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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.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 Four: A Turn To The Masses

The Quest for a Political Base, October 1978 - August 1979

[I]f our own independent efforts had taught us anything in the recent period, it was that our efforts would reach a dead end unless they had a broader political base.

- Joe Slovo1

Introduction

Between October 1978 and August 1979, the ANC tried to understand how its very emphasis on armed activity was undermining its efforts to mount a sustained armed struggle. The ANC attempted to unravel this paradox in the course of a formal review of strategy.

ANC operational strategy between the early 1960s and 1978 centred on the development of a popular armed struggle for the seizure of state power in South Africa. The strategic review of 1978-79 would not alter this basic perspective. What the review would change was the ANC's understanding of the means it should employ to build an organised revolutionary political base for itself inside South Africa. Whereas in the past the ANC had behaved as if armed activity could develop such a political base, the review concluded that the main means should rather be political organisation by political means - legal, semi-legal and underground. The ANC's ultimate interest in developing such a popular political base remained what it had been earlier - to equip itself to mount a sustained revolutionary armed struggle for the seizure of state power. This popular base was supposed to help it redress the military asymmetry between itself and the South African state. In other words, by the end of the strategic review the ANC still viewed (non-violent) political work as subject to military imperatives. But traces of ambivalence emerge would emerge in some later formulations.

The ANC's 1978-79 strategic review was a formal exercise instituted by the ANC's national executive committee (NEC) and it occurred in two stages. In the first stage, from late 1978, sections of the ANC leadership made concerted attempts, which included a visit to Vietnam, to find remedies for their organisation's difficulties. These inconclusive attempts led to a second stage: the appointment in January 1979 of a commission to review ANC strategy, tactics and operational structures. This commission reported in March of that year and most, but not all, of its central recommendations were formally adopted by the ANC five months later in August.

Factors stimulating the Strategic Review

A number of developments between 1976 and 1978 challenged ANC strategic policy and practice.

The uprisings in Soweto and elsewhere in 1976 indicated an immediate potential for popular insurrectionary activity in urban areas. The ANC had long largely disregarded such potential in favour of a vision of a protracted people's war waged in, primarily, a rural context. The ANC's influential and incorporated ally, the SACP, had spoken in general terms of the possibilities of a popular insurrection in its 1962 programme, 'The Road to South African Freedom', as well as in 1970 in its central committee document, 'The Party and the Armed Struggle'.2 But, since then, the SACP had not sought to develop this perspective.

The 1976 uprisings had also shown that, contrary to ANC and SACP assumptions, armed struggle was not a necessary 'detonator' of, or precondition for, popular upsurge. There had been no ANC armed activity inside South Africa for 13 years before 1976. Moreover, since the uprisings, despite severe state repression, the domestic political ferment had continued, indicating persistent potential for legal and semi-legal popular mobilisation. This potential had, arguably, been apparent since the early 1970s with the rise of the black consciousness movement and new militant trade unions. But the ANC had given scant attention to exploiting it. Instead, the ANC had left this legal and semi-legal ground open to these new forces. Now it was expressing fears that these new forces might jeopardise the struggle against apartheid through inappropriate policies or strategies. For example, the ANC disagreed with the refusal of some black consciousness supporters to engage in solidarity in action with anti-apartheid whites,3 and it disagreed with the avoidance of national political issues by some of the emerging industrial trade unions. The external mission was also concerned at the tenuousness of its link with Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha, which was now employing ANC symbols and attempting in 1978 to develop a national political base in alliance with so-called coloured and Indian parties which, like Buthelezi, were working within state-created structures. Internationally, the ANC was fighting attempts to create a 'third force' liberation movement mainly out of some exiled black consciousness supporters.4 And Sactu was playing a spoiling role abroad to ensure that the emergent unions did not receive the kind of resources that might enable them to develop into a working class political project independent of the ANC-led alliance.5 These concerns, and the weak tactics the ANC was obliged to employ to address them, evinced quite how divorced the ANC was from a vital part of the action in South Africa.

By late 1978, there were indications that, under its new Prime Minister, P W Botha, the South African state was embarked upon a programme of serious reform, albeit one perhaps motivated primarily by considerations of counter-insurgency strategy rather than by an intention to destroy the fundaments of white political and economic domination. The state was adapting a range of political and economic institutions to dissipate the threats to white rule and capitalism which it identified in the anti-apartheid ferment of the mid-1970s.6 These adaptations formed part of a comprehensive new security doctrine, 'Total Strategy'.7 One thrust of the strategy was to co-opt some sections of the black population into alignment with the white minority. In 1978-79, one of several commissions of inquiry covering a range of topics was appointed to look into constitutional change and the possibility of the creation of separate chambers of Parliament for so-called coloureds and Indians, alongside the white House of Assembly. Coloured and Indian statutory political expression had hitherto been confined to ethnically-constituted councils limited in both powers and popular support.

