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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.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

Virtue and necessity, April 1984-June 1985

Victory is the sum total of the resolution of a whole succession of problems, a whole succession of factors. So [the Nkomati Accord] is a setback, but it does not take away from the certainty of the victory of our struggle.

- Oliver Tambo, July 19841


'[T]he people inside South Africa,' ANC president Oliver Tambo told members of his organisation two months after the Nkomati Accord, 'have recognised that victory will come as a result of their struggle, their own efforts; as a result of their reliance on themselves.'2 Tambo was making a virtue out of a necessity. The external mission's capacity to reinforce, let alone lead, anti-apartheid struggle from abroad had been drastically diminished by the Accord. The significance of MK's armed struggle was similarly diminished over the 15 months to June 1985. MK's activities exercised considerably less pressure on the South African state than either political activity by the UDF or political violence mounted by ordinary black township residents. MK was very largely unable to integrate its armed cadres with the ANC's domestic political support; and the ANC's capacity to provide tactical guidance to the many thousands of ordinary people who involved themselves in uprisings inside South Africa from September 1984 was negligible. The diminution in MK's importance occurred notwithstanding the development inside South Africa of more favourable conditions than ever before for armed struggle.


The tempo of popular anti-apartheid struggle rose considerably in early 1984. This resulted mainly from poor conditions in black education, financial pressures on black urban local government and presidential assent in September 1983 to the new tricameral constitution.

Whilst in many respects the UDF was a product of struggles over these issues, it became a formative influence upon them.3 It stimulated the founding of new popular organisations and, through its affiliates, which numbered 648 by January 1984,4 it incorporated these grievances into a national focus. Its underlying message was that local or sectoral grievances could be satisfied only through an address to the issue of central state power.

In black education, the UDF, like the ANC underground, was well placed through its major educational affiliates - Azaso, Cosas and its new teachers' affiliate, the National Education Union of South Africa (Neusa)5 - to involve itself in the crisis. Sporadic disturbances and boycotts occurred in early 1984 in black schools and a few tertiary institutions in the Cape, Orange Free State, the northern Transvaal, Pretoria, Witwatersrand and Venda.6 By August 1984, some eight scholars had died in clashes with police.7 Azaso and Cosas, which led some of the protests, were also busy collating students' demands for an 'education charter' to amplify aspects of the national political and economic demands of the Freedom Charter.

In African townships, state policy sought to shift the financial burden for housing and services away from central government and onto local government structures, whose options for revenue collection were very limited. This suggested that a greater portion of the financial burden would be passed on to township residents. A new round of rent and service charge increases became unavoidable and, in the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging (PWV) complex, there were substantial rises between April and July 1984.

The increases were merely one among many inflationary pressures. General sales tax rose from 6 to 10 per cent over the six months to July 1984, and the rate of inflation for the year increased by some three percentage points to more than 13 per cent.8 The effect on industrial relations in 1984 was dramatic. The year was South African industrial relations' most turbulent on record.9 Nearly three times as many workers went on strike in 1984 than had done so in 1983, more than half of them for higher wages.10

The UDF campaigned at local and national levels. It stimulated the formation within the UDF fold of new, organisations, particularly of civic organisation in townships and outlying areas. Its national leadership concentrated on regions where its affiliate base was weakest, such as the northern Orange Free State and northern Cape.11 Leading UDF activists, including ANC-aligned individuals like Curtis Nkondo, helped develop a civic organisation in the Vaal-Vereeniging complex south of Johannesburg.12

The UDF's most visible campaign was at national level against the tricameral parliament. When the government announced that there would be elections for the envisaged 80-seat 'coloured' House of Representatives on August 22 and the 40-seat Indian House of Delegates on August 28, the UDF, with ANC support,13 called a boycott of the them.14

The ANC's contribution towards raising the tempo of resistance came mainly through its presence in the UDF, MK attacks and through 'grenade squads'.15 Between November 1983, when elections for new black local authorities were held, and the end of August 1984, when elections were staged for 'coloured' and Indian chambers of the tricameral parliament, there were at least 20 petrol bomb and similar attacks on black local government councillors, on candidates for the tricameral elections and other individuals identified as sympathetic to state policy. The 'South African Suicide Squad' claimed responsibility for 16 of them.16

During the campaign against the 'coloured' and Indian elections for the tricameral parliament, the UDF held some of South Africa's largest-ever political meetings. Over the two days of the elections, about 800,000 students boycotted classes and demonstrators clashed in some Transvaal and Cape townships. Police were responsible for an extraordinary provocation when they detained 18 leaders of the UDF and other organisations during the few days separating the coloured from the Indian election days.17 The extent of the boycotts in the two elections greatly encouraged the UDF and ANC.18

