About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, 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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Historical Background: The armed struggle

It is not for the revolutionaries to sit in the doorways of their houses waiting for the corpse of imperialism to be carried by It is the duty of every revolutionary to make the revolution.

The Second Declaration of Havana
February 1962

[For the ANC] revolution was necessary to achieve ANC policy goals; armed struggle was the central requirement for that outcome; revolution was not merely possible but 'inevitable'.

The last assumption - about the 'inevitability' of revolution - set the questions that ANC strategists asked themselves. Associated with this assumption in the ANC's case was a contradiction in terms sometimes evident in Marxist-Leninist thinking. Revolution was said to be 'inevitable', provided the ANC devised and implemented strategies and tactics that were suited to the historical conjuncture. From this it followed that, if the ANC was not succeeding in bringing about revolution, it was because its actions were in some way inconsistent with the drift of history. In this case, there were, broadly, three types of error the ANC could be making to cause this. The first was the simplest: the ANC might be implementing the appropriate strategy and tactics but be doing so carelessly. The second was a little more serious: the strategy and tactics decided upon might be inappropriate. In this instance, the ANC might have divined the conjuncture 'incorrectly' and so decided on the inappropriate operational strategy. Or, it might have identified the conjuncture 'correctly' but wrongly determined the strategy to suit it. The third was grave: the ANC's entire divination procedure - its theory of revolution and the assumptions it contained - might be false.

Between 1976 and 1986, ANC strategists never seriously questioned their theory of revolution. But they often had reason to conclude that a particular strategy was not working. Yet they could seldom say with any certainty whether this was the result merely of careless implementation or of the inappropriateness of a strategy or set of tactics. One reason for this difficulty was that monitoring mechanisms and operational management in the ANC were abysmal.

There is no evidence to suggest that ANC armed activity ever achieved any significant degree of self-reliance inside South Africa. Had it done so, ANC armed activity might have had a substantially different, and greater, effect on outcomes in South Africa.

Howard Barrell
"Conscripts to their Age"1

The ANC resorted to armed struggle in December 1961 when Umkhonto we Siswe (MK) carried out its first acts of sabotage. In time, the ANC became addicted to the armed struggle. The more it failed, the more compulsive the addiction. It would only take one success the armed struggle leading a mass insurrection of the people that would topple the apartheid to justify all the failures. Failures were not seen or analyzed as such. If MK persevered in the face of an overwhelming enemy it would prevail. It might have inculcated the memorable phrase of the Irish nationalist, Terence McSwiney, who went on a hunger strike to the death in 1920: "It is not those who inflict the most but those who suffer the most who will conquer."

However, although the armed struggle failed by almost every definition you want to use, it did succeed in an existential form. Because it continued to make the armed struggle the core of its identity, the fact that the ANC did manage to mount the occasional assault against the state, albeit with casualties that would normally cast doubt on the efficacy of the operations, gave armed struggle a mythical status among the masses, a status enhanced by the even more paltry attempts by the PAC to manage any offensive capacity. The sheer persistence on the part of the ANC against the most formidable odds gave the ANC a position of legitimacy among the people other liberation organizations could never claim. Thus failure in itself was immaterial; convincing the masses on whose behalf it claimed to speak that it go to any lengths to overthrow the apartheid regime, even if that entailed mounting losses against an implacable enemy over decades, created the threads of continuity that linked the historical past Rivonia, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu and the other prisoners on Robben Island to the actions of the present. The state might take most of their lives away, regulate their movements and determine where they might live and work and go, but it could not take away their memories and for every comrade who fell while attempting to strike against a regime they universally hated became one more deposit in their memory banks, banks the ANC one day would draw on.

Ironically, while one can say that by every yardstick the armed struggle was a failure it managed nevertheless to paralyze whites into believing that some imminent invasion of hordes of guerilla-trained communists was about to overwhelm them a belief nurtured assiduously by the state. But the fact that such sporadic attacks few of which were directed at white civilians could elicit such hysterical coverage in the white media suggests that something more was beneath the surface of white reactions: that they, too, understood the inevitable -- the inevitability of Black rule, that the state despite the vast military arsenal at its fingertips could postpone the inevitable, but could not eradicate it. Hence, every act of sabotage the MK managed to carry out reminded them sharply of what they had consigned to their subconscious, brought to the fore anxieties they refused to deal with until the inevitable was upon them.

In exile the ANC grew comfortable. Most undoubtedly were frustrated by being so far from home. With no secure base from which to launch attacks on South Africa or to infiltrate cadres the camp in Tanzania at Kongwa was some 1500 meters from the nearest point of entry to South Africa, a trail fraught with hazard since South Africa still enjoyed the protection of a cordon sanitaire -- getting MK cadres into the country was disheartening and sapped morale. Moreover there was not an existing political underground the exiled ANC could easily communicate with and there was little chance of linking incoming MK cadres with whatever remnants of the ANC might have weathered the sweeping banning orders and detentions that the state had engaged in post Rivonia. One estimate put the number of formal structures within South Africa at 50, the number of members at 200 2 hardly the makings of a network of reception facilities.

