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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.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 Two: You Only Win Once

Prioritising armed struggle, January 1974 - June 1976

     A struggle is made up of failures essentially. It's true. You only win once, and that's at the end.

- Joe Slovo1


THE ANC'S PROSPECTS as a national liberation movement changed considerably over the 30 months between January 1974 and June 1976. In 1974 the ANC was almost wholly exiled or jailed, organisationally weak, disunited and geographically fractured. Moreover the ANC lacked any domestic presence worthy of the term 'underground organisation'. By June 1976, however, the ANC was poised to break out of the near irrelevance to South African affairs into which its miscalculations of the 1960s had thrust it. Several developments delivered this change. The ANC itself was a causal agent in only two.

The left wing coup d'etat in Portugal in April 1974 led to the independence of Angola and Mozambique the next year under governments dominated by, respectively, the MPLA and Frelimo. The ANC had a diplomatic alliance with these two liberation movements, as well as sharing with them a close ideological affinity and common backing from the Soviet Union and its allies. The independence of these two territories breached South Africa's regional cordon sanitaire which had curtailed the ANC external mission's ability to interact with South African political developments.

Inside South Africa, legal and semi-legal political activity against apartheid among black people at large re-emerged following the quiescence of the latter 1960s. The black consciousness movement was, by 1974, exciting the political aspirations of some black strata, notably the intelligentsia and youth. Church groups were also actively servicing organisation around black grievances. Black industrial workers had begun to reassert themselves through industrial action and trade union organisation, and were receiving significant assistance from young, left wing intellectuals.

The ANC external mission improved its capacity to engage in domestic struggle from abroad. It began to establish an operational organisation in Mozambique, and increased its cadre presences in other black-ruled independent states adjoining South Africa.2

Inside South Africa, small groups of individuals, notably recently released ANC political prisoners, who had been jailed in the 1960s, began rebuilding embryonic ANC underground structures.

Between 1974 and 1976, these developments facilitated ANC attempts to establish the kind of organisational axis it had needed ever since its setbacks in the 1960s. The small domestic underground had the potential to become a channel of communication between the ANC in exile and its politically renascent potential constituency inside South Africa. ANC operational strategic policy did not, however, enhance the workings of this axis. Instead, it seriously damaged the axis' key element, re-emergent underground political organisation. Yet, the very setbacks operational strategy caused also paradoxically benefited the ANC.

This chapter sets out to demonstrate this paradox.

The ANC External Mission Environment in 1974

In early 1974, the ANC external mission comprised a scattered and loosely-connected set of individuals and groups in various countries in Africa, Europe, Asia and North America. Its major concentrations were in Africa, particularly in Zambia and Tanzania. ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia,3 lay 500 miles from the closest South African border, which could be reached only by traversing the territory of one or more other countries. Small groups of ANC members lived in Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. Mozambique and Angola remained under Portuguese colonial control, Namibia was under South African rule and Rhodesia under a white minority government, with continued assistance from South African police units4 - a legacy of the ANC's Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns.5

In late 1974 the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) achieved 'observer status' at the United Nations (UN), while the general assembly suspended South African government representation. The government conceded that its 'enemies' had 'succeeded in isolating South Africa in some respects' but had failed to do so 'in the important spheres'6 - reference to the failure of the campaign for international trade sanctions by the liberation movements and their allies. South Africa's major trading partners, namely the Western powers and Japan, resisted the campaign, while support from African governments for the ANC was largely rhetorical or diplomatic. The Liberation Committee of the Organisation of African Unity provided only limited financial and military support to the ANC;7 the bulk came from the Soviet Union and its allies.8

The ANC external mission had an overwhelmingly African membership. Its active complement totalled probably about 1,200 people. Drawing on Rivonia trial evidence, Edward Feit and Tom Lodge estimate that about 300 recruits had left the country for training abroad by about mid-1963.9 In 1964, according to Ronnie Kasrils, a founder MK member, he joined about 500 ANC members undergoing training in Odessa in the Soviet Union.10 In 1965, he says, the ANC had between 800 and 1,000 people based at MK camps at Kongwa and Morogoro in Tanzania or on courses in Czechoslovakia, Odessa in the Soviet Union and in China (until the Sino-Soviet split).11 There is no evidence of any major exodus of anti-apartheid militants from South Africa between 1965 and 1970. By 1966, South Africa had returned to apparent quiescence. An attempt by Bram Fischer, Griffiths Mxenge and others to resuscitate the remnants of the ANC and SACP inside South Africa had been destroyed by security police, so making subsequent large-scale recruitment for guerilla training unlikely. Grundy's estimate that MK had 2,000 guerillas in 1970 appears to be an over-estimate.12

The national consultative conference in Morogoro in 1969 had opened membership of the external mission to non-Africans from the SACP and Congress Alliance member organisations; non-Africans were still excluded from membership of a notional 'internal ANC'.13 The external mission was presided over by a national executive committee (NEC), membership of which remained restricted to Africans.14 The NEC had about a dozen members, following a severe reduction in its size at the Morogoro conference,15 and met only sporadically.

Operational Structures after the Morogoro Conference, 1969

The consultative conference in Morogoro in 1969 had established a central operational body, the Revolutionary Council (RC), to oversee all political and military activities into South Africa on behalf of the NEC.16 The RC initially comprised about a dozen members, but membership increased to about 20 by the time it was disbanded in 1983.17 This increase resulted from the cooption of new members as the RC spawned specialised military departments dealing with operations, ordinance and the like.18

The RC was the most senior ANC body to reflect the external mission's multi-racial character after 1969. RC membership was mainly African, though it included one white, Joe Slovo, one 'coloured', Reg September, and one Indian, Yusuf Dadoo19 - all SACP members. Oliver Tambo, as ANC acting president, was RC chairman; Dadoo, an SACP politburo member (and later SACP chairman) was RC vice-chairman;20 Moses Mabhida, who had served in the late 1960s as MK's political commissar21 (and who would later be SACP general secretary), had by 1974 succeeded Joe Matthews as RC secretary. Thabo Mbeki served as RC assistant secretary in the early 1970s,22 before being succeeded by Simon Makana. All of them, bar Tambo, were SACP members.

