mozambican briefing on its talks with South Africa.129 In July 1983, Tambo tried unsuccessfully to meet Mozambican president Samora Machel to give him an ANC intelligence report providing intimate details of South African Defence Force support for Renamo. Eventually the document was handed to Mozambique's Minister of Security.130 In October 1983, the New York Times reported that Swaziland had signed a secret anti-ANC pact with South Africa a year earlier.131 By January 1984, it became publicly evident that Mozambique and South Africa might also be moving towards a comprehensive security agreement.

At this point, Tambo and ANC secretary general Alfred Nzo were invited to talks in Mozambique with Machel and his security minister, Mario Matsinhe. There, they were told that the impending agreement with South Africa would mean: * that the ANC would not be permitted to engage in any form of underground activity against the South African government from Mozambican soil;

* that the ANC presence in Mozambique would be restricted to the requirements of a diplomatic mission;

* and that Slovo would have to leave Mozambique.132

Tambo called an emergency meeting of the NEC upon his return to Lusaka, and another ANC delegation then returned to Mozambique to deliver the NEC's pained confidential response to Frelimo. The NEC recorded its 'deep regret' that it had not been briefed earlier on the direction that the Mozambican-South African talks were taking. Recalling its agreement with Frelimo not to infiltrate MK combatants directly across Mozambique's borders into South Africa and the ANC's acceptance of an embargo on arms deliveries to the ANC in Mozambique, the NEC said:

[W]e can think of no liberation movement in Africa which has been as modest in its claims for support facilities from its comrades-in-arms as the ANC has been in relation to Frelimo.133

The ANC appealed to Frelimo to renegotiate the agreement with South Africa so that it merely outlawed military training facilities for insurgent groups on either countries' territory or either government's arming of insurgent groups.134 The ANC said that eliminating the MK presence in Mozambique would be a grievous blow, as it would harm the ANC's armed struggle which was the 'root' of the 'dramatic and sustained upsurge which we are witnessing in South Africa'. Abandoning armed struggle, the ANC added, would amount to 'the complete surrender of the struggle for national liberation'.135

In February, South Africa and Angola signed a non-aggression pact in Lusaka. Within days, South African newspapers provided public confirmation that a non-aggression pact with Mozambique was imminent.136 Yet, until late January, the ANC remained strangely inert about seeking to protect, or move, its operational capacity from its main concentration, Mozambique.

But the inertia soon became panic. The ANC had only six weeks to cope with the devastating implications of the Nkomati Accord137, signed on March 16 1984. The Accord shocked both the ANC's domestic supporters and its members in Mozambique, who could hardly believe what was happening.138 Among senior ANC personnel, Chris Hani, Lennox Lagu, Joe Slovo as well as Ronnie Kasrils, who was hiding out in Swaziland after being trapped there,139 were expressly barred from Mozambique. More than 100 other operational personnel, who were in Mozambique at the time, mainly MK members, were hurriedly spirited across the border into Swaziland,140 together with truckloads of arms.141

According to Sue Rabkin, serving in the Mozambique-based political structures, the combination of the unsatisfactory new operational structures and the Nkomati Accord tipped us upside down, so to speak. The prospect for rooting large numbers of cadres inside [South Africa] looked a bit bleak, and this was at the same time as this massive upsurge in political activity at home.142

As MK combatants and arms flooded into Swaziland, Kasrils and the two key MK commanders in the area, Siphiwe Nyanda (who headed the Transvaal urban machinery of MK) and Thami Zulu143 (recently arrived from Angola to head the MK's troubled Natal machinery) decided to ditch the separation between political and military commands decreed by the PMC; they set up a combined political-military command in Swaziland to cope with the crisis.144 Ivan Pillay, a member of the Swaziland political machinery, explains:

[P]eople in [Swaziland] felt that there should be an integrated approach, and saw the parallel structures created after the RC [in 1983] as a setback, or as a reinforcement of parallelism, even worse. But, now that Nkomati took place, firstly...it gave [Swaziland machineries] some independence because communication lines had broken down. We also had with us during that period Ronnie [Kasrils], who was there - he was trapped... [W]e took the decision and then implemented it on the ground, and then sought endorsement from HQ... We were cut off, there was a lot of pressure, there were a lot of cadres who were moved from Maputo into [Swaziland], pressure from the Swazis, etc. So there was no way but to coordinate...at the level of resources, personnel, security and so on...145

Rabkin echoes this:

It no longer made any difference if Sue from the political [machinery] was saving the guns or Keith [Mokoape] from the military was saving the guns. Those guns had to be [saved]. And, if Sue got there first, there was no-one who was going to say she was interfering.146

Swaziland machineries soon received the PMC's endorsement for their exercise in coordination.147

