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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Excerpt "Unity in Action"

A Short History of the African National Congress (South Africa) 1912-1982


In 1959 at its national conference in Durban, the ANC resolved to conduct the following year a massive nation-wide struggle against the Pass Laws. This campaign was under way when the PAC sought to wreck it by launching its passive resistance campaign only ten days before the National Anti-Pass Campaign was to begin on 31st March, 1960. When the police shot the people at Sharpeville and PAC was in disarray the ANC called a national one day strike on March 28, 1960 and ordered massive burning of passes. The South African regime, alarmed by the powerful wave of mass action by the masses of our people, declared the African National Congress illegal. The ANC refused to accept the order of the powers that be, and decided to continue the struggle as an underground and illegal organisation. On December 16, 1961, organised acts of sabotage against government installations took place, marking the emergence of Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation) which was later to become the armed wing of the ANC. The date, December 16, which was chosen for the initial sabotage acts, was of historical significance. It is a public holiday in South Africa commemorating the military victory of the Afrikaner Voortrekkers over the African warriors on the banks of the Ncome River (re-christened by the settlers Blood River) in Natal in

1838 and is thus symbolic for the ascendancy of white power over the Blacks.

To the Africans this day symbolises resistance and the indomitable quest for freedom - it was on this day that Johannes Nkosi, a communist activist was killed in Durban in 1930. It was logical that on December 16, 1961 a leaflet issued by the High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe was widely distributed in the country. The leaflet stated that:

'... Umkhonto we Sizwe will carry on the struggle for freedom and democracy by new methods, which are necessary to complement the actions of the established national liberation organisations. Umkhonto we Sizwe fully supports the national liberation movement and our members jointly and individually, place themselves under the overall political guidance of that movement.'

This document goes on to say:

'But the people's patience is not endless. The time comes in the life of any nation when there remains only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom... We are striking out along a new road for the liberation of the people of this country. The Government policy of force, repression and violence will no longer be met with non-violent resistance alone!'

The document then determines the place and role of Umkhonto we Sizwe in the overall strategy of the movement:

'Umkhonto we Sizwe will be at the front line of the people's defence. It will be the fighting arm of the people against the Government and its policies of race oppression. It will be the striking force of the people for liberty, for rights and for their final liberation... In these actions, we are working in the best interests of all the people of this country-black, brown and white-whose future happiness and well-being cannot be attained without the overthrow of the Nationalist Government, the abolition of white supremacy and the winning of liberty, democracy and full national rights and equality for all the people of this country.'

In other words, this document spells out the policy of armed struggle as conceived by our movement; it signalled the dawn of a new era - that of armed struggle in its proper perspective, that is, under the overall political guidance of our movement.

The question arises: who then formed Umkhonto we Sizwe and under whose political direction and guidance was it to operate? This question becomes legitimate when one considers that, although Umkhonto we Sizwe consisted of members of the Congress Alliance and the Communist Party-and this fact became more and more obvious with the number of trials taking place - none of the constituent organisations of the Alliance had adopted the policy of armed struggle.

Nelson Mandela answers the question:

'At the beginning of June, 1961, after a long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our demands with force' [our emphasis].

Mandela continued to explain that the problem was not whether to fight but how to continue the fight. The main issue to resolve was not a technical one i.e. the military training of cadres to advance the struggle along a violent path. It was essentially political and lay at the heart of the discussion on the new strategy and the future conduct of the struggle.

What were the problems? Two points are important in Nelson Mandela's statement. The first is that the decision to form Umkhonto we Sizwe was not an organisational decision, but by individual members of the liberation movement. The second point, and probably the key political problem facing Mandela and his comrades, was how to inform the national liberation organisations, convince them of the need of the armed struggle as a necessity to continue the struggle, and establish the proper political relationship between the liberation movement and Umkhonto we Sizwe. It is this dilemma which inspired the opening statement of the

Manifesto of Umkhonto we Sizwe: 'Umkhonto we Sizwe is a new independent body, formed by Africans' [our emphasis] and such formulations:

'complement the actions of the established national liberation organisations' or 'Umkhonto we Sizwe fully supports the national liberation movement...'