Tambo's and Dadoo's involvement in the RC was more nominal than actual. Tambo was continually distracted by ANC diplomatic and administrative tasks. Dadoo was based in London, having long found travel to Africa difficult because of anti-communist attitudes among African governments.23 Slovo, who experienced similar difficulties as a non-African communist,24 was to overcome them.

Apart from Tambo, one of the few identifiable non-communists on the RC in 1974 was Joe Modise. Modise had headed Umkhonto we Sizwe's exiled military administration since 1965,25 had commanded the disastrous Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns in 1967-196826 and continued as administrative military chief on the RC.27

The formation of the RC represented an important advance for some in the SACP leadership, particularly Dadoo and Slovo.28 It bolstered their influence over operational strategy. Distinctive SACP control over MK had been weak between 1965 and 1969;29 that is, during the Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns, which a number of London-based SACP leaders had considered ill-conceived.30 Membership of the RC promised Slovo an end to his isolation from the ANC's and SACP's main cadre concentration in Africa31 and, for Dadoo, greater influence.32 Slovo and Dadoo were keen to counter a tendency which they had detected among Africa-based SACP cadres to submerge the party almost totally within the ANC.33 The SACP leader most closely associated with this tendency was Moses Kotane, both party general secretary and ANC treasurer-general. Dadoo and Slovo believed Kotane was following too literally the logic of the SACP's theory of 'colonialism of a special type' in privileging national liberation over the struggle for class emancipation.

Although the RC's task was to oversee both political and military operations, its emphasis fell overwhelmingly on the military side. Organisational dynamics within the ANC bolstered the military emphasis long evident in strategic formulations.

Reliable estimates of the numbers of ANC members given military training are impossible to obtain - whether for this or any other period between 1961 and 1990.34 But the indications are that, in 1974, the ANC had between 800 to 1,000 people who had undergone military training. A significant number would since have been deployed in other, non-military ANC structures, while some had been casualties in the Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns and a few had deserted.35

In 1974, the external mission's most evident political work inside South Africa was that undertaken by a London-based SACP committee. Chaired by Dadoo, with Slovo as secretary, it also comprised MK founder members Jack Hodgson and Ronnie Kasrils.36 This committee had, via Slovo's and Dadoo's RC membership, a link into ANC operations. Other SACP members, including the trade unionist Ray Simons, then based in Lusaka, maintained tenuous lines of contact to a handful of SACP members in the Western Cape.37 There were also sporadic cross-border links between ANC members in Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland and groups of ANC-aligned individuals inside South Africa.38

The Domestic and Regional Environment, 1974

By 1974, inside South Africa, there was a potential for popular anti-apartheid political organisation employing legal and semi-legal means. The political mood among some black strata indicated that popular resistance might grow substantially - despite extreme legislative strictures, administrative repression, very limited resources and the absence of both revolutionary underground structures of any significance and of armed activity for 10 years.

Organised ANC participation in this resistance was marginal in early 1974. Residues of ANC policy traditions were sometimes evident and its minuscule, scattered underground presence occasionally contributed. But the resistance then emerging arose overwhelmingly autonomously of the ANC, out of the black consciousness movement, the churches or the newly re-emergent black trade union movement.

In 1974, South African government policy pursued four canalisations: firstly, of South Africa's four 'colour' groups along separate political and social paths; secondly, of the African population, and its political and economic aspirations, into ethnically derived and geographically separate bantustans; thirdly, of white-controlled industrial development away from the 'white' South African metropolis towards areas adjoining the bantustans; and, fourthly, of black labour to sectors of the white-controlled economy as and when required.

Government policy significantly influenced the character of anti-apartheid resistance. A tightening of the social and political exclusion of blacks, including coloureds and Indians, thrust the black intelligentsia and youth towards an exclusivist nationalism. From modest beginnings on segregated university campuses in 1968-69 as the South African Students' Organisation (Saso), the black consciousness movement had by 1974 spawned a number of organising arms. The Black People's Convention (BPC) constituted the movement's national political umbrella; the Black Community Programmes (BCP) oversaw a number of modest but symbolically important community development projects; and several loosely organised groups for black school students had been founded, the most important of them being the South African Students' Movement (Sasm).

Black student clashes with university administrations and police in the early 1970s had disabused the South African government of its fancy that black consciousness' racial exclusivity was consistent with grand apartheid strategy, and the government banned the movement's two leading voices, Steve Biko and Barney Pityana, and others in 1972 -ironic tribute to the movement's success in mobilising black opinion.39

The black consciousness movement also promoted African worker militancy, mainly through the Black Allied Workers' Union (Bawu), a general workers' union founded in 1973. But the black consciousness movement's involvement in trade unions was less influential than the effects of parallel groups of young white left-wing intellectuals. By 1974, the latter, who organised themselves into Wages Commissions on white university campuses, had spawned embryonic industrial trade unions. They did so through a coterie of off-campus organisations, which included the Johannesburg-based Industrial Aid Society (formed in 1974), the Durban-based Institute for Industrial Education (1973) and General Factory Workers' Benefit Fund, plus the Cape Town-based Western Province Workers' Advice Bureau (1973). By mid-1974, the two Durban-based organisations had made considerable advances: the benefit fund had 22,000 members; they had formed four unions with a total membership of more than 10,000; and they had formed an umbrella body to oversee their efforts, the Trade Union Advisory and Coordinating Council (Tuacc).40

Low-level government harassment and the exclusion of any trade union with African members from official industrial relations procedures failed to halt dramatic growth in black industrial organisation. The number of African workers in industrial employment had increased during the 1960s and early 1970s and they had suffered sharp increases in the prices of essential commodities41. This gave rise to renewed impulses towards collective worker action and trade unionism, which had become evident in strikes in Natal in 1973.

