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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Chapter One: Old Battle-Cries And Borrowed Language

     - The ANC's operational strategic heritage, 1960-1975

     The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle-cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.

- Karl Marx1

The Other Casualties of Sharpeville

Police shot dead 69 unarmed anti-apartheid protesters in the African township of Sharpeville on March 21 1960. Nine days later, the South African government declared a state of emergency. On April 8, the government outlawed the ANC and its offshoot, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). International opinion shouted disapproval. Foreign investment fled the country. The Johannesburg Stock Exchange crashed. Flamboyant promises of support reached the ANC and PAC from newly-independent African states. The government deployed troops and police to secure white power and privilege. It arrested or detained more than 11,000 people under emergency regulations. The ANC's 48 years of non-violent protest against apartheid had apparently come to this. Together with a heady brew of white fear and black excitement, this bewildering train of events gave the impression that South Africa was on the brink of revolution.

Much of the rest of the world also appeared to be on the brink of revolution in 1960 and 1961. The air was redolent with anti-colonial and revolutionary struggles. Armed revolutionary wars were germinating in Portugal's African colonies where independence had not been readily conceded. First accounts from Cuba said a dozen men armed with guns and a rudimentary revolutionary theory had survived a landing on the island's coast in an old boat and, a mere two years later, ruled the country.2 By mid-1961, native Algerians seemed on the verge of victory in a bloody national liberation war against an almost indigenised French settler population plus metropolitan troops. And the Soviet Union and China stood proud, the sentinels of international revolution, offering their services as tribunes and quartermasters to those among the downtrodden elsewhere in the world who had the will to challenge the misfortune that three centuries of imperialism had visited upon them.

Inside South Africa, a few excitable and some calmer minds had discussed the prospects for revolution for some years. Within the ANC, members had long speculated when they might take up arms, and some had, since about 1957, experimented with petrol bombs and the like.3 Within the South African Communist Party (SACP), reconstituted in secret in 1953 three years after being outlawed, there had been constant debate around the issue.4

In 1958-1959, in an opposition journal of the time, Africa South, three leading radical white opponents of apartheid became inveigled into this debate.5 Julius Lewin,6 a prominent academic at the University of the Witwatersrand, argued that it did not follow from the patent injustice meted out to the African majority that South Africa was 'ripe for revolution'. Several prerequisites of successful revolution were absent: most importantly, the South African government showed no signs of losing control of its armed forces. Moreover, argued Lewin, there was no prospect that the conditions for revolution would develop; instead, white power and apartheid were likely to persist 'almost indefinitely'. The radical opposition should leave off thoughts of revolution as the means to achieve fundamental change, concentrating instead on non-violent popular organisation among the majority, particularly trade unions.

Lewin's views found an echo with Jack Simons, a leading SACP theorist with a reputation for independence of thought. Simons argued, however, that conditions might change quickly: increasing urbanisation, industrial employment and education among blacks might rapidly sharpen racial and class cleavages. He predicted that an alliance of workers, urban youth and intellectuals might emerge to challenge white power.

Michael Harmel, another SACP theorist, sidestepped the issues raised by Lewin and Simons, by defining revolution in a way which contradicted Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy as 'fairly rapid and fundamental change in a society, involving the displacement of the ruling class, whether there is fighting or not'7. Having defined revolution in this way, he then declared that it was 'certain' in South Africa. He predicted that it would resemble anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Asia, arguing that the 'wave of revolutionary change and upheaval' that had swept eastern Europe, Asia and Africa must soon begin to wash South Africa.

The debate indicated that, even as South Africa moved seemingly inexorably towards confrontation, there were serious radical thinkers who did not consider revolutionary violence the preferable, let alone the only, means to achieve the fundamental changes which the major black organisations sought. Moreover, these thinkers were pessimistic about the prospects for armed revolution. Elsewhere in the ANC-led Congress Alliance - which also comprised the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People's Congress, the Congress of Democrats and the South African Congress of Trade Unions - there was a tradition of passive resistance, sustained perhaps at least as much by moral conviction as by black South African's lack of armaments.