Into this atmosphere of excitement and defiance was thrown a highly combustible element: further rent increases in African townships. The Lekoa town council, which incorporated six townships in the Vaal region, announced sharp hikes for residents who, in some instances, were already paying 20% more than in any other metropolitan township. Moreover, rents had already risen more than 400 per cent in the preceding six years.19

Protests failed to reverse the decision and the Vaal Civic Association, a UDF affiliate in whose formation ANC-aligned activists such as Nkondo had played an important role, called a stayaway from work and school on September 3, while a thousand miles away in Cape Town the government moved to implement the new tricameral constitution. Some 60 per cent of workers and nearly 100 per cent of pupils in the Vaal heeded the stayaway call and serious violence erupted between townships residents, on one hand, and councillors and police, on the other.

As the limited disturbances entered their second day, the ANC wanted them extended. It called upon people to intensify the struggle and...open new fronts. We must render inoperative the ability of apartheid to exploit and oppress us further. The sharp confrontations now ranging in Sharpeville, Evaton, Sebokeng, Lenasia and other areas must be widened and extended to other areas.20

South Africans should demonstrate their rejection of the new constitution and make 'the stooges feel the wrath of our people and be completely ostracised'.21 Repression during the elections had confirmed, added the ANC, 'that the way forward to victory lies in a systematic combination of mass action and organised revolutionary violence within the framework of a growing people's war'.22

Over the next four weeks, 60 people died in the turbulence in Vaal townships, four of them township councillors. Damage amounted to some R30-million. Residents of Evaton, also protesting against rent increases, confronted police in a spiral of violence that had, by the end of September, led to the death of at least another 21 people in this township.

From exile, the ANC tried to provide guidance. In a Radio Freedom address in early September, Thabo Mbeki, the ANC's director of information and publicity, sought to encourage confrontation while moderating expectations. He said:

[I]n our planning, in our thinking, in our mobilisation, we must proceed from the basis that we inflicted a humiliating defeat on our enemy [through the boycott of the coloured and Indian elections]...

[A]s revolutionaries, as fighters for liberation, [we] must plan how we should continue our offensive, knowing very well that the enemy will, as it must, hit back to stop the emergence and consolidation of the revolutionary situation that Pretoria fears so much.

The forces to carry out [our] offensive are daily demonstrating in action their readiness to march ever forward...

...[W]e must answer the question...without seeking to create illusions among ourselves: Are we - as a democratic movement which the people have accepted as their authentic representative -doing all that is necessary to move this organised, conscious and active mass army of liberation into a continuing all-round offensive for the seizure of power by the people?23

In answer to his own question, Mbeki called for a campaign to make the country ungovernable. It recalled an appeal by Nelson Mandela in 1958.24 Mbeki said:

We must destroy the enemy organs of government. We must render them ineffective and inoperative... In rejecting Botha's regime, we also reject his puppets. There is no reason that we should allow these puppets to control our lives...

In every locality and in all parts of our country, we must fight to ensure that we remove the enemy's organs of government...

All classes and strata among the oppressed peoples are adversely affected by the apartheid system... Accordingly, our offensive against the enemy's organs of government has to be carried out by the people in their entirety...25

Apart from rhetorical urgings, the ANC's ability to provide tactical guidance to township militants was extremely limited, despite growing popular support for the outlawed movement. The ANC's main operational bridgehead in Mozambique had been largely dismantled; its Swaziland machineries were under heavy pressures; MK infiltration had all-but dried up; and those MK cadres hurriedly infiltrated after the Nkomati Accord were suffering appalling casualties. Moreover, the ANC's underground comprised scattered units without any internal command structure. And the detention of UDF leaders had netted members of the underground, further weakening the ANC's capacity to provide leadership.

