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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Civilian Casualties of the Armed Struggle

Press Conference addressed by President O.R. Tambo 9 January, 1986

There is nothing in the ANC policy or strategy which calls for attacks on civilians - in supermarkets, schools, cinemas, unless these can in some ways be regarded as military installations or establishments. Even so, the ANC would not attack children even if they were in the military zone or establishment ...

I think I have in the past made the statement that we will not attack supermarkets. This would be going for civilian targets. But having said that I want to remind Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, that the South African situation is one of violence. There is a war going on there. The fact that the war so far is confined to townships does not alter the fact that South Africa is involved in war, limited, but war all the same because the army is doing the actual fighting, shooting, killing every day, since perhaps August or September 1984.

The army was there even before the state of emergency was declared. It is a war situation, and in that situation hundreds have been killed. Massacres have been perpetrated against civilians: Mamelodi, a massacre. Uitenhage, a massacre. Botswana, a massacre. Queenstown, a massacre. That situation is beginning to drift out of the townships, and not necessarily in a regular or predictable manner. But certainly we are beginning to see South Africans of all races going to bury their loved ones who have died in the South African situation - Whites, Africans, Indians, Coloureds, all going to bury the dead. The whole of South Africa is beginning to bleed in the face of the persistence of the apartheid system. And intensification means more of this.

If I had been approached by an ANC unit and asked whether they should go and plant a bomb at a supermarket, I would have said 'Of course not'.  But when our units are faced with what is happening all around them, it is understandable that some of them should say, 'Well, I may have to face being disciplined, but I am going to do this. I am going to do this - after all, President Botha has complained that Africans are killing themselves over there. He has complained that it is all Africans killing Africans. President Reagan has also complained'. And I can understand the circumstances in which this kind of thing can happen.

But all in all it means we are beginning to move into stormy times in South Africa, times which will involve us all. And it will be all, because there is the fundamental problem of the apartheid system in South Africa.

At some point I hope all South Africans will turn against this system and simply decide to abolish it, so that there should be no more bloodshed in our country ...

Q: Sir, you have said, for example, you would not approve of supermarkets, schools, cinemas as targets. You have also talked about the fact that as the escalation continues, civilians might get caught in the crossfire. Now it would seem to me that if you are limiting yourself only to military targets you can actually avoid hitting civilians in crossfire, for example, if you hit only military camps, only where people wear uniforms. But let me ask you for an example: in your escalation would you include power stations, railway lines? In these cases you will have civilians present who possibly can be hit. Are these the sort of things you are talking about as strategic targets?

President Tambo: We have hit these targets in the past. We hit Sasol; we hit power stations, lots of times we hit oil depots - many such strategic installations. We have hit these, but we took elaborate precautions against hitting civilians in the process. In Sasol, for instance, it took us a long time to plan the attack in such a way that no one would be hurt. And no one was hurt. There have been several others, as you may remember. We have hit these targets and normally the report was - target destroyed, but no one injured. We would still have to calculate on what the attack on installations would mean in terms of civilians. It may not be possible, in an intensified situation, to avoid hitting the target simply because some civilians are going to be hurt in the process. This is what we mean: that in an intensified escalating struggle it would not be possible. Otherwise we would find ourselves doing nothing.

And, after all, why should we be so committed to avoid civilians being caught in the crossfire, why should we be more committed that other people who have been waging wars who have not even stopped to think: 'How many children will be there?' Yet this has been part of the morality of the ANC for 25 years now. It helps to remember that we have borne this in mind, and when there was going to be a departure, we were fair enough to say 'Now we are moving away from the level of precaution'. We will, of course, continue to calculate what it will mean to civilians. But we are absolutely certain that many civilians will be caught in the crossfire.

Press conference addressed by President O.R. Tambo after the ANC's Consultative Conference, 25 June, 1985

Q: There have been reports in the run-up to conference, some allegedly well-sourced, which say that ANC Conference might reconsider the movements' hesitancy in the past about hitting militarily what are termed soft targets.

Did Conference arrive at any closer definition of what it would regard as a legitimate military target?

President Tambo: I will summarise the position taken by the Conference in these terms: that the struggle must be intensified at all costs. Over the past nine to ten months at least - at the very least - there have been many soft targets hit by the enemy. Nearly 500 people have now died in that period. That works out at about 50 a month, massacred, shot down, killed secretly. All those were very, very soft targets. But they belong to this sphere of the intensification of the struggle because when people were killed they did not run away, they kept on - at all costs, and went back into battle at all costs. In the process some innocent people were killed, some white some black. What we have seen in the Eastern Cape and places like that is what escalation means for everybody.

The distinction between 'soft' and 'hard' is going to disappear in an intensified confrontation, in an escalating conflict. And when the regime sends its army across the borders to kill people in Botswana, including nationals of that country, and nationals of other countries, they are hitting soft targets - very soft and not even in their own country.