With little changing, the status quo was taken for granted. There was little new thinking, if only because the same people were doing the thinking. The ANC in exile became out of touch with events on the ground in South Africa until 1988 when Operation Vula became the eyes &b ears of Oliver Tambo & Joe Slovo.

2

Joe Modise was commander of the MK from the mid sixties until the MK was disbanded in 1994. No one within NEC questioned his strategic sense or tactical sensitivities. He never saw a need for a change in strategy: the armed struggle would eventually prevail; all the political "stuff" was trimmings. No one would take him on.

After his return to Tanzania in 1968, following the Wankie operation in Zimbabwe and subsequent incarceration in Botswana, Chris Hani was the leading signatory of a memorandum to the leadership in Morogoro. The memorandum expressed a lack of trust in the leadership, referred to 'the frightening depth reached by the rot in the ANC and disintegration of MK accompanying this rot," spoke of the leadership having "created a machinery which is an end unto itself," which was' completely divorced from the situation in South Africanot in a position to give an account of the functioning branches inside the country," and that there had "never been an attempt to send leadership inside since the Rivonia arrests' It berated "the careerism of the ANC leadership who have, in every sense, become professional politicians rather than professional revolutionaries." It decried the payment of salaries to full timers working in the offices and called for "equal treatment of "all members of the ANC, be they in MK or not." The memorandum demanded that the leadership be "committed to the resolution and programme of going home to lead the struggle there."

It said that the political leadership abroad was not aware of the activities and plans of MK, that Umkhonto 'was being run independently of the ANC," that "the ANC has lost control of the MK; it referred to 'secret trials' and extremely reactionary methods of punishment,' criticized the life styles of some leaders, condemned the practice of nepotism, the fact that 'virtually all the sons and daughters of the leaders had been sent to universities in Europe' a sign that "these people are being groomed for leadership positions after the MK cadres have overthrown the fascists." It warned against the fossilization of leadership.'3

The leadership took harsh umbrage. The memorandum was deemed to a betrayal, a violation of military discipline. Hani and his co-signatories were hauled before a tribunal. They were saved from a death sentence by one vote. After a period of suspension they were reinstated in their positions. Nevertheless, the memorandum had a chilling effect on the expression of dissent and the narrow line being drawn between the expression of legitimate dissent and fomenting dissent i.e. being an enemy agent provocateur.

Ten years later, the ANC had not resolved many of the questions the Hani memorandum had raised. The armed struggle was being run by military leaders who had yet to set a foot in South Africa. Despite intelligence reports and meting with cadres who made the journey in and back, the knowledge they brought back was extremely limited, was rarely based on assessments of an existing ANC in the areas they had traveled in, were done in haste, and often were the work of the state's counter terrorism operatives. Nor did MK operatives assigned to "hit and run" missions have a knowledge of the larger terrain they were working in. More often than not they were instructed to avoid contact with any known political activists in the areas they were infiltrating for the purposes of their operations in order to minimize the risk of being apprehended. Thus they worked in a political void.

Twenty years later, much of the same criticism could be leveled at the ANC. Now the divisions were between the military side proponents of armed struggle and the "politicals" proponents of there being the need to establish a viable political underground in South Africa in order to create a at would make a sustainable MK presence feasible, between the practice of parallelism the political and military structures operating parallel with each other but with no cross over between the two and the integrationists those who wanted the integration of the two under the overall umbrella of the political leadership on the ground.

The casualty rates were appalling.

Failure was particularly apparent in the case of armed struggle, the fulcrum of ANC operational strategic thinking. Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) did not develop its armed activity beyond the sporadic, symbolic endeavour it was when the ANC first resumed attacks inside South Africa in 1976, despite numerous decisions and attempts to do so. The number of attacks which MK mounted did, indeed, increase considerably between 1976 and 1986 but the number of guerrillas killed and captured by state security forces usually rose apace. On average, slightly more than two ANC guerrillas were killed or captured by security forces for every three of the 634 guerrilla attacks between 1976 and 1986 4 (almost all of which carried out by the ANC) 5

Since many, perhaps most, MK attacks can be classified as modest in their dimensions; this casualty rate indicates a high cost for what were minimal operational rewards. Until 1984, the largest single form of attack was sabotage and the largest single target category consisted of economic installations (of which railway lines, electricity transformers and power stations were among the most common). Sabotage predominated, notwithstanding repeated resolutions by the RC and PMC to move towards popular armed struggle, or 'people's war' in which state forces would become the primary targets. It was only in the 1985-1986 period that there was a marked change in target distribution. There was then a sharp increase in attacks against security forces and against civilians, while economic sabotage declined. But, after a fall in the MK casualty rate in 1985, it returned to a quite high level in 1986 and remained there for the two subsequent years. ANC guerrilla casualties between 1984 and 1986 totalled 294 killed or captured. On the other hand, 58 security force members were killed and 739 were injured in the course of popular unrest.6