Beyond the cautions against revolutionary violence which had been voiced by contributors to Africa South lay a long list of others. The territories bordering on South Africa, then still under British or Portuguese colonial control, were unlikely to provide rear bases for a military campaign against the South African government. Conditions inside South Africa were scarcely more favourable for revolutionary violence. There were very few of the remote, heavily wooded areas which had been shown elsewhere to be convenient, if not necessary, to mount the style of warfare then favoured in most small revolutionary wars - guerilla warfare. South Africa had only the remnants of a black peasantry - the class on which a number of post-World War Two guerilla campaigns had been based. Other blacks working on the land were often strictly-controlled labourers on white farms. In South Africa's cities, the pass laws and rigid residential segregation placed tight security constraints on the black population. Apart from a few socialists and liberals, South African whites were evidently politically united in the maintenance of their political and economic domination. Many whites' attitudes were coloured by their view of themselves as indigenous to South Africa and by their inability to emigrate to the countries from which their ancestors had originated. The security forces, in addition to being loyal to the government of the day, were relatively efficient, mobile and familiar with South Africa's terrain and conditions. Black military traditions and skills had been systematically repressed since the early years of the century and, in practice, there were severe restrictions on black ownership of firearms. Moreover, white domination was based on a relatively advanced industrial economy and system of communications which black labour had, hitherto, shown no significant ability to disrupt.

These cautions against resort to revolutionary violence as the means to achieve fundamental change soon, however, joined the fatalities of Sharpeville.

The Rise in Influence of the SACP

The government's banning of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in 1950 appears to have produced a paradoxical effect. Rather than diminish communist influence, the banning advanced it within the ANC and its still-legal allies. After reviving underground in 1953, the South African Communist Party (SACP)8 diverted more energy into national liberation politics - a course consistent with developing theoretical perspectives within the SACP.

When the ANC was also outlawed, SACP members working in and with it already had some of the experience of clandestinity now needed in the ANC. Indeed, in the months of the 1960 emergency, between April and August, the de facto national command centre for most ANC and Congress Alliance activities comprised a handful of SACP members who had evaded police and who moved as a group from one safe house to another in Johannesburg.9

It was in one of the group's safe houses in about April or May 1960,10 according one of their number, Ben Turok, that the first formal proposal came within the ANC nexus for a resort to armed revolutionary struggle. Its author was Harmel. Turok recalls:

Harmel wrote a document...[T]he message [was] that peaceful methods of struggle were over; that one had to now look at alternatives; and that the alternative was armed struggle - violence. And it set this in the context of Marxist theory and communist theory, and revolutionary practice...11

Harmel's argument was communicated to other ANC and SACP networks that had evaded the police dragnet, and Turok implies it was influential.12

A full and formal SACP decision to resort to armed activity followed, predating the ANC's decision, which was taken in June 1961, by between one and six months.13 Party members concluded that armed struggle was feasible because, according to a senior SACP member at the time, Brian Bunting, they believed it would have 'massive support from the oppressed people particularly'. They anticipated problems arising from the lay-out of the country and the physical strength of the state. Generally, however, their feeling was that, because they were not a small group of extremists who were out of touch with ordinary people, there was a good chance that armed struggle would succeed.14 The SACP duly established small squads of saboteurs employing rudimentary methods, which became the forerunners of the armed force Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).15

Some - including the MK manifesto, plus Nelson Mandela, MK's first commander in chief, and ANC historian Francis Meli - have implied that the ANC leadership, as such, was not initially involved in a decision to form MK; rather, that the decision was taken by individual leaders of the ANC - by Nelson Mandela and others, together with leading figures in the SACP. They have stated that, while the ANC national executive committee as a whole expressed its understanding of these individuals' decision to form MK and would not act against them, the executive did not support the decision or commit the ANC as a whole to it.16

Other evidence, however, suggests otherwise. 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-1961.17 The executive distanced itself from MK for tactical reasons.18 Slovo, has publicly supported this view. He has indicated that projecting MK as independent of the ANC was a deliberate fiction promoted to serve two purposes.19 One was to protect members of the ANC and other ANC-aligned organisations from being implicated in MK's armed activities.20 Maharaj adds a related reason: that Moses Kotane, SACP general secretary, insisted that the resort to armed activity should not undermine the ability of members of the outlawed ANC to mobilise their constituency by non-violent political means under some other guise.21 Slovo says the second reason for the dissimulation was that ANC leaders needed to introduce gently the resort to violence to those in the Congress Alliance who had long been committed to passive resistance.22