Within some church circles a similar radicalisation was under way, notably through a small ecumenical centre concerned with social issues, the Christian Institute and a network of independent African churches. A number of orthodoxies came under challenge from amongst the black clergy resulting in with the emergence of a South African variant of 'liberation theology'.

By 1974, this array of popular, student, political and workers' organisations, together with radical church groups, occupied an insecure intermediate status between legality and illegality. State action against them tended to be administrative rather than judicial, and included banning orders on individuals and state commissions of inquiry into their activities.42 Their survival indicated, firstly, that a tenuous legal 'space' existed for organisations of their type and, secondly, that broader popular anti-apartheid mobilisation might be possible.

For the South African state, Angolan and Mozambican independence prompted 'a hasty reformulation of regional strategy'.43 The new strategy had two basic elements: considerable new investment in South African military capacity and deployment, together with a diplomatic search for potential allies among conservatives in the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).44 But the South African invasion of Angola in 1975 with about 2,000 troops45 rebounded on Vorster. He called off the invasion when the United States withdrew tacit diplomatic support for it,46 when furious rows erupted in his cabinet and between his intelligence services,47 and when heavy South African casualties seemed likely in confrontations with Cuban and Angolan MPLA forces.48

The invasion seriously damaged the credibility of Vorster's attempts to adjust South Africa's regional defence by diplomatic means.49 Moreover, some militant opponents of apartheid drew inspiration from Pretoria's withdrawal from Angola interpreting it as an actual military defeat50 - a dubious conclusion. Whatever the factors behind South Africa's withdrawal, a shift in the regional balance of forces had indeed resulted from Angolan and Mozambican independence - and was recognised as having occurred by the ANC51 and South African government.

On April 24 1974, one day before the Portuguese coup, the National Party was returned to power for the seventh consecutive time, and with an increased majority.52 The government soon made clear its intention to move ahead in a practical way to dismember the South African political community. It announced that Transkei would be the first bantustan to be given 'independence', and that this would occur within five years.53 Government statements on the coloured and Indian sections of the black population stressed their future exclusion from the central polity. Notwithstanding its appointment of the Theron Commission in 1973 to investigate the political future of the 'coloured' community and calls from even conservatives in the powerless Coloured Representative Council for an end to coloured debarment,54 the government insisted in 1974 that its policy ruled out full citizenship for 'coloureds'.55 And, in August 1974, the government extended the life of the purely advisory and unrepresentative South African Indian Council.

Faced with the prospect of apparently indefinite political exclusion and growing economic pressures, black discontent forced a space for itself in the legal and semi-legal spheres of political and economic activity. ANC members, however, worked mainly clandestinely.

The Re-emergence of an Underground

Although (as the ANC has recognised)56 thousands of one-time members of the ANC and allied organisations lived in cowed quiescence through the latter 1960s and early 1970s, a few individual ANC members and isolated cells remained steadfast through their organisation's bleakest years. In Cape Town, a handful of SACP members and trade unionists maintained tenuous links with the liberation movement abroad through Ray Simons, then in exile in Lusaka.57 In Natal, an attempt to reconstitute ANC organisation in 1965 had been destroyed by security police with the imprisonment of Griffiths Mxenge and others. But, upon his release in 1969, Mxenge, then a lawyer, recommenced efforts at slow rebuilding together with other ANC sympathisers and members.58 In the Transvaal, a residue of active ANC members around Winnie Mandela - including Samson Ndou, Lawrence and Rita Ndzanga and Solomon Pholoto - had, in a two-year ordeal from May 1969, been detained, tried, acquitted and then re-detained for attempting to reconstitute ANC organisation.59

The release in the early 1970s of a number of ANC political prisoners, some of whom had commanding personalities, reinvigorated the tiny residual ANC underground presence. Among those freed who were to play key roles in rebuilding an ANC underground presence in the 1974-76 period were, in Natal, Harry Gwala (released in 197260), Judson Khuzwayo (197361), Shadrack Maphumulo (1974), and Jacob Zuma (197362); and, in the Transvaal, Joe Gqabi (197563), who in 1961 had been one of the first group of MK members to receive military training, in China64, and Martin Ramokgadi (197365).

The Natal ex-prisoners established contact with old comrades.66 Jacob Zuma and Joseph Mdluli, who was later to die in security police detention in 1975, comprised an underground cell of the ANC-aligned South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) at Bolton Hall in Durban, headquarters of Tuacc activities.67 Harold Nxasana, a former Sactu official and ANC political prisoner worked for the Institute for Industrial Education.68 Khuzwayo was a researcher attached to the University of Natal in Durban.69 Key Tuacc figures, such as Halton Cheadle, David Davis and David Hemson, discussed their work with Mxenge and Khuzwayo but the three had no organisational link with the ANC or SACP.70

Jacob Zuma says that the Natal underground recruited and established units among African and Indian university and schools students, plus community development workers.71

It found most black consciousness adherents receptive to the ANC.72 For their part, the ex-prisoners' felt no hostility to black consciousness, believing its emergence owed much to ANC influence and combativeness since its banning.73

By 1975, this small Natal network had units in the Durban-Pinetown complex, Pietermaritzburg and Hammarsdale, was expanding south and north of Durban and had plans for expansion throughout the province.74 It communicated with the external mission in adjacent Swaziland,75 among whose members was Joseph Nduli, a guerilla who had fought in the Wankie Campaign.76 He, like Zuma and others based in South Africa, regularly travelled illicitly into and out of South Africa.77 This clandestine traffic opened up a trail between the Natal and Eastern Transvaal regions of South Africa via Swaziland to Mozambique which would become the main conduit for the ANC's resumption of armed struggle.