Other statistics illustrate more starkly the weaknesses of the ANC armed activity. These are the rates of capture of the most common armament types used by ANC guerrillas. On average between 1976 and 1986, for each one of the 163 hand grenades thrown by guerrillas, more than nine (1,549) were captured by security forces; for each of 150 limpet mines detonated, more than three (518) were captured; and for each of 82 incidents in which a firearm was used, eight (670) firearms were captured. Interestingly, the exception to this appalling capture rate is provided by land mines. For every two of the 33 land mines laid by guerrillas and subsequently detonated about three (49) were neutralised by security forces. It is reasonable to speculate that this low loss rate is explained by the fact that many land mines were laid only a few kilometres inside South African territory and were thus not long, if at all, at the mercy of the ANC's ordinance department or internal underground. When combined, the statistics indicate that on average between 1976 and 1986, for every three insurgent attacks, which were usually modest sabotage actions, security forces killed or captured two ANC guerrillas, recovered seven insurgent hand grenades, captured three firearms and neutralised more than two limpet mines.7

There is no evidence to suggest that ANC armed activity ever achieved any significant degree of self-reliance inside South Africa. Had it done so, ANC armed activity might have had a substantially different, and greater, effect on outcomes in South Africa.

Self-reliance was an obvious requirement if the ANC was to make any meaningful progress towards developing a popularly-based armed struggle; but self-reliance was also the likely result of involving more ordinary, internally-based people in armed activity. Internal military self-reliance is an obvious desideratum of almost any revolutionary movement. It was, however, doubly desirable in the South African instance because the ANC had no prospect of secure rear bases in neighbouring states. Yet MK guerrillas evidently had little success in developing or linking up with the few support structures inside the country. Short-term cross-border incursions were the norm and guerrillas' periods of survival appear, on the whole, to have been extremely short. Guerrillas who survived inside the country often remained dependent upon external command, ordinance and intelligence.

The failure of its armed struggle to make real military progress defined almost all strategic questions the ANC asked itself between 1976 and 1986. Likewise, almost all the ANC's decision to change operational strategy and structures between 1976 and 1986 were designed to remedy this failure. And a high proportion of these decisions were never implemented.

The Morogoro conference, called to deal with the grievances of MK units sitting idly in camps at Kongwa, disillusioned with the wait to get back into South Africa and with the obvious lack of a strategy on the part of their commanders for enabling that to happen were given the opportunity to vent their grievances, which were supposed to be addressed by the ANC's "Strategy and Tactics" document a clear expression of the ANC's to adjust in the light of changing circumstances and to jump leap MK into the terrain of guerilla warfare. Henceforth the armed struggle became the "only method left open" to the ANC.

When we talk of revolutionary armed struggle, we are talking of political struggle by means which include the use of military force even though once force as a tactic is introduced it has the most far-reaching consequences on every aspect of our activities. It is important to emphasize this because our movement must reject all manifestations of militarism, which separates armed people's struggle from its political context.

Reference has already been made to the danger of the thesis, which regards the creation of military areas as the generator of mass resistance. But even more is involved in this concept. One of the vital problems connected with this bears on the important question of the relationship between the political and military. From the very beginning our Movement has brooked no ambiguity concerning this. The primacy of the political leadership is unchallenged and supreme and all revolutionary formations and levels (whether armed or not) are subordinate to this leadership. To say this is not just to invoke tradition. This approach is rooted in the very nature of this type of revolutionary struggle and is borne our by the experience of the overwhelming majority of revolutionary movements which have engaged in such struggle and is borne out by the experience of the overwhelming against a foe with formidable material strength does not achieve dramatic and swift success.

Guerrilla warfare, the special, and in our case the only form in which the armed liberation struggle can be launched, is neither static nor does it take place in a vacuum. The tempo, the overall strategy is to be employed, the opening of new fronts, the progression from lower to higher forms and thence to mobile warfare; these and other vital questions cannot be solved by the military leadership alone, they require overall political judgments intimately involved with the people both inside and outside the actual areas of armed combat.

Above all, when victory comes, it must not be a hollow one. To ensure this we must also ensure that what is brought to power is not an army but the masses as a whole at the head of which stands its organised political leadership. This is the perspective which is rooted at all levels of our liberation movements whether within or outside the army. Our confidence in final victory rests not on the wish or the dream but on our understanding of our own conditions and the historical processes. This understanding must be deepened and must spread to every level of our Movement. We must have a clear grasp not only of ourselves and of our own forces but also of the enemy - of his power and vulnerability. Guerrilla struggle is certainly no exception to the rule that depth of understanding, and knowledge of realities, both favourable and unfavourable, make for more lasting commitment and more illuminating leadership.

One of the more popular misconceptions concerning guerrilla warfare is that a physical environment which conforms to a special pattern is indispensable - thick jungle, inaccessible mountain areas, swamps, a friendly border and so on. The availability of this sort of terrain is, of course, of tremendous advantage to the guerrillas especially in the early non-operational phase training and other preparatory steps are undertaken and no-external bases are available for this purpose. When operations commence, the guerrilla cannot survive, let alone flourish, unless he moves to areas where people live and work and where the enemy can be engaged in combat.