Joe Modise, a founder member of MK who later became its commander, implies that ANC president Albert Luthuli was party to, and in some senses hosted, the decision to form MK. Some accounts have suggested that Luthuli opposed MK's formation.23 Modise reports that the formation of MK as an ANC project was endorsed when leaders of the Congress Alliance partners and SACP were 'officially brought together in Stanger, Natal, at Chief Albert Luthuli's place'.24 Maharaj insists that Luthuli supported this basic shift in strategic outlook.25 He adds that an additional reason for pretending that the ANC and Luthuli were removed from MK was to safeguard Luthuli's chances of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Luthuli had been nominated for the prize and his receipt of it held out the prospect of a leap in the ANC's diplomatic, political and moral standing.26 Maharaj adds that some Congress Alliance individuals mistakenly inferred that Luthuli opposed the resort to arms from the fact that, at the Congress Alliance meeting in late 1961 to consider the ANC executive's secret full endorsement of armed struggle, Luthuli insisted that there again be completely open debate on the ANC executive's decision. This meant that ANC executive members were individually free to renege. Maharaj argues that Luthuli encouraged free debate on this second occasion not in order to undermine the ANC executive's earlier decision but, rather, to ensure maximum unity around that decision. Some of Luthuli's senior ANC colleagues did not recognise this subtlety and became irate.27

The crucial point emerging from the account given by Maharaj, Modise and Slovo is that there was no deep disagreement within the ANC national leadership over the resort to armed activity, though there were probably different degrees of enthusiasm for it and its prospects. In the regions, however, elements of the Natal provincial ANC leadership and some members of Congress Alliance organisations, particularly of the Indian Congress, either questioned it or wanted to distance themselves from the decision.28

The extent of the role and influence of the SACP in the formation of MK was an additional factor in the ANC's dissimulation. Turok has pointed to Harmel's early intervention. Maharaj says that the debate over the extent to which the ANC and other Congress Alliance organisations should be identified with the resort to arms first occurred in the SACP.29 Moreover, it was the SACP which set up MK proto-units. But the most important factor in SACP influence came through individuals. Maharaj has implied that more than three members of this initial high command were SACP members.30 Those known to have been SACP members were Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba31 and Joe Slovo.32 The other two were Mandela, MK's first commander in chief, and Walter Sisulu, who was initially in charge of political structures in the first underground high command but took over the military side in an acting capacity after Mandela's arrest in 1962.

The SACP felt the need to hide the extent of its role in order to prevent the ANC being divided by anti-communism or falling victim to Cold War propaganda. This, according to Maharaj, was an additional, important reason for projecting the fiction that MK was a quasi-independent organisation decided upon by Mandela and a few close associates.33 MK's ostensible independence also meant that non-Africans could participate fully within it. Had MK been publicly and formally an ANC body, non-Africans could not have joined because, at that stage, the ANC was an Africans-only organisation.

The conception of MK was as much a decision of the SACP as it was of the ANC, if not more so. MK's veneer as an orphan gave it a freedom it would not otherwise have had and enabled its parents to deny responsibility for it until circumstances made it advantageous to claim their child. MK's parentage dictated that its schooling would draw on the texts which combined the Marxist-Leninist with the anti-colonial revolutionary experience, the predominant school of revolutionary thought given international developments at the time.

The Roots of Strategy

Revolutionaries invariably fight wars that are, as Rapoport has termed it, 'not symmetrical'34. They generally do not, initially, possess the technology, resources and organisation, particularly in the military sphere, of the state they are seeking to overthrow. Revolutionaries are, therefore, challenged to find way to redress, and ultimately reverse, this a-symmetry. Revolutionary strategists and commentators have long debated how to do so. Various answers have resulted, often influenced by the conditions in which a specific revolutionary struggle has been waged. The most frequent answer has been that the revolutionary organisation should secure the support, involvement or compliance of its potential constituency.

Marx and Engels, confronted by the suppression of the 1848 revolutions in Austria, Hungary and the German states, and by Louis Bonaparte's rise to power in France, recognised the need for the urban proletariat to gain the support of the peasantry lest peasant levees, or voters, be turned against urban revolutionaries.35 Lenin took these lessons to heart and insisted on the centrality of an alliance of workers and peasants to the 'democratic revolution'.36 Nevertheless, the Bolsheviks, an urban group, focused their efforts on carrying through an insurrection which combined armed and other forms of struggle in a sharp assault on the citadels of state power in Petrograd, Moscow and certain other cities.