In the Transvaal, Gqabi, Ramokgadi and John Nkadimeng, a former prisoner who had been banned for a number of years, formed a similar command committee after Gqabi's release in 1975.78 Chaired by Nkadimeng, it met clandestinely each weekend in different locales around Johannesburg.79 Its small network resembled Natal's. Ramokgadi recruited in the embryonic trade union leadership then developing in the Johannesburg-based Industrial Aid Society.80 Gqabi81 and Nkadimeng82 had contacts with individuals in black consciousness student groups, who sometimes called upon them for advice,83 and some ANC cells might also have been established within Sasm.84 Through Ramokgadi, the Gqabi group also had contacts in parts of the Northern Transvaal.85

The Natal and Transvaal leaderships maintained contact with each other over the 1974-76 period.86 The Transvaal command unit used Natal's link to the external mission in Swaziland,87 which became increasingly important after Mozambique's independence in mid-1975, and also maintained contacts in Botswana.88 The Natal group had a link with the Eastern Cape-Border regions,89 where a number of ANC ex-prisoners were also active.90 A small external mission presence in Lesotho also serviced the Eastern Cape.91

A number of other underground leafleting units, comprising mainly young white intellectuals, were active in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the Transvaal, Natal, Eastern and Western Cape. Each operated clandestinely and entirely separately from any other ANC presence inside South Africa, answering only to the London-based SACP committee under Dadoo and Slovo, and avoided any legal or semi-legal political work. They included Anthony Holiday, who operated for about six years to mid-1976;92 David and Susan Rabkin, plus Jeremy Cronin, who distributed copies of some 14 different leaflets over the 1973-76 period;93 Timothy Jenkin and Stephen Lee, who distributed copies of some 18 leaflets in the three years after August 1975;94 and Raymond Suttner, who distributed leaflets until 1975 when he, too, was jailed.95

Influences on ANC Operational Strategic Policy

In line with positions agreed at the Morogoro conference in 1969, the ANC believed that armed struggle would eventually win it state power. Moreover, the ANC proclaimed that the success of this putative armed struggle would depend upon an organised ANC political base inside South Africa. In practice, however, the ANC gave little attention to possibilities for political organisation by political means; instead, it continued to behave as if military activity would build for it an organised political base.

In his influential tract, 'South Africa: No Middle Road', Slovo recognised that changes in the subcontinent,96 among them the Portuguese coup, promised new possibilities for ANC advance. Pending Mozambican and Angolan independence and in the black nationalist armed struggles in Namibia and Zimbabwe were outstanding among these changes. The ANC executive believed they presaged the encirclement of white South Africa before the 'final and decisive confrontation'.97 For Slovo 'signs of a significant upswing in political awareness and militancy' inside South Africa98 were as important as these regional changes. Domestic popular militancy needed to be encouraged by all means.99 But the most important determinant of progress, Slovo reasoned would be developing 'an underground leadership presence within the country itself'. In an oblique reference to the activities of Gqabi and others, Slovo wrote that the development of a real internal underground leadership was now 'closer than at any time since the pre-Rivonia Trial period'.100 But, added Slovo, state repression necessitated that political work, open or clandestine, be backed by 'offensive and defensive force'.101 In practice, this would mean that ANC operational strategy again stressed the military component. A number of contemporary factors help explain this military stress.

The structure of the RC provides part of the explanation. The RC, although charged with overseeing both political and military operations, lacked any functioning subcommittee specialising in political work. (None would exist until after the Soweto uprising in 1976.)102 But, in 1974, the RC did have an organised group overseeing military matters - the MK administration headed by Modise, which also served as an operations and planning department.103 This military group dominated the RC's operational agenda.104

Geographical dispersal of the ANC also facilitated military predominance. Theoretically, the entire RC membership was charged with overseeing political work.105 But members of the RC often lived in different countries, which made attendance at meetings difficult in a time of some penury for the ANC. Some RC members often also absented themselves from RC meetings in order to fulfil other administrative and diplomatic tasks.106 The RC consequently seldom met in full complement; moreover, between meetings there was no administrative centre for continued political work. RC members concerned to see the ANC advanced inside South Africa by political means were, thus, poorly placed to ensure it did.

Clandestine political work was further undermined throughout the 1970s because some ANC leaders serving on both the NEC and RC played one organ off against the other.107 This denuded the RC still further of its capacity for political work. The ANC's secretary general until 1969, Duma Nokwe, did the most damage in this respect. He kept the ANC's main propaganda organ, the department of information and publicity (Dip) outside of RC control.108

The ANC's diplomatic difficulties in this period also encouraged it towards a stress on military activity. In the mid-1970s, some international allies of the ANC became impatient with it. Whereas armed activity was under way in Zimbabwe, had borne fruit in Angola and Mozambique, and had taken root in Namibia, in South Africa there had been none for more than a decade. According to Slovo, these allies had begun to use the absence of any internal ANC military operations 'as an explicit or implicit excuse to deprive [it] of the kinds of help which would enable [the ANC] to begin operations'.109

A second set of diplomatic developments also seemed to demand a military response from the ANC. Some African states' responded positively to South African Prime Minister John Vorster's secret diplomatic initiatives after April 1974, which sought an accommodation between Pretoria and black-ruled African states which would compensate for the loss of buffer territories in Angola and Mozambique. The ANC called on the international community to reaffirm 'the legitimacy of the armed struggle' in pursuit of a 'seizure of power' in South Africa.110 The RC, according to Slovo, felt that the ANC had to give its 'own answer in action so as to confront the reformists both inside and outside the country with the liberation movement's alternative'.111

At this point, a long-festering leadership crisis in the ANC came to a head. Its public impact added to doubts about the ANC's efficacy. Its end result was the expulsion in October 1975 of eight ANC leaders and senior members, who then formed a short-lived separate organisation, ANC-African Nationalist (ANC-AN).