But, above all, a scientific revolutionary strategy demands the correct appreciation of the political character of the forces that are ranged against one another in the South African Struggle for liberation.

The main content of the present stage of the South African revolution is the national liberation of the largest and most oppressed group - the African people. This strategic aim must govern every aspect of the conduct of our struggle whether it be the formulation of policy or the creation of structures. Amongst other things, it demands in the first place the maximum mobilisation of the African people as a dispossessed and racially oppressed nation. This is the mainspring and it must not be weakened. It involves a stimulation and a deepening of national confidence, national pride and national assertiveness.

But none of this detracts from the basically national context of our liberation drive. In the last resort it is only the success of the national democratic revolution which - destroying the existing social and economic relationship - will bring with it a correction of the historical injustices perpetrated against the indigenous majority and thus lay the basis for a new - and deeper internationalist - approach. Until then, the national sense of grievance is the most potent revolutionary force which must be harnessed. To blunt it in the interests of abstract concepts of internationalism is, in the long run, doing neither a service to revolution nor to internationalism.

What then is the broad purpose of our military struggle? Simply put, in the first phase, it is the complete political and economic emancipation of all our people and the constitution of a society which accords with the basic provisions of our programme - the Freedom Charter. This, together with our general understanding of our revolutionary theory, provides us with the strategic framework for the concrete elaboration and implementation of policy in a continuously changing situation. It must be combined with a more intensive programme of research, examination and analysis of the conditions of the different state of our people (in particular those on the land), their local grievances, hopes and aspirations, so that the flow from theory to application - when the situation makes application possible will be unhampered.

An eloquent exposition on the prevalent theory on how revolutionary warfare should be conducted, subscribed to by all in its clear articulation of the relationship between the military and political components of guerrilla warfare, the balance between the two and the implicit warning that if that balance became unhinged i.e. if the military component marched to its own imperatives the revolution would collapse.

But the ANC immersed in the nuances of revolutionary theory made little or no attempt to turn its theoretical discourses into practice, to examine the obstacles that were deterring implementation; to ascertain whether the obstacles were structural or might, by switch in tactics be surmountable. No yardsticks were set to measure the extent to which the new policies were being downloaded to the MK commanders and through them communicated to the rank and file.

No voice said that the thrust of "Strategy and Tactics" was simply ignored by the leadership that commissioned the "new" thinking. In the manifesto that launched the MK, Mandela made it clear that the resort to violence was not to overthrow the state minds were sober enough to realize that the overwhelming advantages the state enjoyed made this task improbable, but to use violence as a way of bringing the state to the negotiating table. Morogoro changed the emphasis. Henceforth the object of armed struggle was to overthrow the state. One could point to the Mao in china, to Castro in Cuba, to the FLN in Algeria.

The fact that the historical circumstances were different in each case seemed to be beside the point. One simply accepted the theory and imposed it on reality. Even this might have achieved something: the realization that the theory of guerilla warfare was not applicable to South Africa. That recognition alone might have gotten the leadership thinking: what forms of revolutionary warfare do apply to the country. But since no attempt was made to test the theory, the policies of the past remained even more staunchly in place, less challenged despite a record that indicated that these policies were not working.

Not that the structures were not in place to evince a change. They were. The IPRD had a specific mandate: create a political underground in South Africa that would allow MK units a secure base from which to operate and interact with the local political infrastructure. Create sustainability.

But the IPRD was almost stillborn. The committee itself lacked coherency and the best were still believing that a political underground in SA would facilitate the military and not the other way around, which, at the time would have amounted to heresy. The military lobby simply swamped opposition, all the more easily because little opposition was forthcoming.

In short, having laid out a strategy with clarity and clear definition of purpose, the ANC proceeded to ignore it completely. And no one questioned why.

One overriding concern within then ANC itself was to ensure that there were no splits. The alliance could not withstand another trauma that culminated in the expulsion of the Group of Eight. Holding the organization together was as important as explicating commonly agreed upon policies, and in the event that policy disagreements might spill over, the spills had to be contained often at the expense of policy.

Problems were dealt with by commissions, memoranda, directives and discussion papers that produced endless flows of "revolutionary" writings, exchanges on the theories of revolution -- Che Guevara's Guerilla Warfare vs. Regis Debray's Strategy for Revolution vs. Antonio Gramsci's The Modern Prince vs. General Vo Nguyen Giap's People's War, People's Army and the tomes of Vladimir Lenin and Mao Tse-tung, bibles of keep the flock from straying. In a circumscribed world ideas became circumscribed; rhetorical flourishes or grandiose historical sweeps confined reality to rarefied revolutionary constructs the bread and butter of armchair generals. What was happening on the ground in South Africa and in the heads of the ANC leadership in Morogoro and Lusaka belonged to different realities. The former were faced with the objective conditions of repression on a day-to-day basis, the latter with the imagining of an insurrection. Thus the ANC found itself in the position of always being in the passenger seat as the revolution unfolded, not the driver's seat, a spectator more often than the player, but always eager to be the mechanic when there were pit stops. Resistance became an end in itself; remote from the poverty of the lives of the people in the country, from their suffering, repression and minutiae of the problems they had to deal with in order to survive.