Mao Dzedong moved the primary site of confrontation from the urban metropolis to the rural areas,37 in the process drawing attention to the political significance of the peasantry in China. Moreover, he argued that the best way to hasten the inevitable was to do so slowly. Whereas previous military and revolutionary doctrine had sought a quick victory over an enemy, Mao saw protracted struggle as the best method by which to redress the a-symmetry between revolutionary forces and more powerful state forces. Guerilla forces would seek to attenuate and wear down state forces over a long period while gathering their own political and military strength, to the point where they could contend decisively for state power.38

E L Katzenbach has shown that Mao's doctrine stressed a trio of intangibles: time, space and will. Taber summarises Katzenbach's insight thus:

Lacking the arms with which to confront well-equipped armies in the field, Mao avoided battles by surrendering territory. In so doing...he traded space for time, and used the time to produce [political] will: the psychological capacity of the Chinese people to resist defeat.39

Thirdly, Mao, placed a new order of emphasis on the need for prior political work among the revolutionaries' potential constituency. Guerillas, from their initial position of weakness, had little chance of success without popular support for, or involvement in, their activities. Shy and Collier note that, for Mao,

the first phase of revolutionary warfare must be political mobilization - the lengthy, painstaking process of recruiting and organizing popular support, building a dedicated and disciplined revolutionary cadre at the village level. During this first phase, only the most limited and selective use of violence is permissible; overt military action is better avoided altogether because it risks awakening the government to its peril and bringing armed repression down on an unready revolutionary organization.40

And, fourthly, for Mao, no clear distinction could be drawn between political and military tasks in revolutionary warfare. In 1929, Mao wrote:

[T]he Red Army should certainly not confine itself to fighting; besides fighting to destroy the enemy's military strength, it should shoulder such important tasks as doing propaganda among the masses, organizing the masses, arming them, helping them to establish revolutionary political power and setting up Party organizations.41     

Vietnamese revolutionaries under Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap largely followed Mao's doctrine.42

Much Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy on revolution was challenged as a result of the Cuban revolution in the 1960s. Dubious accounts of it, particularly books by Che Guevara and Regis Debray,43 implied that it was not necessary to await the maturation of conditions for revolution suggested by Marx, Lenin and others; nor were the preparations advocated by Mao a requirement for success. Rather, the injection of a small armed revolutionary force, or foco, into a situation of political discontent could, through its use of violence, quickly muster a political base and catalyse revolution.

Those involved in developing operational strategy in the ANC, MK and SACP in the 1960s drew on facets of this Marxist-Leninist tradition. Their discourse depended on the notion that fundamental change entailed the use of revolutionary violence. Like Lenin, they believed the policy of a state depended upon force or the outcome of warfare - whether class struggle or imperial/colonial conquest. Overthrowing the state likewise depended upon force; repression in South Africa evidently supported this conviction. Political activity was necessary in the course of revolutionary warfare in order to redress military a-symmetry. In contrast to Von Clausewitz's aphorism that war was a 'mere continuation of policy by other means',44 their theoretical heritage implied that policy and politics were simultaneously the offspring and servants of warfare.45 The role of political mobilisation and organisation in revolutionary conflict was merely to service military imperatives. Those situating their politics within this discourse who have claimed that they have employed warfare as an instrument of politics46 have promoted a rhetorically useful fiction at variance with the implications of their own theory.

Other conceptual developments in the international communist movement also encouraged the ANC and SACP towards a military emphasis in strategy. The concept of 'national democracy' was one. It resonated through the ANC and SACP's policy and strategy from the late 1950s onwards.47 Deemed a lodestar for underdeveloped societies seeking independence from colonial or neo-colonial relations after World War Two, the concept was basically anti-imperialist. It suggested that class or sectoral differences should be subordinated to an over-riding effort to transform patterns of political participation in these societies and to bring their economies under national control. Moreover, it was thought of as a transitional phase between capitalism and socialism. The simultaneity of its anti-imperialism/colonialism and its limited programme for economic transformation provided a point of convergence for nationalist and socialist objectives.

This convergence was most clearly stated in the South African case in the SACP's theory of 'colonialism of a special type', which was first fully formulated in 1962,48 but which was incipient in SACP thinking before then. Programmatically, it held that the revolutionary moment in South Africa would probably comprise insurrection. It argued that the central characteristic of South African society was that, within the borders of one country, there were the features of both an imperialist state and a colony; that black South Africa was white South Africa's 'colony'; that, in response to political and economic suppression, black South Africans experienced no acutely antagonistic class divisions among themselves but were driven towards uniting around a strong national identity; and that the challenge to this special type of colonialism had to be mounted primarily around nationalist issues and at a political level, rather than around issues of economic class.