The ANC's main operational capability was caught in a three-jawed pincer between Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa. Cases of indiscipline by MK members hiding out in Swaziland led to shootouts with Swazi security forces and the deportation of about 80 ANC members.148 As pressures in Swaziland increased, the local ANC command decided to move as many people as possible into South Africa as quickly as possible.149 Scores of ill-prepared MK guerillas were put across the border with only 'few' internal receiving structures to head for.150

Swaziland structures snatched a victory of sorts from the jaws of defeat. The fact that MK cadres managed to mount 39 attacks over the rest of the year after the chaos and panic caused by the Nkomati Accord created a false impression in the public mind, but a useful one from the ANC's perspective. It was that the ANC's military capacity had been largely undamaged by the Nkomati Accord. Underground propaganda units were also told to step up their activities.151

But South African security forces killed or captured 77 MK combatants in 1984. Against this figure, the number of reported insurgent attacks over the year totalled a mere 45.152 That meant an appalling casualty rate - of about five neutralisations for every three attacks.

Back at PMC headquarters, the dreams of December 1983 had been shattered. The Nkomati Accord, recalls Slovo,

disastrously impeded the prospects that had existed at the beginning of 1984 to raise our urban and rural combat presence to a qualitatively higher level... It is no secret to concede...that Mozambique had been crucial to our ongoing efforts. We had also, despite numerous decisions, tended to make very little progress in developing other areas to a similar level.153

The Accord would have been a blow to the ANC however minimal its reliance on Mozambique had been. The gravity of the setback it caused, however, resulted not from the ANC's failure to develop its operational capacity in other forward areas, as Slovo suggests. Rather, it was by the external missions repeated failure to develop an underground leadership inside South Africa able to direct and combine political and military operations. The Nkomati Accord was a chilling vindication of those who had long argued for integration of political and military structures both in exile and inside South Africa.


The ANC quickly brought the United Democratic Front under its suzerainty. It succeeded in placing its standard at the head of a broadly-based coalition built around 'non-collaboration' and basic democratic demands. Through the UDF, ANC political influence increased significantly in the sphere of legal and semi-legal popular political resistance.

In the period from January 1983 to March 1984, however, there were few indications that the ANC would succeed in drawing this enlarged domestic political base into military combat against the state en route to a 'people's war'. Rather, new operational structures which the ANC implemented early in 1983 seemed, strangely, designed to make this impossible; they actively reinforced political-military parallelism and made nigh impossible the establishment inside South Africa of a senior leadership commanding different operational specialities. The campaign to create 'grenade squads' had the potential to draw hundreds, even thousands, of ordinary township militants into armed struggle. Yet the PMC, beset by rivalries, neglected to give the project a proper framework or backup.

There was increasing conjecture in the ANC over this period that revolution in South Africa might take the form of spontaneous armed insurrection. Some in the ANC suspected that this talk was a rationalisation-in-the-making for the failure of past military strategy. Notwithstanding the fact that proposing insurrection as the climax of a 'people's war' was a respectable revolutionary position, some in the ANC suspected that an attraction of insurrection might be that its 'spontaneity' might free the external mission leadership of many of the responsibilities it had hitherto assumed for planning and executing revolutionary activity.

Whether the envisaged 'people's war' was to climax in insurrection or not, the ANC's past failure to base a significant military capability inside South Africa had long made the movement vulnerable to Pretoria's military raids and diplomatic manoeuvres. The Botha government now exploited that vulnerability. The Nkomati Accord and the earlier, similar security pact with Swaziland devastated the ANC's military capability.

What progress the ANC made in this period resulted from the diversion or defeat of its actual objectives. The ANC's actual reason for wanting a broad popular front, such as the UDF, was to make the front a recruiting pool for, and instrument of, 'people's war'. Yet, in the early days of the UDF, there was little prospect that it could perform these roles. Political-military parallelism in operational structures, which reached its zenith in this period, made a symbiosis between political and military activities nigh impossible. Rather, the UDF seemed destined to become, and remain, a vast pool of political support for the ANC.

The Nkomati Accord, while delivering a devastating blow to the ANC's armed capacity, also handed the ANC a few short-term, though ultimately illusory, advantages. Firstly, the Accord indicated the South African government took a serious view of the ANC's armed struggle. While any government is bound to take any armed insurgency seriously, the fanfare which greeted the Accord flattered the ANC's military capabilities and created in the public mind the image of a militarily competent organisation. Secondly, the serious setback which the Accord meted out to the ANC was transformed into a minor victory through the selfless and nigh suicidal courage of some of its cadres. The increase in armed activity these cadres achieved after the Accord gave the impression that its military capacity was not externally reliant.

With an underground comprising a few hundred isolated and scattered units and with almost no domestic military capacity, the ANC was, whatever the extraordinary willingness of millions of South Africans to follow it, able to provide little actual leadership. Its limitations in this regard will become more evident 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.