From the onset, the MK, except for Special Operations, conducted its activities mostly in an amateurish way. Perhaps it operated on the premise that the best way to conduct clandestine activities in SA in the 1960s was to as above board as possible, that the less you tried to hide things the less they were likely to be discovered. At the Rivonia farm, few attempts were made to secure the facility. Instead there was a steady flow of visitors to the farm on a daily, even some of the High Command, Joe Slovo, for instance, commuted. The farm was waiting to be found and in retrospect the more we learn about how the ANC conducted its business the more likely we are to wonder how it took the security police so long to discover this nest bed of covert activity less than 15 miles from downtown Johannesburg.

But the lessons of Rivonia were never adequately absorbed.8 The state infiltrated almost at will. In Move Your Shadow, Joseph Lelyveld recounts a meeting he had with General Coetsee, head of the Security Branch in Johannesburg in 1985. The general boasted, "I have [informers] all the way to Moscow." Any attempt by the ANC to recruit large numbers of Blacks inside SA would only heighten the risk of recruiting informers. When Lelyveld got to Lusaka he repeated Coetzee's boast to Oliver Tambo, expecting a rebuttal of sorts. But Tambo exclaimed, "He was right! He was right! They've been giving us a rough time, making us work very hard. At one time there was a group of ten and only one of them was genuine. We've developed a technique and method f screening, we've improved it a great deal, but it still means it's awkward to have large groups come across because you can't be sure when they just come. Yes, it has given us a lot of work to screen them, and sometimes when you've done it, at a later stage you discover that they went through the screen, they were that carefully prepared. Sometimes this has happened to people who were highly respected in our ranks, who had behaved very well, were very disciplined and sounded very committed and certainly performed all there tasks very satisfactorily. Well, we've learned all that.' Twenty two years into the struggle and still learning not to make the most basic mistakes: that revolutionary movement was not a club where the right credentials would buy you a membership. But did the ANC learn? In 1994, Gavin Evans, a journalist and secret ANC operative described the ANC's security apparatus in the 1980s and found it alarmingly inept.9

The ANC acknowledged that the "sudden mass influx of new recruits [after the 1976 Uprisings] to some extent rendered screening procedures ineffective."10 Furthermore that "It was evident that the apartheid regime felt confident and had adopted a very arrogant attitude, telling some of these agents that they had nothing to fear from the Department even if they were discovered: they would merely be given political education and released, they were told, and would be able to resume their activities as agents. To some extent, this was true."11 But matters improved after the ANC discovered a network of infiltrators in 1981. But the damage had been done. Many infiltrators were now embedded in senior positions; some probably helped the ANC develop more effective screening procedures.

There are others, still alive in high positions in government who also worked as informers for the former regime. When Mandela assumed the presidency and set about the task of assembling his government he asked Neil Barnard, the head of the NIS under both Botha and De Klerk and Secretary General of the Department of Constitutional Affairs in the new dispensation, to review his appointments and identify personnel who had been informers for the apartheid government. Mandela's modus operandi was simple: if the individuals were now capable of making a genuine contribution to reconstruction, he would let the matter drop, while keeping tabs on the performance of the individuals concerned. Otherwise, he would simply drop them with no fanfare.

How the armed struggle came to assume not just a prominent role, but almost an exclusive role in ANC strategy is not altogether clear. It was not a case of other forms of struggle not being considered. On the contrary almost every ANC proclamation or committee report was profuse in their expression of the primacy of the mass mobilization of the people as a perquisite for the success of the armed struggle. But the strategic thinking appears to have been that mass mobilization either follows from the armed struggle or that mass mobilization would provide the backdrop for the prosecution of the armed struggle. What in the jargon they called parallelism.

And even when the trip to Vietnam resulted in the Report of the Politico- Military Commission (The Green Book,)12 the seminal expression of ANC thinking clarified matters and laid out as a fundamental proposition that the political mobilization of the people was the necessary conduction of a 'people's' war, that the armed struggle was subordinate to the political struggle and that the armed struggle itself should be under the direction of the political struggle, the ANC still couldn't turn policy into practice.13

Ironically, the Green Book carefully catalogued the inadequacy of ANC structures to carry out the activities that were necessary to carryout its far-reaching recommendations and to give impetus to what had become flagging efforts. In a bout of robust self-honesty it emphasized that "the paucity of information on a number of important questions stood in the way of the Commission being able to develop its proposals more fully. This is, in itself, a reflection of the movement's poor style of work in many important areas."14 It drew attention to the "the need for "a collective and common understanding of our strategy and tactics" and recommended that their report be used as the basis for a document "for mass circulation" that would enable "all levels of the movement" to "thoroughly" understand the "fundamental strategic objectives" of the movement" and that "we also [should] do more than in the past to convey the content amongst the people in a form which will be understood.' All of which came to naught.