Colin Bundy has identified the militarist implications of this kind of thinking. He has argued that:

An analysis which viewed class conflict as subordinate to the national question looked to guerilla action not only for its military gains but also for its contribution towards politicising and mobilising the masses.49

Evolving Strategy, 1960-63

Sheridan Johns believes that guiding the formation of MK in 1961 was a coherently phased strategy, one which envisaged a long term, multi-staged campaign of disciplined violence in which a hard core of trained militants, supported by mass-based political activity and crucial external aid, [would] confront state power with the ultimate goal of seizing it.50

Slovo has made the same claim to coherence. The sabotage campaign, with which MK began, was supposed to provide both a political and military bridge to a confrontational, revolutionary outlook.51 Limited sabotage would make people aware of the break with the non-violent past and, hopefully, win their approval for the new methods; it would provide a transition in which recruits and new methods could be tested en route to the development of an armed force eventually mounting a broad revolutionary assault.

But Slovo's account contradicts that of the MK manifesto. An eloquent assertion of innocence, the manifesto not only declared that the government had to bear moral responsibility for the resort to violence because repression had made armed resistance unavoidable; it also expressed the hope that MK's limited sabotage would convince the government to make fundamental political changes to avoid a descent into civil war. If that hope was entertained at all seriously within the Congress Alliance and SACP, Slovo's account suggests it was probably negligible in its significance. Strategic questions rapidly centred on how to develop a popular armed struggle for the seizure of state power in South Africa. Moreover, armed activity came to be viewed not only as the primary means by which eventually to overthrow the South African state but also as the major means by which to advance in each phase of escalation towards that goal.

The origins of this early emphasis on armed activity lay in the interplay of three factors. One, traced above, comprised the roots of the revolutionary strategy of the ANC and SACP after 1961 - roots firmly embedded in Marxist-Leninist soil. Secondly, there was a fairly general desire in the ANC and SACP generations to retaliate against what they saw as a brutal, violent state. Non-violent political work often seemed a decidedly second-best response to conditions of severe repression.52

The third factor was that strategists drew their guidance most heavily from those revolutionary precedents which most explicitly emphasised military activities. ANC and SACP members in the 1960s list Algeria, China, Greece, Russia, Vietnam and Yugoslavia as the precedents to which they referred.53 But none, initially, was as influential as the Cuban revolution. They accepted Che Guevara's foco, or detonator theory of revolution. MK founder members report that Guevara's book, Guerilla Warfare, was an important reference.54

Notwithstanding ANC and SACP explicit and implicit protests to the contrary,55 this Guevarist 'detonator' approach underlay much ANC operational strategic practice in this early period. The two organisations largely ignored mass-based political activity, concentrating their most gifted and talented organisers in armed activity.56 The caution voiced by, pre-eminently, Kotane that political work by political means be vigorously pursued alongside armed activity was drowned in the excitement over the resort to arms.

By 1963, the ANC had drawn up a plan to commence a rural guerilla struggle, 'Operation Mayibuye'. The Chinese, Cuban and more recent Algerian guerilla struggles provided foreign precedents. Domestically, the revolt against the local state in the hills and mountains of Pondoland in 1960, seemed to indicate a potential for rural guerilla warfare in South Africa. Govan Mbeki, a member of the high command, suggestively drew his colleagues attention to this in his writings, later collected in his Peasants' Revolt.57

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 from 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. In this sense, the draft plan for Operation Mayibuye echoed Guevara. Indeed, it declared that the general uprising must be sparked off by organised and well prepared guerilla operations during the course of which the masses of people will be drawn in and armed.[my emphasis]58

Under the operation, guerilla struggle would be launched by the infiltration of four foreign-trained groups of some 30 men each into four rural areas; simultaneously 7,000 auxiliaries would be mobilised inside the country. The externally-trained groups were envisaged as a sort of elite, whose task it would be to attacks targets of major strategic importance. The auxiliaries, on the other hand, would combine sabotage with agitation and would succeed in drawing ordinary people into anti-state activity. Underlying the rural bias of the proposed operation was an assumption that topography, together with the attitudes of the peasantry and others living on the land, made the rural areas the more favourable terrain in which to conduct armed struggle in South Africa. This was, evidently, an assumption Mao could safely make about China, the FLN about Algeria and Guevara about Cuba; but there were serious grounds on which to question it in the South African context.