The weakness of the underground in this critical period was illustrated when six senior UDF leaders sought sanctuary from detention in the British consulate in Durban in mid-September. Four of the six - Archie Gumede, Mewa Ramgobin, George Sewpersadh and M J Naidoo - had been among the 14 UDF leaders detained shortly before the Indian election in late August; but on September 7 the Natal Supreme Court had ruled their detention unlawful and they had been released before the state could serve amended detention orders. The UDF leaders then hid for a week before seeking refuge and publicity for their cause in the consulate. There, they were joined by Paul David, a leading Natal Release Mandela Committee member. Three of them left the consulate on October 6 and were arrested, the remaining three did so on December 12 and two of them were also arrested. The men were leading members or associates of the ANC and/or SACP underground in Natal.26 Whatever the propaganda value of their refuge, their action further weakened the ANC operationally at a critical moment. The consulate fiasco preceded the commencement in December 1984 of the first major trial of UDF leaders. Eight UDF leaders were charged with treason and refused bail; later, their number increased to 16. Again, this seriously affected the ANC's and UDF's capacity to operate.27

In the midst of the violence, confusion and absence of leadership, three stayaways served, however, to show the ANC and its allies a way forward. The first was called for September 17 in Soweto by the Release Mandela Committee (RMC)28 to express solidarity with Vaal township residents. The RMC did not canvass the stayaway at all widely, apparently believing its merits were self-evident. As a result, the stayaway was a limited success and ended in confusion.29

The second stayaway presaged a turning point in popular resistance. It did not repeat the mistakes made in Soweto. It originated in the east Rand township of KwaThema in October with Cosas' attempts to elicit adult support for the demands of black students, some 220,000 of whom were then boycotting classes nationwide.30 At a meeting of about 4,000 people in KwaThema on October 14, a township parent-student committee was established. Its members included Fosatu president Chris Dlamini.31 The committee sent a list of students' grievances to the government, demanded that all township councillors resign and that all security forces withdraw from the townships. If the demands were not met, said the committee, parents would act in solidarity with students. When no response was received, residents held a highly successful stayaway from work and school on October 22.

Early the next morning, about 60km south of KwaThema, 7,000 South African Defence Force troops helped police seal off the three townships in the Vaal worst affected by unrest - Sebokeng, Sharpeville and Boipatong - mounted a big search operation and arrested about 400 people.32 'Operation Palmiet', as it was called, was the most dramatic incidence since the 1960 emergency33 of the use the Defence Force against domestic unrest.

The operation indicated the state's ability to contain, isolate and move through any one black township affected by unrest with a relatively small force. The location of black townships some distance from 'white' areas and from township residents' places of work, together with the few access routes to townships and the regularity and breadth of their streets facilitated this containment. It was clear that, unless government security forces were seriously attenuated, they could easily re-establish control over any township of small group of townships.

Further attempts by Cosas to gain adult support for student-led campaigns in the Transvaal now stimulated a turning point in resistance culture. A Fosatu committee in the Transvaal, set up to develop responses to the unrest and chaired by Dlamini, felt that the dividing lines between the struggles of the students, workers and township residents were becoming increasingly blurred. Significantly, they felt Fosatu's past avoidance of community-based struggles looked less defensible. On factory floors, there was also support for the students, who had supported earlier union calls for consumer boycotts in support of workers' demands. Moreover, many workers felt that the unions were sufficiently powerful to safeguard their class interests while participating in multi-class struggles.

At a meeting on October 27 in Johannesburg, 37 organisations, mainly UDF affiliates but also including Fosatu, decided on a two-day stayaway in the PWV complex in support of students', unions' and civic organisations' demands.34 The meeting established a Transvaal Regional Stayaway Committee to organise for action on November 5 and 6. Its composition reflected an easing of tensions between ANC/UDF activists and aligned unions and the 'independent worker' tendency, represented by Fosatu.35

Abroad, at least one senior PMC official was unaware of the impending stayaway three days before it was due to start.36 Inside the country, ANC influence was substantial via UDF affiliates and through Release Mandela Committee involvement on the stayaway committee. But at the level of organisation and delivery, Fosatu and Cosas would prove more significant.

In a triumph of organisation, some 400,000 students boycotted classes on November 5 and 6, as about 800,000 workers absented themselves from work. South Africa's industrial heartland ground to a halt. The stayaway was one of the most effective examples of the political general strike in post-World War Two South Africa.

The stayaway revealed, in action, to leaders of the 'independent worker' tendency that they and ANC- and UDF-aligned activists could work together. Despite tensions between them, this presaged further cooperation between the two most powerful tendencies in the militant anti-apartheid opposition.