No plans were advanced for a similar chamber for Africans. Instead, 'national' African political aspirations could, the state persisted in arguing, be satisfied by the bantustan system. Two of the 10 bantustans had been given nominal independence by 1978 - Transkei and Bophutatswana. And this dismemberment of South African nationality was due to result in the creation of more satellite ethnic states. But African township dwellers in 'white' South Africa were to be given a new form of local government, community councils, with greater powers than the urban bantu councils which had in many cases been rendered defunct by the 1976 uprisings. The Wiehahn Commission advanced proposals to recognise legally the new independent trade unions and incorporate them into the statutory industrial relations framework. The Riekert Commission explicitly recognised the permanence in the 'white' South Africa of Africans with urban residential rights, while seeking to constrain more effectively the influx of others into the cities, except as temporary migrants. Neither set of commission recommendations were implemented as originally intended, but Wiehahn did open the way to radical changes in the system of industrial relations. Riekert's proposals culminated in 1986 in the abolition, rather than the intended restructuring, of the pass system.

Within the region, South African state strategy was deploying military, economic and diplomatic pressures to ensure that neighbouring independent African states declined to support the ANC. Pretoria's ideal was the recreation of a geopolitical buffer against threats to white minority rule. In pursuance, it floated the idea of a 'constellation of southern African states' dominated by South Africa whose other members might include Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, SWA/Namibia and the nominally independent bantustans.8

In response to these South African and regional developments, the ANC was, in effect, offering only armed struggle. Yet this armed struggle was almost stillborn, as the ANC battled unsuccessfully to develop it beyond sporadic cross-border incursions.

Arguments within an Impasse

Armed activity was not, of itself, succeeding in building a popular revolutionary political base inside South Africa. The sensible assumption underlying ANC operational strategic policy was that such a base was necessary if central operational headquarters (COH), which oversaw Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), was to settle a military presence inside South Africa and gradually to redress military asymmetry between its own and the state's armed forces.

Mac Maharaj, appointed IRD secretary in early 1978, accused COH leaders like Joe Modise and Joe Slovo of having not only ignored the urgency of political reconstruction by political means but of repeatedly frustrating attempts to achieve it.9 Added to this was a second problem. Even had IRD made more progress with political reconstruction, the design of operational structures under the RC ensured that political machineries and COH's military cadres were so divorced from each other inside South Africa and in the forward areas that it was doubtful the military would have been able to derive any benefit from it. Operational structures (see Figure 2 overleaf) and rules made it nigh impossible for a group of guerillas to be received and settled by in-place political underground units.

Arguments over how to take ANC military operations out of this impasse took a number of forms but were invariably circular. They ended where they had begun: at the absence of an organised ANC political base inside South Africa. One argument was that COH had been choosing targets that were often inappropriate to political needs;10 that is, that they were not patently designed to stimulate or reinforce political organisation. Another criticism was that there was little sense in relying solely on cross-border incursions by combat groups; this entailed a waste of time and energy for a host of special operations - surveillance teams, logistics and ordinance departments - and for the combatants themselves; it made more sense for COH to organise people inside the country to mount attacks. A further argument was that the pattern of cross-border hit-and-run attacks encouraged the ANC's potential constituency inside South Africa to wait passively for exile-based ANC military activity instead of participating in armed activity themselves.

COH responded that it was almost impossible to involve members of the ANC's potential constituency inside South Africa in military activities because IRD had failed to build an adequate organised political base inside South Africa.11 Yet, added COH, it could not wait for the IRD to produce the political goods. It had to meet an immediate demand; it had to ensure that the ANC was seen to be striking at the South African state.12 COH argued that the solution to almost all of its problems in expanding armed activity lay in increased political mobilisation and organisation inside South Africa.13

A view gradually developed among RC members that underlying their difficulties, primarily on the military front, were basic questions of revolutionary theory, strategy and practice. Rhetorically, the ANC had usually maintained that political leadership provided overall direction for military work. But Maharaj was forwarding a compelling argument that ANC operational practice evinced a militarist bent.