In the event, the question remained hypothetical, as no 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 guerilla warfare. At that stage, MK membership inside South Africa did not exceed 250,59 and the number was probably substantially less than that. MK members had been organised into regional commands which comprised four or five leaders. Many, if not most, regional commanders had occupied important or public positions in still-legal Congress Alliance organisations. MK operations had been restricted to sabotage, of which there had been about 190 actions, most of them small-scale.60 In preparation for Operation Mayibuye, a group of senior ANC members had been sent abroad under Mhlaba's command for training in China;61 and an estimated 300 ordinary members were also undergoing training abroad.62

In the three years following the arrest of the high command on July 11 1963, ruthless security force action destroyed the organisational capacity of MK, the ANC and SACP inside South Africa.63 The three organisations' only functioning components were in exile. There, the debate within the organisations themselves over the reasons for their near extinction did not prompt any fundamental revision of operational strategy. The debate reasserted that revolutionary action (of which the chief feature should be armed struggle) remained the way to achieve fundamental political and economic change in South Africa.

ANC and SACP strategists concluded that they had incorrectly read international conditions. They had over-estimated the support that they would receive from newly independent African states and other allies, and exaggerated the significance of condemnations of South African government policy by Western nations.64 Locally, they had grossly under-estimated the resolution and the coercive capacity of the state.65

These strategists, among them Slovo, appeared to realise that the consequences of their under-estimation of the state had been made all the more serious by their failure to engage, to any significant extent, in popular political mobilisation by political means once they had decided to form MK.66 When MK was placed under extreme pressure in 1963-1964, its members could find few places to hide. Contrary to Kotane's injunction, the ability of Congress Alliance organisations to continue political or trade union work had been much diminished immediately MK was launched. Slovo also concluded that MK cadres were inadequately prepared for the rigours of detention, which often included torture after 1962.67 This meant that one security force breakthrough in tracing MK's membership often led quickly to another. In this sense, MK probably failed in one of its early objectives - to identify which activists had the mettle for the 'new tactics'.68

Certainly, the sabotage campaign of 1961-1963 failed to build a bridge to popular armed struggle, which Slovo identifies as one of its central objectives.69 The low level of simultaneous political work considerably diminished its chances of doing so. The campaign did, however, facilitate the recruitment of some 300 people for guerilla training abroad by mid-1963. From then, hopes of a popular armed struggle rested with these trainees. To realise these hopes, the trainees had to be able to return to South Africa, where they had to be received by intact clandestine structures. But return was extremely difficult and, inside South Africa, the devastation that security forces wreaked upon MK and related structures, together with despondency among the ANC's potential constituency, deprived intending returnees of any realistic prospect of secure operating conditions.

Lodge has argued that, if the conclusion that armed struggle was possible under South African conditions in the 1960s was justified, then 'the preparations for a guerilla insurgency were, to say the least, premature'.70 Feit maintains that the weakness of the revolutionary challenge meant the ANC's potential constituency were not convinced it was worth their while to participate in it.71 Johnson suggests a better course for the ANC might have been to lie low while building clandestine organisation and limiting public political involvement to developing trade unions.72 The criticisms raised by these commentators can be summarised in terms of Mao's three intangibles - time, space and will. The ANC did not secure for itself the time and space in which to create popular will.

There was an additional fundamental weakness in the approach of the ANC, MK and SACP. It was that, in the resort to arms, little, if any, attention was given to the different grievances or demands of various black strata. Instead, strategy was premised upon a belief that the ambitions of different sections of black society could be subsumed and homogenised in one national struggle pursued principally by force. Lodge argues convincingly that what popular inclination to revolt was evident in the early 1960s had 'to be understood in the context of often very localised and specific conditions', which made generalisation very difficult.73 Had the ANC and SACP been more particular about the interests of different sections of black society and their readiness to suffer in pursuit of them, they might have been more cautious in strategising armed struggle - if, that is, they still considered armed struggle feasible. The roots of this analytical failure lay partly in the subsumption of sectoral and class struggles evident in the theory of 'colonialism of a special type'.

Evolving Strategy, 1965-74

With their domestic political and military base destroyed, the ANC, MK and SACP plotted from exile, mainly in Tanzania, where ANC headquarters were initially based, Zambia, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. They had about 800 people who had either undergone or were undergoing guerilla training abroad.74 In addition, small groups of exiles survived in the territories adjoining South Africa, but their capacity for clandestine activity was severely constrained.