The stayaway also resolved a strategic hiatus within the UDF. Jeremy Cronin, a former ANC political prisoner working for the UDF in Cape Town in October 1984, recalls:

We had very successfully boycotted the tri-cameral elections and...black local authorities, which was the project which had assembled the UDF... [After that] there was a substantial strategic crisis of...how to go forward... And there were two threads coming through at that point. One was a return back into our affiliates, picking up on issues of wash lines and rents [although] we didn't attach the significance that [the] rent issue later assumed... But there were...strong feelings that you couldn't just retreat back into that. You had to, at the same time, be focusing on the national political issue of state power. But we didn't know how to do that. We were lost, I would say. And what the stayaway did - although it didn't provide the answer - [it] pointed to continuing mass surges, mass militancy. [It] also indicated that the mobilisation that had occurred through the UDF - [which] had, to some extent, particularly around the August period, had been focused on the coloured and Indian community - that this heightened political climate had [also] affected quite dramatically the African townships... And from then on, from that November stayaway onwards, the real focus, the cutting edge of struggle, became the African township.37.

As serious disturbances continued in the Vaal area and east Rand through September and October, the ANC's Radio Freedom continued to urge attacks on the outposts of apartheid administration: 'What is happening today...in the African areas around the Vaal Triangle must be extended to cover the entire country,' it declared.38 One week after the November stayaway, Radio Freedom said:

We must use all methods of struggle both legal and illegal, underground and above [?board], mass political activity and revolutionary violence... We need to arm ourselves. We need to know how to prepare home-made explosives, Molotov cocktails, etc. Already these weapons have been used in clashes with the fascist police or in attacks against stooges. Those of us who have the know-how must teach others... Each and every white family has their weapons hidden somewhere. We work for these people. In some cases we even know where these weapons are hidden. Let us disarm the whites and arm ourselves. Let us organise raiding groups to break into shops that sell weapons. Let us fight back.39

Radio Freedom added in the next breath, however, that it was important to attract whites to the ANC and to erode apartheid's political base.40

The White Response

The turbulence, together with increased deployment of white military conscripts in black townships, created considerable disquiet among the white liberal intelligentsia and business community. The End Conscription Campaign (ECC), a number of whose leaders had clandestine links with the ANC,41 intensified its activities, campaigned for the withdrawal of troops from African townships and underwent dramatic growth in membership.42 It claimed a big increase in the number of draft dodgers, although this was disputed by the Defence Force.43

Voices within the white business community argued that only a new social contract could ensure stability and profitability. The chairman of one of South Africa's largest companies, Tony Bloom of Premier Milling, told businessmen shortly after the November stayaway that he had a 'feeling that the wheels have begun to come off'. He advocated negotiations with the ANC, which had 'very, very substantial support'.44 Most business leaders questioned the state's response to the unrest, particularly the detention of trade union leaders involved in organising the stayaway, who included Fosatu president Dlamini and Piroshaw Camay, secretary of the Council of Unions of South Africa (Cusa). Unusually, the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut, government-aligned in the past, joined the other major employer organisations, the Federated Chamber of Industries and Association of Chambers of Commerce, in criticising these detentions. Employers believed the detentions endangered the fragile modus vivendi they had with the emergent unions.45

Insurrection Revisited

The November stayaway stimulated renewed interest in the question of insurrection in the external mission. The various ingredients for insurrection appeared to be materialising.

ANC theorists had long considered the winning over of a significant portion of state security forces to the ANC a necessary condition for successful insurrection. The seemingly impregnable unity of state security forces had thus delayed serious consideration of insurrection.46 But Slovo now claimed to detect an increase black membership of bantustan armed forces, the SA Defence Force and police.47 Moreover, there was increasing disenchantment among white conscripts.

The uprisings were producing other insurrectionary ingredients. Groups of militants were banding together to form combat units which were daily engaging security forces in the streets. Organised labour, under militant leadership, was showing an impressive ability to mount political general strikes. And the November stayaway indicated a potential for 'a combination of all forms of struggle, the cutting thrust of which was the political stayaways', in the eyes of Garth Strachan, a leading ANC operational official in Zimbabwe.48

The SACP was the first component of the ANC-led alliance to study the recent developments and reorganise itself for new challenges. At its sixth congress in Moscow in December 1984, a month after the Transvaal stayaway,49 the SACP resolved to shift the focus of its activities away from strengthening the ANC (and recruiting within it) towards building its independent underground presence inside South Africa, particularly within the emergent trade union movement.50 Slovo's election as new SACP chairman to replace Dr Yusuf Dadoo, who had died, improved the sense of direction of the party, which decided to free a handful of its members from their ANC duties to do purely SACP work,51 and decided to publish a quarterly internal agitational pamphlet, Umsebenzi.52