That is not the end of the story. Exactly because of that the regime must be removed, at all costs. Therefore the struggle must be intensified, at all costs. The question of soft targets was quite out of place during World War II, to mention a big war. Ours will be a small war, but we are fighting the same kind of system. It was Hitler who attacked, it is the aparthied system here which attacked , and we are fighting that system, our own version of Nazism. I think the distinction between hard and soft targets is being erased by the development of the conflict. I am not saying that our Conference recognized that we are in it. It is happening every day. It happened two days before we started our conference - a massacre in Gaborone. We did not complain that soft targets were being hit, because they have been hitting them, as I say, all the time. What we did was to re-commit ourselves to intensify our struggle until that kind of massacre, until the system which makes massacres and conflicts necessary, is abolished by mankind, and we stand ready to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve that objective.

Statement of the National Executive Committee, 17 August 1988

The National Executive Committee further re-affirmed the centrality of the armed struggle in the national democratic revolution and the need to further escalate armed actions and transform our offensive into a generalised people's war. It noted that their has been a significant and welcome escalation of this offensive, in keeping with our perspective.

However, the National Executive Committee also expressed concern at the recent spate of attacks on civilian targets. Some of these attacks have been carried out by cadres of the people's army Umkhonto we Sizwe. Inspired by anger at the regime's campaign of terror against the oppressed and democratic forces, both within and outside South Africa, in certain instances operational circumstances resulted in unintended casualties.

Yet it has come to our notice that agents of the Pretoria regime have been detailed to carry out a number of bomb attacks deliberately to sow confusion among the people of South Africa and the international community, and to discredit the African National Congress.

The ANC hereby underscores that it is contrary to our policy to select targets whose sole objective is to strike at civilians. Our morality as revolutionaries dictates that we respect the values underpinning the human conduct of war. Any other course of action would enemy.


Declaration from the African addressed to the International Committee Tambo, President of the ANC of South Africa.

It is the conviction of the African National Congress of South Africa that international rules protecting the dignity of human beings must be upheld at all times. Therefore, and for humanitarian reasons, the African National Congress of South Africa hereby declares that, in the conduct of the struggle against apartheid and racism and for self-determination in South Africa, it intends to respect and be guided by the general principles of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts.

Wherever practically possible, the African National Congress of South Africa will endeavour to respect the rules of the four Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 for the victims of international armed conflicts.

Speech by President O.R. Tambo to the International Committee of the Red Cross 28 November 1980.

The state of war which exists in South Africa is a war of national liberation, for self-determination on the basis of the Freedom Charter, of whose adoption we are celebrating the 25th anniversary this year. It is, as Article 1 of Protocol 1 of 1977 recognises, an armed conflict in which peoples are fighting against 'colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination.'

In the past twelve years, since the Teheran Conference on Human Rights, the development of international law under the auspices of the United Nations has led to a recognition that the concept of international armed conflict extends to cover wars of national liberation. The International Conference on the Reaffirmation and Development of International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts, held in Geneva from 1974 to 1977, gave concrete expression to such a development.

We in the African National Congress South Africa solemnly undertake to respect the Geneva Conventions and the additional Protocol 1 in so far as they are applicable to struggle waged on behalf of the African National Congress by its combatants, Umkhonto we Sizwe. This Convention is one of the cornerstones of humanitarian international law...

We in the African National Congress have taken the serious step of making a solemn Declaration at the Headquarters of the I.C.R.C. this afternoon because we have for nearly 70 years respected humanitarian principles in our struggle.

We have always defined the enemy in terms of a system of domination and not of a people or a race. In contrast, the South African regime has displayed a shameless and ruthless disregard for all the norms of humanity.


Message of the NEC delivered by President O.R. Tambo, 8 January 1986

Once more, we call on our white compatriots, and especially the youth, to break ranks with the apartheid system, to refuse to serve in its armed forces and no longer to mortgage their future to a racist system that is doomed to destruction. We call on them to win their place in the future democratic South Africa by joining the struggle to turn that future into reality. The business community must stop producing weapons that are used to murder our people.

Together, black and white, we will destroy the monstrous apartheid regime and, as equals, rebuild our country for the benefit of all its citizens. The time has come that our white compatriots should join the mass democratic struggle in their millions. The crisis in our country does not permit onlookers.

NEC statement delivered by President O.R. Tambo, 8 January 1987

At the same time, we must pay the greatest possible attention to the mobilisation and activisation of the white population which should fuse with and become part of the motive forces of the democratic revolution. Our white compatriots have to learn the truth that it is not democracy that threatens their future. Rather, it is racist tyranny which poses a dire peril to their very survival.

We must unite all these forces, both black and white, around the democratic perspectives for which so many people have already laid down their lives. Once more, we reaffirm that in the new South Africa the people - all the people - shall govern. We shall, together, translate that fundamental democratic principle into the practice whereby each person shall have the right both to vote and to be voted to any elective organ in the new united and non-racial South Africa.

For us, it is of especial importance that that new reality should reinforce and entrench what we are accomplishing now, in struggle: the building of a nation of South Africans. It must reflect and enhance our oneness, breaking down the terrible and destructive idea and practice of defining our people by race, colour or ethnic group. The revolution will guarantee the individual and equal rights of all South Africans without regard to any of these - categories, and include such freedoms as those of speech, assembly, association, language, religion, the press, the inviolability of family life and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention without trial. For all this, the victorious revolution demands and must ensure thorough-going democratic

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