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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

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Conscripts To Their Age: African National Congress Operational Strategy, 1976-1986

By Howard Barrell
St Antony's College
D.Phil. thesis in Politics, Faculty of Social Studies,
University of Oxford, Trinity Term, 1993.

Thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of D.Phil. in Politics in the Faculty of Social Studies, University of Oxford, Trinity Term, 1993.

Length: 98,000 words

ABSTRACT

There was a consistency to ANC operational strategy between 1976 and 1986 even when there was a change in tactics. The ANC always treated armed struggle as the central feature of its operational strategy, the ultimate aim of which was the forcible overthrow of the South African state. As a result, military imperatives invariably dictated the form the ANC sought to give to its political deployments.

The ANC's armed struggle remained at a very low level of intensity, however, and posed no military threat to the South African state. A determination to correct this weakness motivated most ANC attempts to reshape operational structures and political mobilisation. By the mid-1980s, however, the ANC's armed struggle was, patently, a military failure. Moreover, political mobilisation by political means, much of it initially undertaken to bolster armed struggle, posed a more serious challenge to the state than armed struggle. Yet the ANC persisted with its armed struggle, and its operational strategy still accorded armed force the crucial role in securing fundamental change in South Africa.

If armed struggle was a failure, in the context of state-induced reforms in the 1980s, why then did the ANC persist with it? One reason was the ANC's choice of strategic discourse: it held that fundamental political change necessarily entailed the use of violence; and it seemed to lack criteria on which to falsify activity. Another was that the brutal humiliations of apartheid appeared to require an armed response. A third was that, as it made strategy in the present, the ANC was trying to justify its past as much as it was framing future intentions. But the main reason for persisting with armed struggle was the political dividend the ANC derived from it. The authority and popularity that armed struggle gave the ANC explains the paradox in its trajectory: the more it failed, the more it succeeded.

CONTENTS

List of Figures and Charts     iii

Acknowledgements     iv

Introduction     1

Note on Sources and Footnoting     18

Postscript Ante     26

ONE: Old Battle Cries, Borrowed Language     32

TWO: You Only Win Once     76

THREE: Unprepared     136

FOUR: A Turn to the Masses     184

FIVE: Armed Propaganda and Non-Collaboration     217

SIX: Towards a Broad Front     269

SEVEN: Planning for People's War     302

EIGHT: Leading from Behind     348

NINE: Tactics of Talks, Tactics of Confrontation     391

CONCLUSION     456

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY     476

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.