The first edition of Umsebenzi published an outline of a new strategic vision. After a side-swipe at surviving members of the 'independent worker' tendency, in which the SACP asserted that the November stayaway had sent a message to all our working people that political and economic demands cannot be separated [and...] exposed those meddlers who have been trying to stop the trade union movement from playing a part in the national liberation struggle[,]53

the party declared the South African conflict was moving towards an insurrectionary outcome. It said:

When the situation is ripe the national withdrawal of labour can combine with other mass actions, including the use of revolutionary violence, to destroy the racist regime.54

For SACP members like Strachan, the challenge now was whether or not the ANC could develop the underground capacity to cultivate, and then combine, the forms of struggle suggested by this vision and by MCW, the insurrectionary doctrine.55

Available statistics of unrest in the four months after September 1984 indicated, however, that the ANC had a long way to go towards cultivating that capacity. The figures vindicated concerns within the ANC over the weakness of its underground and its very limited capacity to defend its potential constituency. Police recorded 2,370 unrest-related incidents of violence in this period.56 The death toll was 149, almost without exception black people, of whom 16% were said to be blacks killed by blacks. Some 77 per cent had been killed by gunshot wounds, suggesting most were probably victims of security force action. A further 651 people were injured, 80 per cent of them as a result of gunshot wounds.57 Security force deaths numbered only three, with 82 injured.58 Moreover, the ANC leadership conceded that it had 'not realised' its plans, dating back to 1980, to build up stores of small arms distribution to people in the event of a new round of uprisings.59

Nonetheless, pockets of insurrection continued, throwing up new organs and forms of struggle. In many townships, residents did not merely displace state-approved local government; they also replaced it. Scores, and soon hundreds, of councillors resigned in late 1984 under popular pressure and threat. The prototype replacement of state-approved local government was developed in Lingelihle, the African township serving the small Eastern Cape town of Cradock. There, a civic organisation, Cradora, had by November 1984 not merely forced the resignation of all councillors but established their own local government: a system of elected street and zone committees. The Cradock experience greatly inspired other communities to emulate it.

In Vaal townships, outraged residents refused en masse to pay rent and service charges. The result - though not the boycotters' original objective60 - was to undermine seriously the financial base of the local council, and impose new burdens on the state treasury.

The ANC took public stock of this blizzard of developments in its New Year Address in January 1985. The executive felt that the ANC's progress depended upon considerable improvements in its armed activity and the underground. The underground was the key. It alone could draw together the different strands of struggle.61

The executive said that areas in which 'democratic forces' had emerged as 'the alternative power' should be transformed into 'mass revolutionary bases' from which MK could grow as a people's army.62 MK needed to link up with the groups of township residents involved in attacks against the local state, so 'drawing the masses into the prosecution of a people's war'.63 The executive also called for improvements to organisation in the rural areas and bantustans64 - indicative of a recognition that this was necessary for the ANC to be able to attenuate state forces.

In January and February 1985, serious unrest spread from townships on the Vaal and east Rand, to the eastern Cape, Karoo and parts of the Orange Free State. In February, there were serious clashes between police and residents at the Crossroads squatter camp outside Cape Town. March saw a dramatic escalation of turbulence in the eastern Cape, particularly in the industrial town of Uitenhage. There, on March 21, the 25th anniversary of the Sharpeville shootings, police opened fire on a crowd of marchers, killing at least 20. In April, unrest escalated in townships on the east Rand, eastern and Western Cape and Orange Free State, bringing the unrest death toll since the beginning of 1985 to 161.65 Tensions were high in Natal where the opposition of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha movement to the unrest was an important factor in checking upheaval in the province.

In cases where township residents themselves went on the offensive, township councillors and local police were common targets of their rage. In the eight months to the end of April 1985, the homes of 814 policemen were destroyed or badly damaged;66 in the seven months to July, 12 policemen or councillors were killed and 100 injured in attacks;67 and, in the nine months to May, 257 township councillors resigned in response to demands that they should do so.68

UDF strategists were slow to achieve any clarity on what the form of unrest meant for their strategy. Some, like Jeremy Cronin, had been convinced by the onset of the uprisings and the November 1984 stayaway that the African townships should be the focus of UDF energies. But, relates Cronin, it took longer for the UDF to see that the

...problems that we were posing rather abstractly - the question of state power - was being addressed, not theoretically but practically, through the destruction of the lower echelons of state power and the building of alternative forms.69

As in this instance so too in others, formulation of UDF strategy followed, and sought to account for, practice; those responsible for the practice informing UDF strategy were significantly autonomous of the UDF; in this sense, the UDF was leading from behind.