The main strategic objectives were accepted, but the structures, which would be required to ensure their successful implementation, were not. The NEC (which the commission implicitly criticized ("We deliberately attempted to present the basic propositions avoiding argumentation and without references to past errors") saw the threat a Senior Organ with executive powers -- i.e. a permanent management structure that would oversee, coordinate and evaluate revolutionary practices at both the military and political level - would pose to its preeminent position and shelved the whole idea, thus ensuring that a successful implementation of the commission's recommendations could not occur. Why? Because the full implementation of the recommendations required that the proper operational structures also be in place; in fact that full implementation required that they be in place.

The regional Senior Organs that the NEC settled on only added to the confusion.15 Perhaps this was the point. Seeing that its powers and authority were being called into question or perceiving them to be the NEC acted to preserve its own exclusive position as the only decision making authority. It would not countenance reform since reform could lead to a diminution of its own sense of importance. Like any other bureaucratic elite, the NEC smelled the blood of the Young Turks on its trail and moved quickly to stop them in their tracks. Even if their actions did not promote the struggle, was not in the best interests of the struggle, was making advancement of the struggle more difficult to achieve. When the NEC had to choose between a perceived threat to its own existence or an overhaul of ANC operational structures that would grease the oil of revolution they preferred to sit in their houses. Entrenchment of position was now an end in itself. And easily achieved: create more operational confusion, more contradictory directives, provide room for an even wider range of interpretations and keep the Green Book in the possession of the chosen few.

With regard to the armed struggle itself, the commission articulated a dilemma that the movement never resolved and made the waging of any armed struggle virtually impossible. "The armed struggle," it stated, "must be based on, and grow out of, mass political support and it must eventually involve our whole people." At the same time, "All military activities must at every stage be guided and determined by the need to generate political mobilization." And to boot, "the concrete political realities must determine whether at any given stage and in any given region the main emphasis should be on political or on military action."16

Thus political mobilization was to "detonate" armed struggle and to be "detonated" by armed struggle. But where did this leave the MK in the forward areas? And in the camps in Angola and Tanzania? Neither emanated from within the people. Neither emanated in response to local needs. Neither had their roots in Black communities. Both were external operations. One had little to do with anything other. The flashes of "armed propaganda," -- "hit and run" crash courses did not ignite political mobilization or have their base in internal structures. The people were peripheral to revolution being planned and plotted in safe houses in Lusaka by men who had not set foot in SA for almost twenty years. The strategic thinking for the people as to what course their revolutionary path should follow was being conducted for them, no need to burden themselves with the heavy stuff.

But the people were not fools. They were not about to wait while the ANC dithered and dallied, puzzled, Hamlet like, to move or not to move. The people moved, took matters into their own hands, began to organize their own revolution -- one that had little to do with the ANC, but the ANC was astute enough to grab its coattails and eventually claim ownership of the coat itself.

Most revolutions are by stealth.

In mid-1983 the ANC produced a discussion document Planning for Peoples War, which posed the question as to whether the time was ripe to move from guerrilla war towards 'people's war'. 'Peoples War' was defined as "war in which a liberation army becomes rooted among the people who progressively participate actively in the armed struggle both politically and militarily, including the possibility of engaging in partial or general uprising." 17

The report concluded that "the ANC should continue carrying out and even escalating those actions which had played an important role in stimulating political activity, mass resistance and mass organisation, but that there should be more concentration on destroying enemy personnel. 18 The term enemy was used to refer "primarily" to members of the SAP and SADF. Primarily, but not exclusively, The tide was turning.

The NEC on Jan 8th 1985 statement:

During this past year we also took our struggle forward by beginning to carry out another strategic task we had set ourselves. As you will recall, last year we said we must begin to use our accumulated strength to destroy the organs of government of the apartheid regime.

We have now set out upon this path. We have taken impressive strides towards rendering the country ungovernable. This has not only meant the destruction of the community councils; our rejection of the apartheid constitution was, in its essence, a reaffirmation of our rejection of the illegitimate rule of the Botha regime. Other struggles, including those around the issue of education as well as the stay-at-home, pitted our democratic power against the power of the forces of oppression, racism and counter-revolution, for the defeat of the latter and its replacement with popular power.

The destruction of the organs of government weakens the regime and is a necessary part of our continuing mass offensive.

As we enter this second half of the Decade of Liberation, it is necessary that we examine not only our striking power, but even more important, the direction in which to strike and how to deliver the blow. In particular, it is necessary that we ask the question: at what pace - how fast - are we advancing towards the conquest of power?

The pace of our forward march depends on our success or failure to strengthen the first and the third of the four interlinked elements we have referred to, namely, the all-round activity of the underground structures of the ANC and the armed offensive spearheaded by Umkhonto we Sizwe.