The precise causes of this split are difficult to assign. The dissenters alleged that the SACP, dominated by whites, had 'hijacked the ANC' at the Morogoro Conference by 'pushing a call for "integration of revolutionaries"'.112 They charged that the RC was the cockpit from which communists were steering the ANC. Lodge argues, credibly in my view, that the split 'did not seem to involve questions of strategy or considerations of a more obviously ideological dimension'.113

Rather, the explanation for the dissent seems to have lain in the vicissitudes of exile politics, in inadequate democratic procedures in the ANC and in frustrated personal ambitions. The ANC's situation did not encourage open accountability. Its membership was spread over many countries between which communication was very limited. Moreover, the organisation was haunted by the requirements of clandestinity, particularly in regard to the RC. The fact that most RC members were also SACP members would have added to suspicions of a conspiracy-within-the-conspiracy.

The SACP pointed out that two of the dissenters had, in fact, been party members. Both the SACP and the ANC alleged the eight had a history of factionalism.114 The split caused serious confusion among middle-ranking ANC cadres.115 There were reports of internal feuding in MK camps in Tanzania,116 where many had spent a largely inert decade. The expulsion of the dissidents added to pressures on the ANC to break out of its inertia.

The Organisational Axis at Work

The ANC was favourably placed to advance by non-military means at a political level inside South Africa over this period. The external mission was rapidly improving its capacity to reinforce domestic struggles from abroad. The ANC had seasoned political organisers rebuilding an underground and developing links into incipient popular and working class movements. But the ANC's stress fell on military activity.

1. Winning black consciousness:

The ANC external mission was not alone in seeing its salvation in armed activity. The same tendency developed among some members of the black consciousness movement. As it did so, an increasing number drifted towards the ANC. In the process, the ANC's predisposition towards a stress on armed activity was strengthened.

In the early 1970s, clandestine discussions within the black consciousness movement exhibited a 'strong trend' towards armed struggle, according to three prominent members, who later joined the ANC.117 Some individuals studied whatever literature they could obtain on armed struggles in Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Namibia and Vietnam, among others.118 But they had difficulty envisaging how they could actually involve themselves in armed activity. One option seemed to be continuing open political mobilisation in the hope that either the ANC or PAC would eventually 'approach' them. A second was 'to form a secret underground, train and arm [themselves] and launch an armed struggle from within the country'.119 But, following repression on black student campuses in 1972 and the banning of Saso leaders, a third option emerged as the most promising: an 'organised movement into exile' in order to develop a capacity for armed struggle alone or together with the ANC or PAC.120

A 'small trickle' of black consciousness members left the country in the early 1970s.121 In September 1973 their number included a few leading officials: Onkgopotse Tiro, a former permanent organiser of Saso, Ranwedzi Nengwenkulu, another former Saso official, and Bokwe Mafuna, a BCP organiser.122 Bigger groups left thereafter.123 Tiro's assassination by a parcel bomb in Botswana in February 1974 apparently indicated the seriousness with which the South African security services now viewed black consciousness.124 The exodus of members surged after black consciousness movement rallies in September 1974 to celebrate Frelimo's impending accession to power in Mozambique were broken up by South African police. The state saw the rallies as an endorsement of armed struggle - as indeed they were.125 After the rallies, security police raided the offices of many black consciousness organisations nationwide and detained more than 20 of their leaders.126

In exile, mainly in Botswana, some black consciousness members formed the Azanian People's Revolutionary Front (APRF) under Mafuna.127 They and others contacted the ANC, PAC and Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) to explore the prospects for cooperation on armed struggle. The two NEUM factions then in existence rejected armed struggle, which ruled them out.128 The ANC said it would provide military training only to those who joined the ANC.129 It gave the same response to a black consciousness delegation who travelled to Botswana from inside South Africa as Steve Biko's emissaries to ask if the ANC would provide training to a distinctly black consciousness guerilla force.130 This ANC response 'proved a problem' for many black consciousness members.131 But it made sense for the ANC, which was concerned to prevent black consciousness from developing its own military capacity or becoming a rival.132

In the case of the PAC, one of its two main factions, headed by its military commander Templeton Ntantala, facilitated military training for a small black consciousness group in Libya. But tensions between the PAC leadership and black consciousness trainees led to some of the latter's expulsion from Libya. On their return to Botswana, the PAC divulged their presence to the Botswana government, which created further difficulties for them.133 The APRF then collapsed, with some members regrouping as the Isandlwana Revolutionary Effort,134 which was also short lived.

The predominant shift within black consciousness exile circles in Botswana was, however, towards the ANC, notably among those who had received military training earlier in Libya. This trend became more marked after the 'challenge' posed by the Soweto uprising.135

Meanwhile, ANC recruitment of black consciousness members inside South Africa was under way by 1975. Natal-based N.Zuma, who was elected Saso vice-president in 1976, worked in ANC cells with a number of other black consciousness members recruited as early as 1974. She herself had been recruited by Thabo Mbeki while on a visit to Swaziland in 1975.136 A young University of Zululand law student, Mduduzi Guma, was another of those recruited at this time. After going into exile after the 1976 uprising, Guma commanded MK's Natal machinery from Swaziland. In the Transvaal, Nkadimeng had relationships with a number of black consciousness individuals. They would often approach him for advice on political direction which they seemed to consider 'authoritative'.137

Ideological tensions between the inclusive nationalism of the ANC and the exclusivism of black consciousness dissipated somewhat in this period. The amenability towards black consciousness of individuals in the ANC underground was probably a factor in this. Like Jacob Zuma and the Natal underground leadership,138 Nkadimeng in the Transvaal felt that black consciousness had a 'legitimate' case, though he felt it was necessary to 'handle [it] with care'.139 According to N.Zuma, ANC policy on whites as well as white involvement in the ANC were becoming lesser issues. What was exercising the minds of her generation more acutely was armed struggle, how to develop it and ANC strategic thinking on it.140 The ANC's 'good working relations' with Frelimo and the MPLA, both of which had evidently made progress through armed struggle, gave the ANC some lustre within black consciousness circles.141 The arrest of much of the Natal underground command, including Gwala, in 1975 and (what were for that time) sensational disclosures about the extent of ANC operations and armed preparations also gave the ANC prestige.142

ANC members working within Saso, like N.Zuma, were instructed to recruit others to the ANC, form ANC cells and 'influence debates and discussions within BC' towards ANC positions.143 This caucusing coincided with theoretical divergences within black consciousness. According to Diliza Mji, a black consciousness leader from a prominent Natal ANC family, fractures developed in about 1975 over the black consciousness movement's analysis of apartheid and post-apartheid vision. He and some others now sought answers in class analysis,144 rather than the more race-based emphasis associated with early black consciousness, which aligned them more closely to the ANC-SACP alliance. There was a major dispute at Saso's congress in Hammanskraal in 1976.145 In N.Zuma's estimation, there was a definite swing under way within Saso towards ANC perspectives,146 which is perhaps borne out by Mji's election that year to the Saso presidency and her own election as his deputy.