The Revolutionary Moment

The ANC and SACP had, since 1969, believed it was necessary to differentiate between two phenomena. The first was what the SACP described as 'a revolutionary situation', 'in which a call to revolution involving an armed uprising would properly be on the agenda'. The second was the process during which organised violence was used, either defensively or as part of a planned build-up, towards an all-round revolutionary insurrection.70

In mid-1985, the PMC believed that the period of build-up was approaching its climax and that insurrection was now properly on the agenda. History was, at last, about to produce the revolutionary moment. The NEC put this view across in a statement on April 25 1985. The statement was drafted by Slovo.71 Several thousand copies were distributed in leaflet form inside South Africa, mainly in Natal.72

The leaflet stated the understanding of the 'moment' in South Africa within a Leninist framework. In parts, it is almost a parody of the preconditions Lenin laid down early this century for a revolutionary moment73 and for successful insurrection.74 Whereas Lenin had stated 'it must be impossible for the ruling class to maintain their rule without any change', the ANC said it was now 'clear that the racists cannot rule in the old way'. Whereas Lenin stated there must be 'a crisis...among the "upper classes"', the ANC said that 'on the side of the ruling class the economic and political crisis has reached new heights'. Whereas Lenin had said that the ruling class's crisis must be of a kind that leads 'to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth', the ANC stated that all government 'reforms, designed to defuse the developing revolutionary assault, trigger off even more vigorous mass opposition' and that there is a 'growing ferment from below and the deepening crisis from above'.

The ANC leaflet noted that events were moving with 'astonishing speed' and suggested that there was a real possibility of decisive national insurrection soon. Echoing the SACP in Umsebenzi earlier, the ANC pamphlet's vision of insurrection was that

A long-lasting national work stoppage, backed by our oppressed communities and supported by armed activity can break the backbone of the apartheid system and bring the regime to its knees.75

The leaflet claimed that ANC strategic foresight had been crucial to bringing about this state of affairs. The leaflet referred to the New Year Address four months earlier in which the ANC had called for the creation of 'mass revolutionary bases' and for the country to be made 'ungovernable', and asserted:

Only three months have passed since that call was made and already the surge of people's resistance and active defiance have reached new heights. The face of our country is changing before our very eyes.76

The leaflet issued a series of directives to different sections and strata of the ANC's potential constituency. The doctrinal schema of MCW underlay them. In particular, the leaflet addressed ways of extending the two main elements of an MCW-type offensive: the 'political army' and 'revolutionary army'.77

The leaflet appealed for a broadening of what MCW called the 'political army' - those acting consciously to bring about revolution. The leaflet urged the black working class to absorb the lessons of the recent successful stayaways in the Transvaal and eastern Cape and to 'sharpen the weapon of workers' power at the point of production in the struggle for national liberation' with a view to 'combining national stay-away action with countrywide mass popular actions'. Organisations straddling the middle ground - 'social institutions, religious, cultural, civic and sporting', which had a 'belief in the brotherhood of man' - should 'side even more vigorously with the cause of people's liberation'. There should be mass defiance of apartheid laws. Any black person serving in 'the machineries of apartheid' should immediately resign. And the white community in general should 'move away from its support of apartheid' and 'increase the ranks of the growing number of democratic whites who are participating in our liberation struggle'.

The leaflet also called for a broadening of what the MCW schema referred to as the 'revolutionary army'. It called upon MK units, who comprised the 'organised advanced detachment' of the 'revolutionary army', to 'intensify the armed struggle with all means at its disposal and concentrate more and more on actions against the armed forces and police'. It called upon the youth and other militants - part of the 'revolutionary armed people', another element of the 'revolutionary army' - to 'find ways of organising themselves into small mobile units' which would 'act in an organised way in both white and black areas against the enemy and his agents', turn every black area into a '"no go area" for any isolated individuals or pockets of the enemy's police or armed personnel', 'obtain arms by whatever means from the enemy and from any other source', and link up with MK units.

The leaflet also addressed itself to the third element of the revolutionary army - to army and police units which might transfer allegiance to the ANC. It urged blacks serving in state armed forces to 'stop shooting their brothers and sisters in defence of white rule' and, instead, to 'organise secretly to turn their guns against their masters'. White conscripts in the SA Defence Force should refuse to serve.