To move forward to victory with the greatest speed, we must pay particular attention this year to the task of building a strong underground presence of well-organised revolutionary cadres, drawn from the fighting masses and integrated among them. Such a body of cadres constitutes the dynamising factor in our situation - a force capable of bringing together the various strands of our struggle, and assisting in the further development and consolidation of all our political and military combat forces into a mighty army of liberation.

The call we are making to all the democratic and patriotic forces of our country is that this year we must take it as our special task to strengthen and reinforce our vanguard organisation, the African National Congress. Already we have made great strides in this regard. And yet the imperatives of our struggle demand that we do not any longer postpone execution of the task we elaborated last year - to strengthen and expand the underground structures of the ANC, ensuring the active presence of our movement everywhere in the country.

Who are these revolutionary cadres about whom we speak? Where are they? They are not special people. It is we - men and women, young and old, Black and white - who are involved in daily struggles, making sacrifices in pursuit of the people's cause. It is we, the workers in the factories, the mines, the farms, the commercial establishments and offices of various kinds; we, who work in health and educational services as well as those of us occupied within the residential areas.

The distinctive feature of the revolutionary cadre is a high level of discipline, dedication and courage in carrying out the tasks assigned by the movement. Such cadres are guided by our goal of a united, nonracial and democratic South Africa. They fight for the immediate release of Nelson Mandela and all other leaders and political prisoners. They accept that our path to victory lies in a combination of the all-round activity of the ANC, united mass political action, armed struggle and international solidarity and support.

We further charge the ANC and all other patriots to continue to shift our posture to the offensive and, as we said last year, to cultivate the spirit of rebellion and the frame of mind which puts the politics of revolutionary change to the fore. The programmes of action that we plan and carry out should result in the initiative passing further into our hands. Our mass democratic and revolutionary movement should emerge ever more forcefully as the alternative power in our country.

Through struggle and sacrifice, we have planted the seeds of people's war in our country, that is, a war waged by all the people against the white minority regime. One of our central tasks in the coming period is to transform the potential we have created into the reality of people's war.

Guided by that perspective, we must build up the mass combat forces that are training themselves in mass political action for sharper battles and for the forcible overthrow of the racist regime. The mass combat forces of our revolution are the same political forces that are and have been engaged in the popular offensive. These death-defying patriots must now become part of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the vital cutting edge of our onslaught.

It is in this way that we will ensure that the people's army deepens its roots and grows inextricably among the popular masses. It is in this way that we will ensure that it grows in size, in the spread and quality of its operations and the weight of every blow it delivers.

In the course of our mass offensive, we have, from time to time and with increased frequency, created the situation in various localities such that the democratic forces challenged the apartheid authorities for control of these areas, emerging as the alternative power. With regard to the perspective of people's war, this means that we forged the conditions for us to transform these areas into mass revolutionary bases from which Umkhonto we Sizwe must grow as an army of the people.

All we are saying therefore Fellow Combatants, is that we have it within our means to increase our capacity to hit back at the enemy, arms in hand. No one but us will accomplish this task. We must all take it as a priority task to build up the popular armed forces, to transform the armed actions we have thus far carried out into a people's war, by helping to root Umkhonto we Sizwe firmly among the people and actively drawing the masses into the prosecution of a people's war.

Furthermore, all the oppressed need to emulate the example of the areas where the democratic movement has emerged as the alternative power. Wherever we are, we must transform our locality into a mass revolutionary base. In such areas, we should also use the democratic power we have accumulated through struggle, to defend and advance the interests of the people. We must use our organised mass strength and, by attacking, consolidate our victorious emergence as the alternative power.

Rumours, emanating from the South African mass media, have been circulating about "talks" between the African National Congress and the Botha regime. There have been no such talks. Your organisation at this juncture is concerned to improve our capacity to accomplish the tasks we have set for ourselves in the unfolding year. In this respect we shall, as you know, be holding a National Consultative Conference this year, from which we shall emerge united and doubly strengthened to carry our struggle forward.

Let this year see us take big strides in further strengthening the organised underground structures of the ANC. Let us see greater mass political actions in all the provinces and districts of our country. Let it see us extend people's war to all corners of our land. Let it see the fastest and furthest possible coordinated advance on all fronts towards the goal of people's power.

Two years later at the Kabwe Conference the mood had become decidedly more militant. "From the reports given" Sechaba wrote, "it became clear that the ANC has not only had contacts with the developments and organisations at home, but has been part of those developments, and has grown with the struggle - at times giving guidance and advice, but at all times leading the masses in the right direction. The recurring theme of the Conference was the need to intensify armed struggle - some people favoured the term "armed seizure of power" rather than "seizure of power."

It was this realisation which led to the decision that we must attack not only inanimate objects but also enemy personnel. This ANC Conference, which took the form of Council of War, decided that the distinction between 'hard' and 'soft' targets should disappear. This was not a new idea. It had been discussed (like all other issues) in the numerous, continual, regional pre-Conference discussions which involved everybody, including all those who were not elected as delegates to the Conference. In other words, the ANC membership as a whole was involved for the last nine months or so in discussions, which took place at the Conference.19

The tide had turned.