The trend within black consciousness towards armed activity over the 1974-76 period reinforced the ANC's own military stress. A generation from which the ANC had been removed was now approaching it for military training. Indeed, winning over this generation seemed substantially to depend upon the ANC's commitment to armed struggle.

2. Towards armed struggle:

Between 1974 and 1976, the ANC external mission improved its organisations in Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland,147 moving in some of its most competent individuals. Mozambican independence in June 1975 and Angolan independence in November greatly facilitated this,148 as the ANC got facilities in both countries. Slovo based himself in Mozambique, surrounding himself with some of the ANC's best operational talent.

In 1974, Chris Hani, an veteran of the Wankie campaign, crossed through South African territory where he made contact with a few former ANC members before establishing himself in Lesotho. There, he headed operational structures which were to deal with the adjoining Cape Province.149 Thabo Mbeki, then emerging as an outstanding young ANC and SACP intellectual, spent much of 1973-74 in Botswana150 where he had dealings with the early black consciousness exiles.

ANC exiles from the 1960s were firmly established in Swaziland by the early 1970s. Their leading members included Wankie veteran Nduli, Stanley Mabizela, Ablon (Bafana) Duma and Albert Dhlomo, a former Natal trade unionist. Mbeki also arrived in Swaziland as acting chief representative in 1975, and one of the ANC's first recruits from the black consciousness movement, Keith Mokoape, also moved to the area.

The external mission's military stress influenced the tasks it gave the embryonic domestic underground. Whatever lip service it paid to the need for political organisation by political means, it told underground structures to concentrate on recruiting youths for military training abroad. The ANC felt it needed new blood to replace guerillas from the 1960s, who had aged in exile and were out of touch with conditions inside the country.151 Jacob Zuma recalls:

What we were doing [through our underground work] was...to create the necessary political base so that the armed struggle takes off and is dependent upon a political base. This [had] been my thinking all the time. But, when [Angola and Mozambique were liberated], since we had a link with the outside, the comrades had ideas that then an opportunity had come to take the armed struggle, or struggle in totality, some steps forward. Then the comrades said: The recruitment must begin. They gave the reasons. Now, of course, once you undertake recruitment, that is a very touch and go task. 152

It was, indeed, to prove touch and go.

More than 200 recruits were smuggled abroad between 1974 and 1976, according to members of the Natal and Transvaal undergrounds.153 Jacob Zuma says that the Natal command unit sent 'more than a hundred' recruits for military training through Swaziland. Most were from the province, but others were from the Eastern Cape.154 Zuma reports that enthusiasm among potential recruits was 'so high' that Natal exceeded the quota it had been set by the ANC external mission.155

In the Transvaal, an ANC underground unit, Esther Maleka and David Pule Thate, both eventually jailed,156 recruited 'more than a hundred' people for military training abroad between 1974 and 1976.157 Similar recruitment was undertaken by Siphiwe Nyanda, a sports reporter on The World, a newspaper in Johannesburg. He made an average two trips a month to Swaziland and Mozambique escorting recruits, before he himself left for military training abroad in February 1976.158 Nyanda was linked to another recruiting network involving Naledi Tsiki and Christopher Manye,159 whose experience is recounted below.

By the end of 1975, a number of the Natal network's recruits were already undergoing actual military training.160. The Natal-Swaziland connection also began over this period 'giving some people crash courses in Swaziland and sending them back to go and strengthen the underground structures', according to Zuma.161 Slovo confirms this. He reports 'the spontaneous emergence of groups, some of which [the ANC] had been in touch with, who were anxious to play a part in the armed struggle'.162 The ANC external mission did not, however, succeed in systematically developing the potential for quickly training these groups, which were conceived of as 'MK auxiliary units'. Slovo and others rued this failure.163 They recognised that this type of unit could have placed at the ANC's disposal military combatants living legally inside the country, whose absence during training had not been noticed by security forces164 and who, moreover, had not lost touch with domestic conditions. The bulk of recruitment between 1974 and 1976 resulted in long periods of training abroad.

The story of one group of intelligent and mobile young men who sought recruitment to MK - Naledi Tsiki, Mosima (Tokyo) Sexwale and a group of friends from Soweto - shows the ANC's limitations on the Witwatersrand in the years before 1975.

Tsiki tried to get revolutionary military training from 1972 and, notwithstanding visits to Lesotho where he attended school, had been unable to do so.165 His friend, Sexwale, went to Botswana in 1973, where he managed to meet members of the Zimbabwean liberation movement, Zapu, but not the ANC. He and Sexwale could also make no progress with Winnie Mandela, then living in Soweto, who told them her links with the ANC had 'broken down', something they were later able to confirm.166 Tsiki, who with Sexwale 'tried very hard' to find an ANC underground in Soweto in 1972-73, concludes one did not exist at that time.167 He recalls:

As far as we were concerned, we were struggling on our own. If there was an underground, it was altogether too underground for us. We definitely struggled for years, I mean for years, really for years, trying to make contact and we couldn't.168