Nowhere in the manifesto is the ANC mentioned; allegiance to it is rather implied.

These problems were of a temporary and transient nature. The policy and politics of Umkhonto we Sizwe at the beginning of the 1960s were to be later explained -

ably at that - by Nelson Mandela in his address at the Rivonia Trial.

Operating underground, organising the May 1961 general strike - which included travel throughout the country, living now in African townships, then in country villages and again in the cities - Mandela was guided by the All-ln African Conference which took place in

Pietermaritzburg on 25 and 26 March, 1961. This Conference was attended by 1,500 delegates from town and country, representing 145 religions, social, cultural, sporting and political bodies. The conference established an All-ln African Action Council-Mandela became its Secretary. The conference further resolved that, to avert the dangerous situation developing in South Africa a 'sovereign national convention' representative of all South Africans to draw up a new non-racial and democratic constitution should be called. This convention would discuss the national problems of South Africa and work out solutions which would seek to preserve and safeguard the interests of all sections of the population. The convention was to be called before May 31 and failing which, country-wide demonstrations would be held on the eve of the Republic-that is from the 29th to 31st May. Further the

Africans would be called upon to refuse to cooperate with the proposed 'Republic'.

Mandela as Secretary of the National Action Council wrote letters to Prime Minister, H.F. Verwoerd on April 20 and again on April 30. No reply, no acknowledgement was received. On the contrary more than ten thousand Africans were arrested under the pass laws and meetings of Africans were banned. But, in spite of this, the strike was a success.

It was during this period of underground mobilisation that the ANC received an invitation to attend a conference of the Pan African Freedom Movement for East and Central African (PAFMECA)-it later became PAFMECSA, including Southern Africa and was one of the predecessors of the OAU. Mandela attended this conference in Addis Ababa and addressed it on behalf of the ANC. Part of his mission was to tour Africa and to make direct contact with African leaders on the continent. 'The tour of the continent made a forceful impression on me' he later remarked.

He met Julius Nyerere and Rashidi Kawawa (Tanganyika); Emperor Haile Selassie (Ethiopia); General Abboud (Sudan); Habib Bourguiba (Tunisia); Modiba Keita (Mali); Leopold Senghor (Senegal); Sekou Toure (Guinea); Tubman (Liberia); Ben Bella and Colonel Boumedienne (Algeria); Milton Obote (Uganda); Kenneth Kuanda (Zambia then Northern Rhodesia); Oginga Odinga (Kenya, then a British colony); Joshua Nkomo (Zimbabwe, then Southern Rhodesia) and many others. It is important to note that some of these leaders were then freedom fighters - their countries were not yet independent. 'In all these countries we were showered with hospitality, and assured of solid support for our cause', remembered Mandela. In Britain he was received by Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party and by Jo Grimond, leader of the Liberal Party, among others.

This African trip of Mandela was very important for the strategy of our movement and the nascent Umkhonto we Sizwe. Mandela states:

'I started to make a study of the art of war and revolution and... underwent a course in military training. If there was to be guerrilla warfare, I wanted to be able to stand and fight with my people and to share the hazards of war with them...I acknowledge that I made these studies to equip myself for the role which I might have to play if the struggle drifted into guerrilla warfare.'

Mandela did not stop at that. He also made arrangements 'for our recruits to undergo military training...The first batch of recruits actually arrived in Tanganyika when I was passing through that country on my way back to South Africa'.

Whilst on the African tour Mandela had discussions with leading African politicians and freedom fighters:

'I had discussions with leaders of political movements in Africa and discovered that almost every single one of them, in areas which had still not attained independence, had received all forms of assistance from the socialist countries, as well as from the West, including that of financial support. I also discovered that some well-known African states, all of them non-

communists, and even anti-communists, had received similar assistance... I made a strong recommendation to the ANC that we should not confine ourselves to Africa and the Western countries, but that we should also send a mission to the socialist countries to raise the funds which were so urgently needed.'