Once again the ANC rode on the crest of a wave of its own making, envisaging a peoples war in circumstances where its military campaign remained stalled at the sabotage stage; its guerilla war was a phantom of make belief one could hardly characterize the sporadic number of activities conducted within South Africa by MK units coming into the country from the forward areas and then retreating with no coordination between their activities or central management as the actions of a "small mobile force." Few bases were established, fewer still sustained. Contact with the political underground was minimal, and the MK units used them for maintenance, not as the bridgehead for an integrated politico-military structure. Nor did the objective conditions for a people's war exist.

In 1986, in a statement celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of MK, The NEC posed the question:

How far, then, are we from truly realizing People's War? In our daily lives our people have abundantly demonstrated that apartheid has become intolerable. At the level of united mass action our people are surging ahead. Every organised formation of our people - our workers, our women, our rural people, our youth and students, the township residents, religious congregations and leaders, our teachers and those in various professions, our progressive whites - are beginning to act in concert.

Revolutionary violence has become part of the arsenal of our people. It is imperative that all classes and strata, especially our workers and the rural population, should become part of the combat forces of our revolution. Our youth should not be left to shoulder this burden alone. This is the true significance of our call to the people: Every patriot a combatant - every combatant a patriot!

We are witnessing today the masses steadily taking to arms; we are in the midst of death-defying deeds where combat groups, supported by the people, are erecting barricades, stringing barbed wire across roads, digging defence trenches, driving enemy forces into death traps, raining petrol bombs against armoured vehicles, arming themselves by dispossessing the enemy of his weapons, ridding our townships of informers and collaborators, eliminating enemy personnel.

The full majesty of these actions lies in the determination of our people to lock in battle with the enemy forces and annihilate them, physically.

MK units are today being welcomed and their leadership and guidance sought by our people. Side by side with this development, township after township is building the foundations of people's power, which are transforming them into fortresses of the revolution.

Through centuries of white domination our people have learnt how to die for a future. Today, even our eight-year-old children in the townships defiantly pit their strength against the might of the racist soldiers and police. The cream of our youth have begun to mobilise themselves into mass combat groups determined to ensure that the regime will never again restore its control over the lives and destiny of our people. The enemy forces are being compelled to recognise that the only cause that they have to defend is the survival of a dying order; that even in death they can only die for the past and not for the future - they therefore only defend a cause already lost, whose path is increasing demoralisation.

It is only in this framework that we who know how to die for the future can understand the majesty of our young lions who have taken to war and side by side with Umkhonto we Sizwe moved our masses to make People's War a reality.

People's war became the pervasive wisdom.

Ronnie Kasrils, a member of the NEC, in 1988:

Anything that relates to our fundamental strategy - seizure of power through force of arms - is a fundamental question for us all, and that includes the leadership and activists of our mass democratic movement at home as well as the various sectors20 of our movement abroad, whether military or political.

The fact that we proclaimed our armed struggle on December 16th 1961, and that it is still at an extremely low stage of development, must force us to examine the problem areas frankly and critically.

Yet, despite the tremendous upsurge of mass resistance over the past three years, we were not able to take full advantage of the favourable conditions that materialised. We were unable to deploy sufficient forces at home; our cadres still found big problems in basing themselves amongst our people; our underground failed to grow sufficiently, and our people were left to face the enemy and his vigilantes with sticks and stones. As a result, the incredible mass resistance and the strikes were not sufficiently reinforced by armed struggle.

It is therefore clear that, though we have formulated theoretical positions such as "the armed struggle must complement the mass struggle" and "the guerrilla must be rooted among the people, " and so on, it is one thing to state the theory and quite another to put it into practice.

It is also clear that most people at home, including people within the mass democratic movement, still- regard Umkhonto We Sizwe as some kind of external force that must come and defend them from the vigilantes and destroy the enemy. They do not see themselves as being an integral part of the armed struggle.

Building the revolutionary army, and with it the underground, with the insurrectionary seizure of power in mind, is an objective that can be achieved by planned, purposeful organisational work in a relatively short period of time (such as five years) where the conditions are favourable, and where the revolutionary army is waging the war.

The revolutionary army is not only the organ for building up the revolutionary forces and for seizing power; it also becomes the organ for defending and guaranteeing the revolution. If power came prematurely, through some negotiated formula imposed by circumstances beyond our control, and we had no revolutionary army at our disposal, we would find our people cheated of real power. So whatever way we look at it, the creation of a revolutionary army is our most crucial task. 21

Six months later, in April 1989, the ANC had to close its military camps in Angola, a consequence of the Angola/Namibia peace accords. Trainees were flown across the continent to Tanzania. On 9 February, 1990, two days before the government released Mandela, Acting President of the ANC, Alfred Nzo told the New York Times," We do not have the capacity within our country to intensify the armed struggle in any meaningful way."22

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.