Visit to Vietnam

A small RC delegation, led by ANC President Oliver Tambo, visited Vietnam in October 1978.14 Their purpose was to draw such lessons as might be creatively applied to the ANC's struggle.15 A report on the visit, written by Slovo, identified a number of general propositions which it said had guided Vietnamese revolutionaries, adding that they could be creatively applied to the ANC's situation. Propositions of particular relevance were:

* that political struggle was primary in all phases of revolution;

* that revolution could succeed only through the united strength of the 'masses' of people expressing itself in organised political activity;

* that it was necessary to build the broadest possible national front around a minimum programme to unite all classes and strata in revolutionary struggle;

* that it was necessary at all times to try to create legal and semi-legal organisations, and for the revolutionary vanguard to try to lead these different forces on the basis of what it considered to be the correct policies;

* that the revolutionary vanguard should maintain its own independence while working with other broader forces;

* that revolutionary armed struggle could succeed only if it grew out of a mass political base;

* and that revolutionary violence was necessary for revolutionary victory, but that this violence had to be constantly assessed and controlled to maintain a correct relationship with the political struggle.16

In Vietnam, Slovo seems to have undergone a nigh-Damascene conversion to views long forwarded by Maharaj. His report argued that the ideas exchanged in Vietnam indicated that much ANC practice hitherto had been militaristic. The ANC had started from the premise that military activity would help to regenerate conditions for political work but had subsequently behaved as if armed action was perpetually the movement's primary tasks.17 He wrote that, after 1976, military activity had been taking place in something of a void; most of it could not be related to an organised political base or to regional or local political issues and ANC tasks.18 Moreover, without effective political mobilisation and organisation, and without a mass political base, the military struggle could not ultimately challenge the enemy for state power. Worse, added Slovo, the ANC lacked not merely an organised internal base but also a clear and detailed strategy for developing one.19 The ANC was close to encouraging 'militarist illusions among the people: of the struggle being carried out by specialist armed fighters'.20 Much ANC practice and propaganda were, Slovo wrote, in fact 'fostering this mistaken view and had not projected the armed struggle as growing out of, and being linked with, mass political struggle'.21

Slovo and others felt the ANC had to reopen the debate on how to achieve an organised domestic political revolutionary base. In the past, the ANC had not paid sufficient attention to the militant political struggle inside the country, to the possibilities of combining legal and illegal actions and relating them to our political-military strategy. We had not given proper weight to the significance of the many mass organisations which had recently arisen; and we had sometimes taken sectarian positions towards them ...22

Behind these shortcomings lay a more serious one: the ANC had not in any sense effectively addressed 'the fundamental precondition of national democratic revolution': 'the requirement that the widest possible mobilisation must be undertaken of all classes and strata of the oppressed'.23 The ANC and SACP had ignored the potential for sectoral political and economic struggles which existed under South African conditions.

Important voices in the COH now began to argue that the ANC's war had not really begun at all, whatever the contrary claims of ANC propaganda and the commitment to 'peoples war' by COH and the RC shortly after the 1976 uprisings.24 Slovo's report argued that the ANC was at a stage when the 'main task was to concentrate on mass political organisation and legal and illegal mobilisation'.25

Amidst the excitement over their rediscovery of politics by political means, Slovo and others went into temporary retreat on the issue of armed struggle. They now suggested that armed activity should, in the short term, be designed to perform merely a propagandistic role in support of non-violent political work aimed at constructing a popular revolutionary base.26 The main means for developing this base should be political, particularly the creation of a broad front of organisations on issues of immediate and material relevance to the ANC's potential constituency inside South Africa27. This front could lead to a 'mass upsurge [which], together with armed confrontation, would lead to the winning of people's power'.28

A copy of the report on the Vietnam visit was presented to an NEC meeting in late 1978. A special meeting of the NEC and the RC was then held in Luanda, Angola, from December 27 1978 to January 1 1979 to consider the ANC's strategic impasse.29 The context of the meeting was that the IRD was 'not producing the goods'.30 The Luanda meeting elected a commission, which it named the Politico-Military Strategy Commission (PMSC), to consider new strategic options.31 This heralded the second stage of the strategic review.

The Politico-Military Strategy Commission

The members of the PMSC, responsible for the second stage of the review, were:32

Oliver Tambo as chairman.

Joe Gqabi. He was a member of the SACP who had received guerilla training in China as part of the first MK High Command group sent abroad for instruction in the early 1960s. He had been jailed on Robben Island and, after his release, had been an important figure in the small, re-emergent ANC underground in the Transvaal in the mid-1970s where he had established links into youth and worker organisations. He had also been involved in some of the first attempts after June 1976 to indigenise an ANC military presence. He had gone into exile following his acquittal in the 'Pretoria Twelve' trial in 1978, and now served on the NEC.

Moses Mabhida. He was a member of the NEC, was RC secretary, a former political commissar of MK, a senior SACP and South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) leader and a former trade union official inside South Africa.