Maharaj, representing political operational machineries, was in full agreement with the drift of the leaflet Slovo had drafted.78 This was rare agreement indeed between the ANC's leading military and political strategists. But it had arrived too late to create the crucial missing element on which the successful working out of the insurrectionary schema depended: an underground leadership inside South Africa able to lead and combine a range of forms of struggle. The ANC, while it proclaimed its moment had arrived, was unable even to move senior officials into the forward areas to provide an improved level of tactical command from there.79

At this point, The formal political underground still numbered only about 350 to 500 individuals.80 On the other hand, the informal underground was growing rapidly. But the ANC had no programme to bring this later, expanding body of people into a closer relationship with it. Most of the ANC leadership evidently still viewed the uprisings as mainly a military problem, which is where most resources were directed.81

Problems in the Forward Areas

The ANC presence in Zimbabwe82 had yet to make any significant progress in its attempts to start a classical guerilla war in the northern Transvaal.83 Over and above organisational problems and disputes in local ANC structures.84 ANC military activity from Zimbabwe was undermined by an array of security measures put in place in the northern Transvaal. These included early warning systems for local white farmers, electronic surveillance systems, and border patrols.85

Botswana and Lesotho, from the latter of which several score ANC exiles had been withdrawn, remained under pressure to sign Nkomati-style accords with South Africa. In the early hours of June 14, the South African Defence Force mounted a raid against 10 alleged ANC houses and offices in and around Gaborone, Botswana's capital. Twelve people died, eight of them South Africans.86 Most of the dead South Africans were members of, or had links with, the ANC, though none of those killed held command-level positions.87

A key element of South Africa's counter-insurgency strategy had always been to keep ANC command and control structures stationed abroad and continually to interrupt its lines into South Africa.88 The strategy's success was apparent. According to Maharaj:

the enemy devised a strategy where...they forced us off track...they forced us into a mode of retreat and discontinuity of structures.

Inside the country, meanwhile, there existed no substitute for external command. In the fast-moving circumstances of the mid-1985, to the extent that the ANC could be said to be providing any tactical leadership at all, it, too, was leading from behind.

ANC Conference

When about 200 external mission delegates89 gathered for the ANC's second national consultative conference in Kabwe, Zambia, in June 1985, operational officials based in forward areas were determined that their central argument be heard and heeded. It was that the ANC's main weakness was its underground and that weakness resulted from political-military parallelism and dislocation in operational structures. They faced several difficulties in getting a proper hearing, the most important of which resulted from the fact that this was the first ANC conference since 1969 which meant scores of administrative issues would also need to be dealt with. These issues, operational officials feared, might compete with strategic questions for attention. And so they did. Long political and administrative reports by Tambo, by secretary general Alfred Nzo and by treasurer-general Thomas Nkobi occupied delegates for several days.90

The conference did, however, appoint three commissions to dealt with operational matters - an Internal Commission, a Commission on Strategy and Tactics, and a Commission on National Structures, Constitutional Guidelines and Codes of Conduct. Each listed its recommendations,91 which then went before the conference and were recodified into conference recommendations.92 All three commissions called for drastic improvements in political-military cooperation. But, whereas, the Internal Commission and the Commission on Strategy and Tactics advocated political-military integration, the Commission on National Structures favoured separate political and military lines of command which would be coordinated.

The Internal Commission called for a revival of the Area Political Committee (APC) concept of 1981, - that is, of regional political underground leaderships overseeing all specialities in their area - and for the deployment of senior ANC leaders into the country to staff them.93 It also recommended changes to the PMC, the ANC's top operational organ94 - notably a reduction in its size of the kind envisaged in the 1978-1979 strategic review but never implemented because some ANC leaders feared a more dynamic Revolutionary Council (as it then was) might develop into a rival of the NEC. The Commission on Strategy and Tactics agreed with the Internal Commission. It called for the application of MCW principles,95 which closely accorded with the APC concept.

But the commission on national structures wanted parallel political and military lines of command which would be coordinated.96 When these key operational recommendations came to be summarised, the formulation spoke of 'combined political/military structures' - without specifying more clearly what this meant.97 The issue had been fudged. In practice, this imprecision would mean coordination in the forward areas.

The conference also decided to change operational structures yet again (see Figure 6 overleaf). In each forward area a regional political-military committee (RPMC) would be established. An RPMC would, in effect bring together the separate political and military committees which had been set up in 1983 and would coordinate their respective activities, plus those of the intelligence department and of Sactu in the region of South Africa for which the forward area was responsible. This approximated the 'senior organ' model of the 1980-83 period. Inside South Africa, the plan was to establish area political-military committees (APMCs) to coordinate different specialisations. This was a bow in the direction of the APC concept, though it seems the intention was not to give political leaderships on APMCs control of other operational specialisations such as military combat.