These are some of the results of Mandela's trip to Africa about which he reported to the ANC. Mandela returned to South Africa in July 1962 and worked underground until he was arrested in Natal on August 5, 1962. He was convicted on November 7, and sentenced to three years' imprisonment on the charge of incitement and two years for leaving the country without valid documents. At the close of the trial the crowd ignored a special prohibition on all demonstrations relating to trials and marched through the streets singing Tshotsholoza Mandela (struggle Mandela).

The struggle continued. Mandela's colleagues, notably Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Rusty Bernstein, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni continued the struggle, planning recruiting, sending recruits abroad for training and continuing with the acts of sabotage.

This continued until 11 July 1963 when the police raided a farm, Lillieslief, at Rivonia near

Johannesburg and arrested them, capturing documentary evidence which was later used against them. They appeared in court on October 9, 1963 on charges of 193 acts of sabotage committed between 27 June 1962 and the date of the Rivonia raid. Mandela was brought from prison to become Accused No. 1. These acts of sabotage were allegedly carried out by people recruited by the accused in their capacity as members of the High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Denis Goldberg - it was alleged - had been negotiating for the purchase of components which would have been sufficient for the manufacture of some 200,000 hand grenades. The National High Command had certainly got past the negotiating stage in its efforts to acquire tons of high explosives; boxes had been ordered in vast quantities for the manufacture of land mines. The aim was to start guerrilla warfare coupled with an 'armed invasion and a violent revolution or uprising'. Among the accused - as we stated before - was Nelson Mandela, who was brought from prison to stand trial as the first accused. He had by then completed one year of a five year sentence of imprisonment.

After a long, boring and tedious procedure which involved no less than 173 prosecution witnesses-including Bruno Mtolo and Patrick Abel Mthembu who had inside knowledge of ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe, Mandela made his statement from the dock in Pretoria Supreme Court on April 20, 1964 at the opening of the defence case. The main content of his speech - which we have already quoted elsewhere in this chapter - was:

(a) To turn the trial from one of defending themselves on a capital charge to that of using the courtroom to indict the racist regime led by the then Verwoerd; to turn the court into an ANC political platform; to use the court to address our people and inform them about the policy of the ANC.

(b) Even on conviction by the court to maintain this position and refuse to plead for mercy from the oppressor's courts.

Sisulu was the a defence witness. He followed Mandela's keynote speech in that he refused to implicate others who were still not arrested. By refusing to answer questions the Rivonia accused broke new ground in the South African courts, and certainly new as far as the political trials were concerned. Prior to this case, there had been a series of trials of people said to be members of the Pan African Congress (PAC) or POQO who attempted to exonerate themselves by naming or implicating dozens of others who had participated in their activities and so spreading the persecution even wider.

But the Rivonia accused were political people. They hoped thus to set a new standard which would be followed by others in political trials in South Africa's future. In fact, the example they set there has become a precedent, and in subsequent political trials many of the accused have followed it; many unwilling witnesses have refused to testify and have faced months of imprisonment for this refusal.

All the accused went through the same process. As an illustration of their calibre, courage and conviction, in the face of a death sentence, we quote the case of Ahmed Kathrada. Vernon Berrange led Kathrada's evidence. He was as much concerned to let the judge see the man as to get him to see the case. Berrange led Kathrada through the story of his life-how he had come to dedicate himself to political struggle, and what led him to devote virtually the whole of his life and activity to the national liberation struggle of the black people. Kathrada described his reaction when the African National Congress had been declared illegal in

1960: 'I was greatly disturbed' he declared. 'For many years the African and Indian Congresses had cooperated on numerous issues which affected both races. I believed that the disappearance of the ANC from the political scene in South Africa would deprive the

African people, or should I say all the oppressed people in the whole of South Africa, of a most responsible leadership'. Berrange: And as a member of a minority group where do you think your future lies?

Kathrada: I have long come to the conclusion, and so have the Indian people, that our future lies with the policies of the African National Congress.

Kathrada explained and described how he had been placed under house arrest in 1962. This prohibited him from entering factories, though his work at that time required his daily entry into printing works for whom he was a canvasser. It prohibited him from communicating with any other banned or listed people, from attending social gatherings, or from being out of doors during the hours of darkness or over the weekends. Up to 1963 he said - he had been arrested 'something like seventeen times since 1946...I am not including charges for just putting up posters or distributing leaflets or that sort of thing. In fact I was acquitted on nearly every charge except five'. The story went on up to the time of the Rivonia raid when they were arrested.

