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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Move to armed struggle, operational strategy and MK's role in ANC


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Within the ANC, rhetorical habit asserted the need for armed struggle and held out the prospect of a seizure of state power by force. But an increasingly influential ANC faction doubted that armed struggle any longer offered any chance of progress and that revolution was in any sense a realisable objective. Moreover, the process of collapse of communist governments in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe meant the erosion of the international (and African) network of states on which the ANC's armed struggle had depended for arms, skills training and rear bases. It also meant a change in both the balance of forces and atmosphere in southern Africa, neither of which favoured violent resolutions to regional disputes.

A new set of circumstances had developed. In it, there seemed no solution to either the government's or the militant opposition's strategic hiatus - save via a turn to the politics of negotiation to formulate a new sociopolitical contract in South Africa which reconciled the two sides to some degree within a new institutional framework. De Klerk considered the ANC his indispensable adversary in this new contest - to set the terms of peace.

That the ANC should have achieved this centrality in

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South Africa's affairs- in either war or peace was- remarkable outcome. It was remarkable not the ANC had been outlawed, exiled and forced to operate underground for 30 years. It was also surprising because the ANC's record as an armed revolutionary movement was such a poor one.

Even a superficial examination of the ANC's operational activities as a revolutionary movement over the three decades between 1960 and 1990, particularly consideration of its armed struggle, shows the ANC seldom achieved what it set out to in its operations against the state. Indeed, the evidence invites the question: how did the ANC 'succeed' when it so evidently 'tailed'?

The move from passive resistance to the armed struggle- why it was necessary when it happened.

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Strategies which the ANC decided upon were, frequently, not acted upon. It was most evident in the ANC's attitude to military forms of struggle. Over the 1976 to 1986 period, the ANC viewed armed struggle as the central and supreme feature of its operational strategy.

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The ANC leadership, nevertheless, took a number of decisions to lessen the supremacy of armed struggle over other forms of non-violent, political struggle and to bring them into a closer, or a symbiotic, relationship. Yet I decisions along these lines were seldom implemented.

ANC operational strategy seldom achieved its goals. There were chronic disparities between, on the one hand, what the ANC set out to achieve operationally, and, on the other hand, what it in fact achieved or what incidentally happened.

How the armed struggle became the most central strategy, although it very rarely achieved any of its goals.

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According to Mac Maharaj, who served on MK's second (ad hoc) high command following the arrest of most of MK's original leadership in 1963, MK was, from the outset, an integral part of the ANC and its formation was unanimously approved by the ANC executive in mid-1961.

Mac Maharaj- MK's role within the ANC.

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Operation Mayibuye was premised on the belief that black popular support for MK, alongside international isolation of the South African government and 'massive assistance' for the ANC abroad, would redress the military a-symmetry between MK and the state. The plan also assumed that hitherto passive support for MK would rapidly translate into actual involvement in revolutionary activity immediately MK turned from sabotage to guerilla struggle.

Support for MK and its main activities.

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[N]o variant of Operation Mayibuye was executed. Following Mandela's arrest a year earlier, the remaining high command was arrested in mid-1963 by state security forces before it could initiate any actual guerrilla warfare.

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The ANC's 1969 Strategy and Tactics had justified the resort to armed struggle partly on the grounds of ANC 'disillusionment with the prospect of achieving liberation by traditional peaceful processes because the objective conditions blatantly bar[red] the way to change'. But this implied the converse: that, if alternatives emerged, the ANC might suspend armed struggle. Yet Strategy and Tactics did not deal with the possibility of future negotiations.

1969 Strategy and Tactics- justification of the resort to armed struggle. Didn't ever deal with the possibility of future negotiations.

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