The gravest shortcoming of the conference was that it did not give itself the time to arrive at a comprehensive statement of strategy and tactics. The Morogoro version, dating back to 1969, was hopelessly outdated. A draft of a new basic strategy document had been prepared before the conference,98 but was very general. In Maharaj's view, it followed Morogoro's formulations and Slovo's 'Planning for People's War' in its base militarism, yet sought to skirt the key points of dispute: the role of armed activity as opposed to political activity in people's war; the relationship between people's war and the insurrectionary potential then evident; and the possibilities for a negotiated settlement in South Africa involving the ANC, which some believed were 'incipient'.99

The draft for a new strategy and tactics document was bound to be controversial. But, laments the report of the Commission on Strategy and Tactics,

there had been no circulation [of it] to the regions, and even Conference delegates saw it for the first time a few hours before proceedings began... [W]hen [the commission on strategy and tactics] convened, the overwhelming majority of its members had not yet managed to read the draft, and we had to adjourn for some hours to enable them to do so.100

The commission was, thus, unable to formulate a new strategy and tactics document. Moreover, it could not expect the full conference to do so since it had set aside less than two-and-a-half hours in plenary for consideration of both the Strategy and Tactics Commission's and the Internal Commission's reports!101

To correct this failure, the conference instructed the NEC to set up a special sub-committee to draft a new strategy and tactics document after the conference; the draft would then be 'circulated amongst all units, branches and regions [of the ANC] for thorough discussion and appraisal' before adoption by the NEC.102 One of the most junior (and intellectually able) members of the NEC elected at the conference, Pallo Jordan, was appointed convenor of this sub-committee.103 But Jordan lacked the authority to push the committee to complete its work.104 In the event, the committee reported only in October 1989 - more than four years later!105 By then, Jordan concedes, its report had 'been overtaken by events'.

At the most crucial moment in its history, in the midst of the most serious uprisings in South Africa in which its name was being widely proclaimed as leader of a revolution, the ANC had held a conference and concluded it with no generally agreed formulation of strategy. Without agreement on what the ANC intended to achieve and on broadly how it wanted to go about achieving it, how could the ANC agree on the forces, means and structures necessary to do so? Since the role of structures was to serve policy, in the absence of a policy appropriate structures could not be properly determined. The ANC had nobbled itself.


The new round of uprisings, which resulted from provocative local and central government measures instituted by the state, provided the ANC with conditions for which it had long waited. Yet the ANC was unable to give the new upsurge any strategic coherence. It was confined largely to shouting from the sidelines. It was as if the ANC was taken by surprise by exactly the thing it had so long sought to usher into existence.

The ANC could not develop its vision of people's war; nor could it give any shape to the insurrectionary forms of struggle that developed. Although thousands of ordinary people were now actually engaging state armed forces in the streets, the ANC was unable to provide them with tactical leadership. It could merely release statements, such as its 'Call to the Nation' of April 1985. Although this street combat was grossly unequal, MK was unable to protect the ANC's potential constituency from state armed forces to any meaningful extent. And, although the ANC was proclaimed leader of the upsurge, it was mounted by people who were, organisationally, substantially autonomous of it.

It was as if all the warnings about the consequences of political-military parallelism in operational structures given by Maharaj and political structures were now being vindicated. MK had quite clearly been unable to integrate itself into the limited organisational base the ANC had inside the country. ANC operational structures still made cooperation between political and military cadres in the field almost impossible. There was no underground leadership in place able to combine different forms of struggle. The ANC lacked the capacity to ensure that simultaneous uprisings in disparate townships attenuated state armed forces. In sum, although the situation was one of unprecedented political advance for the ANC, strategically it was a disaster.

Within the ANC, strategic confusion was deep. To escape this confusion, the ANC sought guidance from two beacons. The first was a collection of the old Leninist battle cries articulated some 60 years earlier in a situation some 7,000 miles away. The second was language borrowed from a strategic doctrine of revolution, MCW, which the Soviet Union's security services had extruded from attempts at insurrection in various countries. When, at its consultative conference in June 1985, the ANC was required seriously to develop its own strategic path, it could not do so. Without knowing what it wanted to do, the ANC could not determine appropriate structures for the task. In these circumstances, various factions in the leadership could be expected to develop their own initiatives, with or without colleagues' knowledge - as the next, and final, chapter shows.

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.