The group made contact with the ANC only when Sexwale visited Swaziland in 1975. There he met Mbeki.169 In 1975, on their own initiative, Tsiki and a third young man, Christopher Manye, formed an underground unit which discussed politics, later distributed ANC literature clandestinely and which subsequently spawned further units. A visit by Manye to Swaziland resulted in a plan to set up MK auxiliary units inside the country. Trainees would receive only three to six months instruction abroad before deployment again inside the country170. According to Tsiki:

We felt that we shouldn't go out and stay outside. We must actually go out, come back into the country and work inside the country.... From the readings...I had done in guerilla warfare, I had come firmly to believe that the only effective way in which you can be able to build up the structure was to make sure that people have got the necessary equipment but they must be inside the country, and legally inside the country if possible, to work in such a way that they can do their work without being seen to be doing their work.... This was the thinking...we had developed before we actually met the [ANC].171

Tsiki's group started recruiting to service this perspective.172

In late 1975, however, security police attention meant Tsiki had to leave South Africa. The ANC told the newly-exiled Tsiki that giving him military training and returning him to South Africa in three to six months was 'no problem'. But Tsiki was frustrated by an apparent lack of planning and coordination. He spent a week waiting in Mozambique and a further few weeks waiting in Tanzania, leaving for the German Democratic Republic only in January 1976.173

Tsiki found a few score other recruits in transit camps in Tanzania - reflecting a 'reasonable flow of people'.174 Sexwale, whose training in the Soviet Union also began in January 1976,175 had 12 others in his group - five each from Soweto and Natal and two from the Orange Free State.176 His Soviet trainers told him there were also other ANC groups receiving instruction in Crimea.

Tsiki and Sexwale would return to South Africa much later than he had hoped to - almost a year after leaving - a story which is taken up in the next chapter.

Recruiting for military training was, as Jacob Zuma indicates, hazardous. The toll exacted from the embryonic underground structures was high. Many involved in Tsiki's various units had to leave the country.177 Esther Maleka and David Pule Thate were jailed in 1976.178

But nowhere in the 1974-76 period was the cost higher than in Natal. With a few exceptions, among them Zuma, almost the entire Natal leadership had been neutralised by early 1976. Recruitment for military training had exposed the few underground workers at a very early stage to many people upon whose discretion or loyalty they could not reasonably count. Recruitment comprised a large and critical portion of the evidence against them.179

The Natal underground considered the prospects for, and various ways of, involving itself in political organisation by political means. It was aware that Natal students were not alone in being receptive to the ANC. Conditions for ANC political work were also promising in the emerging trade unions. In 1975, support for the ANC and its allies among workers within the emergent Natal-based unions was substantial - about 66 per cent, according to one survey.180 The Natal underground also had the advantage that many of its members were one-time trade unionists.181

Among underground members there were discussions on how members should involve themselves in popular legal organisations.182 Nxasana, who was involved in just such work at the Institute for Industrial Education, and Dhlomo, a former colleague in the trade union movement, had opposed ANC concentration on military activity in the early 1970s,183 believing trade union organisation was more important. But, after Dhlomo went into exile in Swaziland in late 1972, Dhlomo had changed his views.184. William Khanyile, another of the trade unionists in the Natal underground, proposed in 1975 reviving Sactu. But Nxasana opposed this, arguing that the government would immediately crush any trade union which associated itself openly with Sactu,185 which, though itself not formally outlawed, was seen by the state as indistinguishable from the ANC and SACP. In July or August 1975, Nxasana attended a clandestine Sactu conference in Johannesburg. The general opinion there, too, was that Sactu should be revived if possible.186 At one meeting - with Jacob Zuma, Khuzwayo and Khanyile - Nxasana was told to form youth clubs, train shop stewards and join the Umlazi Residents Association.187 The underground also discussed, inconclusively, what to do about Inkatha Ye Nkululeko Ye Sizwe, the Zulu cultural movement dating from the 1920s which had been resuscitated in 1975 by Mangosuthu Buthelezi.188 And plans were discussed for a public commemoration meeting on December 16 1975, the anniversary of MK's formation, for former ANC president Albert Luthuli.189

Despite these discussions, there was no prioritisation of political organisation by political means. Nor, apparently, did the Natal underground energetically oppose involvement in military work - which might have been advisable given the degree of exposure many of them had to the security police because of their political histories. The external mission instruction to begin recruitment and military tasks went substantially unchallenged.

That instruction was emphatic and repeated. According to Nxasana, in January 1974, Nduli, the Wankie veteran based in Swaziland, entered South Africa clandestinely and directed the underground to reorganise itself into cells of two or three people to recruit others for military training.190 In April 1974, Nxasana met with Jacob Zuma and Khanyile, and the same message was conveyed, this time from Dhlomo. Zuma said that the functions of cells would be to find recruits, send them to Mozambique and to hide returning MK combatants. In August 1975, Nxasana met Harry Gwala, Jacob Zuma and two others. A letter from Swaziland reiterated the importance of recruiting youths for training in Mozambique and it suggested arrangements for transport.

A document, entitled 'To All Leading Cadres', was read at this meeting of the Natal underground in August 1975. Under the heading 'Current tasks in our struggle', it stated that

The principal strategic aim of our struggle is the forcible capture of power from the white minority regime by the combined revolutionary forces of the black majority and all other democratic forces in the country.191

It argued that the way to achieve this was to develop MK into a force capable of defeating or rendering ineffective government armed forces. It added that this armed assault had to be carried out in a context of over-all and continuous political guidance. But its weight was that repression inside the country and Vorster's detente exercise among African countries imposed priorities. It stated:

in these conditions, it has become very urgent that we begin to engage the enemy in armed combat inside the country.192 [my emphasis]

In the military sphere, the document said:

Our immediate tasks in this area are:-

- further expand the network of MK units, drawing in      the youth in particular;

- to train these units;

- to arm these units;

- to activise them, actually to begin confronting      the      enemy.193

And it exhorted the underground to prepare to receive military cadres and to hide arms. The message was unmistakeable: the practical priority was military-type activity. The Natal underground complied.