Then Percy Yutar, the state prosecutor, started his cross-examination. It was really a battle of unmatched weights. Dr Yutar in the field of politics was in the flyweight class; Kathrada being a heavyweight with a devastating upper cut and unexpected left. The case was much to the amusement of the accused and the public, who enjoyed nothing quite so well as seeing Kathrada strike out with that left and uppercut to the discomfiture of Dr Yutar who spoke in a voice several octaves higher than his normal tones, a real sing-song voice, rising to a crescendo; a dramatic wail accompanied by a dramatic falsetto which resulted in a cacophonous sound. Yutar's aggressive fashion and aggressive attack on Kathrada brought out the really aggressive side of Kathrada's personality. Yutar's manner acted as a spur to the aggressive sarcasm of Kathrada in discussion. Let us take a few excerpts of this battle to illustrate our point:

Yutar: You have called them [the cabinet ministers] amongst other things, criminal?

Kathrada: That's what they are.

Yutar found it hard to keep his temper with Kathrada, especially when Kathrada refused to answer questions about other people and their activities.

Yutar: Sisulu adopted that attitude in the box and you are doing the same.

Kathrada: Is there anything wrong with that?

Yutar: Don't ask me...I am telling you that you are adopting the same attitude as Sisulu.

Kathrada: That's obvious.

Yutar: And this political organisation to which you owe this loyalty; does it also include the African National Congress?

Kathrada: Yes.

Yutar: It also includes the Umkhonto?

Kathrada: If I knew anything about the Umkhonto I would not tell you. If the fact of it was to implicate anybody, I would not tell you.

Yutar: Then how am I to test your story and what you are telling us?

Kathrada: I feel very sorry for you Doctor, but I am unable to help you there.

Yutar: How is His Lordship to test the accuracy of your evidence? Kathrada: I am afraid I have no suggestions.'

And so it went on. In his irritation Yutar picked up one of the Mandela diaries in which there had been some entries referring to a certain 'K'. Yutar was rather anxious to prove that the 'K' referred to was Kathrada

Yutar: Are you sometimes referred to as K?'

Kathrada: I am not referred to as K.

Yutar: Never?

Kathrada: I don't know anybody who refers to me as K.

Yutar: Do you know anybody else who goes under the initial K?

Kathrada: Yes.

Yutar: Who?

Kathrada: Mr Krushchev.

There was laughter in court. Yutar is incapable of laughing at a joke at his own expense. He bellowed: 'So you are trying to be funny at my expense?' and Kathrada replied that Yutar asked him of a Mr K he knows of and he replied.

On Friday June 12, 1964 eleven months to the day after the Rivonia arrests Judge Quartus de Wet passed the sentence of life imprisonment on our comrades. The case was over. They were flown secretly to Robben Island.

All these comrades spoke up in defence of their actions; in defence of the movement; in defence of the aspirations of our people and gave an explanation why they took such actions. Their inspiring words are remembered and will be remembered for centuries to come wherever and whenever men talk of freedom. Besides their invaluable contribution to our struggle for decades before the Rivonia arrests what they achieved in 1963 was to implant Umkhonto we Sizwe in the political history of our country; Umkhonto we Sizwe was born and it later grew and is now bearing fruits. Chief Lutuli, restricted as he was to Groutville, made a statement as President-General of the ANC on the same day of the pronouncement of the sentence:

'The African National Congress never abandoned its method of a militant, non-violent struggle, and of creating in the process a spirit of militancy in the people. However, in the face of the uncompromising white refusal to abandon a policy which denies the African and other oppressed South Africans their rightful heritage - freedom no one can blame brave and just men for seeking justice by the use of violent methods; nor could they be blamed if they tried to create an organised force in order to ultimately establish peace and racial harmony... They represent the highest in morality and ethics in the South African struggle; this morality and ethics has been sentenced to an imprisonment it may never survive.'

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.