After 1965, exiled strategists saw their difficulty in the following terms: without an internal revolutionary political base it was extremely difficult to mount an armed struggle; and, without the beginnings of armed combat, it was, under South African conditions of the time, equally difficult to build a domestic revolutionary political base. Between 1965-75, the ANC's and SACP's answer to this chicken-or-egg problem was, as before, to emphasise armed activity. Slovo recalls:

[The ANC] entered a phase in which it became necessary, however long it was going to take, to find ways of getting back into the situation and to demonstrate that we were able to hit the enemy as an important factor in helping to stimulate the process of political regeneration.75

Campaigns in the Wankie (1967) and Sipolilo (1967-1968) areas of Rhodesia testified to this military emphasis. SACP leaders, some of who had been obliged to base themselves in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe because of newly-independent African states' objections to communists,76 say they were not consulted on the campaigns.77 At the ANC's request,78 its guerillas were infiltrated into the north-western corner of Rhodesia in the company of fighters of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu). The ANC objective was to build a bridgehead for military infiltration into South Africa. While one section of the ANC contingent was to find or fight its way into South Africa itself, a second was to establish in then-Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) an infrastructure for future transit to South Africa.79

Little, if any, political work had evidently been done among the black population of then-Rhodesia to prepare receiving structures for the guerillas. Some ANC members blame Zapu for this, maintaining that Zapu had said it had the necessary political contacts and base.80 The standard of the reconnaissance work was also evidently abysmal. The guerillas did not know there was no water to be had on the Zambezi Escarpment.81 They had, therefore, to expose themselves to the local populace earlier than they would have wished.82 Some ANC members also allege that the training the guerillas had received, mainly in the Soviet Union following the Sino-Soviet split after 1965, had emphasised mobile warfare, the deployment of semi-conventional large columns of fighters, as opposed to guerilla tactics which would have been more suitable for the campaign.83

The campaign was a military disaster. The ANC achieved neither of its objectives. No ANC guerillas made it back to South Africa in a condition to fight.84 The remaining scores were killed, arrested or fled into neighbouring Botswana where they were jailed.85

At a crisis conference of the ANC in 1969 following the disastrous Rhodesian campaigns, delegates questioned neither the primacy of armed struggle in ANC strategy nor its feasibility. Indeed, in its newly formulated document, Strategy and Tactics of the ANC,86 the conference declared that armed struggle was the 'only' form of struggle open to the ANC. It held out the vision of an eventual 'conquest of power' in South Africa. Contemporary conditions, it stated, did not promise a seizure of power in the short term, by insurrection or any other means; consequently, the ANC should involve itself in a protracted struggle to create favourable conditions for it. Armed activity should initially take the form of guerilla warfare, situated mainly in the rural areas, proceeding in time to mobile warfare and, eventually, to a 'future all-out war' which would bring victory. Successful guerilla struggle would depend upon political mobilisation to ensure guerilla recruits and to ensure that the state was harassed politically and its forces were attenuated. In other words, it considered that political forms of struggle should be subject to the imperatives of armed struggle.

At an extended meeting of the SACP central committee a few months after Morogoro, the party was in full agreement with the ANC's Strategy and Tactics. Party members Joe Slovo and Joe Matthews had, in fact, played the key roles in drafting the ANC's Strategy and Tactics.87 Meeting in 1970, the SACP rejected the vestigial hope, contained in its 1962 programme, 'The Road to South African Freedom', that there could be a peaceful and negotiated transfer of power to the black majority. The SACP also retreated from what it termed the 'pure detonator theory' of the past and proclaimed that armed struggle 'far from occupying the only place in the arena of struggle' was 'only one of the means to be used to raise the tempo of revolutionary action'.88 Yet the party resolved that henceforth 'every political action, whether armed or not, should be regarded as part of the build-up towards a nationwide people's armed struggle leading to the conquest of power' [my emphasis].89 The SACP also agreed with the ANC that armed struggle should initially take the form of guerilla warfare situated mainly in the rural areas. But, said the SACP, this did not mean it conceived of armed struggle in South Africa as a peasants' war.90

The conclusions reached at the ANC conference in 1969 and the SACP central committee meeting the next year reasserted the two organisations' central assumptions about revolution and armed struggle, the detonator theory among them. In the year before the conference, Slovo had mounted a devastating attack on the 'detonator' approach to armed struggle in the pages of the SACP's journal, the African Communist.91 His efforts were rewarded when, in its opening remarks to Strategy and Tactics, the ANC not merely distanced itself from the 'detonator' approach but maintained it had never subscribed to the doctrine or employed it!