Security police swooped on the Natal underground in December 1975. Nxasana's impression during interrogation was that police knew almost everything.194 Gwala, Khanyile and eight others went on trial. A deeply distressed Nxasana gave evidence against his comrades; Joseph Mdluli died in detention at the hands of security police; and a procession of people who had helped in military recruitment and transportation testified against the accused. All but Khanyile were eventually jailed in 1977 at the end of a long trial, four of them for life.

The core of the Natal underground had been destroyed. Only a few units survived, mainly south of Durban.195 Among the survivors were Khuzwayo and Petros Nyawose. Zuma escaped arrest, and continued working in Swaziland. Military recruitment had denuded domestic soil of potential candidates for long-term internal political reconstruction. The assumption underlying the recruitment of young militants had been that the ANC would be able to return them to South Africa after their training to extant underground reception structures.

The trial of Gwala and the nine others, and the scandal surrounding Mdluli's death in detention in March 1976, gave widespread publicity to the resurgence of ANC activities. This fed into what was an increasingly volatile political context. The Natal underground had been alive to the changing political mood inside the country. In 1975, according to Jacob Zuma, the Natal underground had, in fact,

analysed the situation and realised that there was a political explosion coming, and we thought it [would] come in 1975, and our thinking was that it [would] come from the workers' front. I think we analysed that - even put it on paper. And, indeed, as we saw the situation developing, there was a lot of resistance at different places.196

Underlying this mood were a number of combustible ingredients. Black industrial wages increased quite dramatically,197 in particular just after the 1973 strike wave.198 But during the 1970s, there was a rapid increase in unemployment among blacks and a serious deterioration in rural resources.199 Increasing numbers of rural work seekers were evading prohibitions to try to obtain employment in urban areas. Urban black townships were becoming more seriously overcrowded as the government strictly limited further housing development. Large urban squatter settlements developed to cater for the new influx of work seekers as services for the black townships, among them schools and transport, sagged under the burden. And, in Soweto, the largest of the segregated black townships, the proportion of residents in wage employment was declining.

Marks and Trapido add that:

the relative success of the workers' strikes, the independence of Mozambique and Angola and the subsequent humiliation of the South African invasion of Angola inspired the black consciousness movement. It was the state's determination to impose Afrikaans on school students, however, in the context of a rapid expansion of high school numbers in urban areas, which provided the flashpoint.200

Between March and May 1976, students at a number of black junior schools in Soweto demonstrated against the enforced use of Afrikaans, considered the language of the oppressor, as a medium of instruction in their schools. In late May, Sasm, the black school students organisation, rejected Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. At a meeting on June 13 in Soweto, a Soweto regional branch of Sasm was formed and a demonstration was planned for three days later, June 16.201

When police opened fire on this demonstration, rioting broke out. Soweto was plunged into a state of insurrection. In subsequent days, inchoate uprisings broke out in black townships in many urban areas and some bantustans. The country as a whole was plunged into crisis. Full accounts of the uprisings in Soweto and other black townships are available elsewhere.202 Although there is no evidence to suggest that the ANC instigated or influenced these uprisings, none the less, as I will show in the next chapter, it was to be the major beneficiary of them.


Over the 1974-76 period, four developments were particularly influential in improving the ANC's fortunes. They were the rupture of the South African government's regional cordon sanitaire, the emergence of an incipient anti-apartheid mass movement inside South Africa, improvements to ANC operational structures in neighbouring states, and the resuscitation of an embryonic ANC underground. These developments enabled the ANC to establish the kind of organisational axis it had needed ever since its setbacks in the 1960s if it was to return to South Africa as a significant revolutionary force. This axis turned on the small domestic underground, which promised a channel of communication between the external mission and its politically renascent potential constituency inside South Africa. Moreover, the underground was the bedrock upon which the ANC could hope to build an extensive and organised domestic presence capable of supporting the sustained armed struggle which the ANC hoped to wage.

I have shown, however, that ANC operational strategy over the 20 months to June 1976 did not enhance the workings of this axis. Rather, it led to the near destruction of its key element, the re-emergent underground. The ANC's precipitate stress on armed activity during this period was the major cause of this destruction. The ANC's prioritisation of armed activity paradoxically harmed its potential eventually to develop a sustained armed struggle. It had not seen the need to hasten slowly.

Whatever the ANC's verbal protests to the contrary, its practice over this period indicated that actual ANC operational strategy still identified armed activity as the key to advance in all phases of developing a revolutionary challenge. The ANC's response to an internal political upsurge was to give priority to armed struggle and the recruitment of cadres for military training, rather than building up internal political organisation and pursuing political rather than military strategies. Three positions obtruded through the ANC's practice. First, it saw armed activity as the means by which it would eventually seize state power. Secondly, it viewed armed activity as the major method by which it could stimulate an organised political constituency inside South Africa. And, thirdly, the ANC saw the overriding purpose of any political mobilisation, whether the product of military action or of non-violent political methods, as being to serve armed activity.

However, these same weaknesses of ANC strategy and the setbacks they caused the organisation, paradoxically benefited the ANC. The ANC's determination to mount military activity resonated to powerful effect within deeply frustrated sections of the black community. The ANC's defiance and patent will to struggle - most evident over this period in its losses of personnel in the service of a precipitate strategy - guaranteed its resurrection, phoenix-like, to growing acclaim from a potential constituency inside South Africa desperate for leadership. The crucifixion came in successive political trials, flights into exile and, particularly, in Soweto on June 16 1976 when, in the words of Nolutshungu, the South African state invoked the ultima ratio regum, carelessly and wantonly, when the right of revolt had merely been asserted and barely exercised.203

The ANC's resurrection was delivered by a generation of black youth who, enraged by the brutality of the state and attracted to the ANC by its military stress became the foot soldiers of its resumption of armed activity inside South Africa after October 1976. How that youth was won to the ANC, how it bore that resumption of armed activity and resurrected the ANC to relevance are the subject of the next chapter.

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.