In their 1969-1979 consultations, both the ANC conference and the SACP central committee set out a distinction which facilitated the process of rationalising their mistakes. They distinguished between actions intended to foster a revolutionary situation and a revolutionary situation as such. The distinction provided a basis upon which arguably precipitate actions - the sabotage campaign, the plans for Operation Mayibuye and the Rhodesian military campaigns - could be justified as attempts to foster a revolutionary situation; in the course of mounting such attempts serious reverses could be expected.

As the 1970s dawned, practical attempts to re-instate an ANC presence in South Africa in the early 1970s continued to reflect the emphasis on military activity. Some ANC, more precisely SACP, energies were devoted to developing a handful of young South African intellectuals plus a few foreign left wing sympathisers into leaflet squads inside South Africa.92 But the greater portion of ANC and SACP operational energies went on trying to return a military presence to the country. This included an attempt to infiltrate a group under the MK commissar Flag Boshielo. But the group were ambushed as they crossed the Zambezi River from Zambia and Boshielo was killed. Another project aimed to land a group of guerillas and a large quantity of weapons on the Transkei coast, in an apparent attempt to resurrect a variant of the stillborn Operation Mayibuye. But the mission was aborted when a tramp steamer which the ANC had chartered developed engine trouble off the coast of Somalia.93 The guerillas were then infiltrated into South Africa from Botswana, but none managed to establish themselves securely and a number were captured.

The ANC blamed the absence of an underground as the major reason for its failures in the early 1970s to develop an MK guerilla presence in rural areas. The guerillas were told, upon infiltration, to integrate themselves under false identities with local folk and organise local MK networks. 'Scores', according to Slovo, were successfully put across borders into South Africa but none survived for more than a short period. They were quickly exposed to the state's network of officials and informers.94 The frustration of the ANC's and SACP's efforts at developing armed struggle seemed to have no end.


The Sharpeville massacre, the state of emergency and the banning of the ANC in 1960 were the immediate stimulants of the turn to armed struggle which the ANC announced publicly on December 16 1961. Once taken, that turn seemed to lock the ANC into a cycle. The disasters that soon beset the ANC, from the capture of its leadership at Rivonia to the complete suppression of radical opposition and the move into exile, seemed only to confirm its turn. Lacking any alternative conception of how to challenge the South African state, the ANC presumed on the central importance of armed struggle and devalued other forms of political activity.

ANC armed activity between 1961 and 1974 was a failure. If the ANC benefited by this failure - perhaps via others' recognition that it had at least tried to confront the South African state - that advantage remained well hidden in 1974. The ANC had come close to being completely destroyed in 1963 and 1964 and, 10 years on, it was a near irrelevance inside South Africa.

The reasons for the failure of the ANC's armed activity between 1961 and 1974 fell into four categories: under-estimation of its enemy, the South African state; over-estimation of its own abilities and the degree of active support it could expect to receive from the black population; under-estimation of the topographical and geopolitical difficulties it faced in trying to wage an armed struggle; and over-estimation of what armed activity was capable of achieving.

Notwithstanding the failure of attempts at armed struggle, the ANC launched no concerted effort to develop a clandestine internal political programme. Rather, to the extent that it conceived of political work as having any importance between 1961 and 1974, it saw political work as being stimulated by, or as separate from, or as subject to the imperatives of, or as being of less importance than, armed combat.

Why did the ANC persist with armed struggle despite its early failure? Why did it so devalue political activity and subordinate it to military imperatives? Part of the explanation lay in the influence of the SACP, the ANC's intimately integrated ally. The ANC appropriated Marxist-Leninist strategic discourse and imbibed one of its central tenets - that fundamental, or revolutionary, change entailed the use of violence.

Once the ANC had opted for armed struggle, it was unable to resist armed struggle's organisational appetite. Many, perhaps most, of the ANC's most able organisers were pressed into ensuring that armed struggle succeeded. Other contemporary examples - Castro in Cuba, the FLN in Algeria and, earlier, Mao in China - encouraged this heavy commitment to armed struggle. In one or other degree, these other examples seemed to suggest that it was not only fundamental change that came through the barrel of a gun; so, too, did self-respect.

Securing both restitution for the humiliations of apartheid and fundamental change seemed to require armed struggle. When the first attempts at armed struggle led to a humiliation of an even starker kind for the ANC, the ANC was entered upon a cycle in which this second humiliation had also to be avenged. The only means of redress seemed to be the very method that had caused this second humiliation: armed struggle.

As the next chapter will show, the ANC would continue in this consuming cycle for some time.

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.