Thabo Mbeki. He was a member of the NEC and a one-time assistant secretary of the RC, a member of the SACP, and a former ANC representative to Swaziland and later Nigeria, who was emerging as an increasingly important political voice.

Joe Modise. He had served on MK high command structures in the early 1960s and, following the arrests of Nelson Mandela, Raymond Mhlaba and Wilton Mkwayi, had headed an MK administration in exile between 1965 and 1969. In 1967-8, he had headed the MK command set up for the Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns in north west Rhodesia. He was a member of the NEC and the RC and commander of COH.

Joe Slovo. He was a leader of the SACP involved in setting up the original MK High Command in the early 1960s, had been a member of the RC since its formation in 1969 and was deputy commander of the COH. He was the only non-NEC member to serve on the commission.33

The commission's composition appears to have been largely appropriate to its task. It combined political and military leadership. It included Gqabi with his recent experience of underground reconstruction and popular political resurgence inside South Africa. And it reflected the SACP's crucial role in the ANC, notably in its operational structures.

The notable absentee from the commission was Maharaj. He was apparently not interested in serving on it. He considered it more important to continue doing IRD's practical work. He anticipated that membership of the commission would keep him tied up in meetings whereas he was at the time travelling between forward areas meeting up with visiting home-based activists.34

The PMSC's terms of reference covered the ANC's political and military perspectives and operational structures.35 It received submissions from a range of ANC sections which were not usually consulted on operational matters, among them the youth and women's sections and Sactu.36 It made its recommendations to the NEC in March 1979.37 These suggestions echoed the main perspectives for political mobilisation already being enacted by IRD under Maharaj and contained in Slovo's report to the NEC on the Vietnam visit. The NEC accepted many of the PMSC's central recommendations and approaches in August 197938 - with one crippling exception, dealt with below.39

The NEC endorsed the four strategic lines recommended by the PMSC. They were that the ANC should: elaborate an over-all strategy based on the mobilisation of 'the masses' inside South Africa; create the broadest possible national front of organisations and people inside the country for national liberation and win this front into alignment with the ANC; draw into ANC underground structures those promising activists thrown up in popular organisations and anti-apartheid struggles; and accept that military operations developed out of political activity and should be guided by the needs and level of political mobilisation and organisation.40

Of these, the PMSC identified the first and second, political mobilisation and the creation of a broad front of organisations, as requiring most urgent attention.41 It reasoned that the ANC had to relate politically to the majority of its potential constituency. This meant becoming deeply involved in popular organisations operating in the legal and semi-legal spheres. The major theme of the PMSC report was that the ANC

had to make a deliberate turn to the masses for the purpose of teaching them and learning from them. We had for too long acted as if the repressive conditions made mass legal and semi-legal work impossible. If the people had taught us anything through the initiatives they had taken in the preceding five years, it was that the potential for political struggle [had] never [been] exhausted. And, if our own independent efforts had taught us anything, it was that our efforts would reach a dead-end unless they had a broader political base.42

The militaristic vanguardism of the past had manifestly failed. If the ANC neglected to 'turn to the masses', some RC members now felt, it would become one of the 'spectators in the years to come'.43     A broad popular front comprising popular organisations inside South Africa operating legally and semi-legally was to be the channel for the necessary dialogue. Eligibility for membership of the front, the PMSC recommended, should depend on an organisation's basic commitment to the struggle for political freedoms.44 The front should express the broadest possible working together of all organisations, groups and individuals genuinely opposed to racist autocracy.45

To realise this breadth, the PMSC said that ANC activists would have to be present wherever and whenever people took action against apartheid - little matter how inchoate that popular resistance might appear to be - in order to steer popular organisation in a revolutionary direction.46 The ANC 'had to grasp that every organised act of opposition and defiance to tyranny and racism, every struggle for better conditions', was a 'blow struck for the revolution'.47 It meant the ANC 'could not shun any organisation engaged in such activities merely on the ground that it did not embrace [the ANC's] long-term revolutionary aims or criticised part of [the ANC's] strategy'.48

Building the front should be the primary task of the ANC underground for the foreseeable future, said the PMSC.49 Clandestine forms of political work would remain a necessity because of the ANC's illegality. But the popular movement would provide the basis for the growth of the underground. The underground would be able to identify within the ranks of the popular movement a number of recruits to its ranks.50

The ANC's illegality meant, however, that it had to develop a subtle relationship with the front:

The guiding hand of our liberation movement did not always have to be seen publicly or acknowledged. Our work had to proceed in a way which could not unnecessarily expose the legal and semi-legal organisations to more intense enemy harassment and provide the excuse to destroy these public bodies. This required, among others, an intelligent assessment of how far such bodies could be expected to go in publicly associating themselves with some of our more long-term and radical policies.51

The PMSC argued it would be impossible to achieve popular mobilisation if sectarian behaviour by some ANC members continued. The state's reform programme, which was in part intended to win over a substantial portion of the ANC's potential constituency, meant the ANC had to show greater openness to views that differed from its own. Accordingly, the PMSC reasoned that

We could not infer sinister motives on the other's part merely from the fact of such a difference. In any case, no serious revolutionary movement could afford to shun cooperation with forces in the immediate political struggle merely because it feared the possibility that, in the long term, there would be a parting of the ways.52

The ANC and its allies, the SACP and Sactu, had to stand at 'the core of the revolutionary struggle'.53 The PMSC saw their over-all task in relation to the envisaged front as being to ensure that the most revolutionary classes among the black oppressed - workers and peasants - maintained their position as the dominant force, and [to] guide the masses towards the winning of power.54

To do so, this revolutionary core had to maintain 'its independence' in relation to the envisaged broad front.55

The broad front should, in line with ANC political traditions from the 1950s and the days of the Congress Alliance, 'foster new bonds of struggle between Africans, coloureds and Indians as well as progressive and democratic forces among the whites.'56 The ANC had to 'encourage joint action and organisational cooperation cutting across racial boundaries and engaging the masses of the people'.57 The struggle waged by the different communities had to 'find common ground in mass action and in the vision of a unified state with one parliament based on one person one vote'.58

The PMSC initiated an examination of the experiences of a number of popular organisations which had developed over the previous two years in the black communities.59 Organisations already in existence should receive encouragement from the ANC. It should also stimulate the formation of trade unions, civic organisations and internal committees of Sactu, among others.60 The PMSC suggested that ANC external mission's youth and women's sections should turn towards the development of internal counterparts.61 And the PMSC criticised the ANC for its past inability to develop any strategic approach on the bantustans62 - a lacuna the IRD had raised in its evidence to the commission.63

The PMSC suggested a number of campaigns and tactics for ANC involvement in legal and semi-legal political struggle. In the first place, a campaign should be launched to re-popularise the ANC's non-racial vision for South Africa contained in the Freedom Charter. For its part, MK should choose targets highlighting demands made in the 'Freedom Charter'.64 The ANC should help escalate campaigns against the bantustans and local government structures for the black population. These campaigns should culminate in the permanent destruction [of these structures]. This process of realising this aim included impeding their effective functioning and reducing the capacity of the enemy to govern our people. Where people lacked the capacity at any time to immobilise these institutions, we concluded they should attempt to divert them from the purposes for which the enemy had created them. We saw mass mobilisation as the key to this offensive.65

This formulation echoed an approach elaborated 27 years earlier by Nelson Mandela.66

The PMSC believed that the black tradition of boycotting elections for state-created institutions was a tactic which could be developed further. It advocated flexibility in the use of boycotts. These bodies should be attacked from within as well as from without. Boycotts could take a variety of forms: outright rejection and non-participation; registration without exercising the vote; or putting up candidates on a ticket that pledged them to immobilise the institutions from within. Boycott tactics should be adapted to suit circumstances.67 The PMSC specifically advocated action over the forthcoming elections to the government-created South African Indian Council, the near-powerless, ethnically constituted body supposed to provide a forum for political expression to the Indian population.68

The PMSC argued that the ANC had to lend all possible support to the struggle to 'build a progressive trade union movement inside the country which rejected all attempts to isolate the workers from the struggle for national liberation'.69 This reflected ANC suspicions about the position evolving within a number of the better organised trade unions (later brought together in the Federation of South African Trade Unions - Fosatu) that they should, at least temporarily, hold back from a national political commitment.

The PMSC identified an immediate insurrectionary potential in the urban black townships. It suggested that this insurrectionary potential should be developed within a perspective of protracted struggle. Popular uprisings, the PMSC suggested, would probably punctuate this protracted struggle and raise it to a higher plane - without necessarily being decisive. The PMSC's central strategic formulation was that people's power in South Africa will be won by revolutionary violence in a protracted armed struggle which must involve the whole people and in which partial and general mass uprisings will play a vital role.70

Within this perspective, the role of the envisaged front was to engage the mass of our people in ever-growing political struggle to weaken the enemy, to create effective revolutionary bases as the foundation of a developing armed struggle, and to win the aims of our national democratic revolution.71

Strategic Implications of the Review

The perspective developed by the 1978-79 strategic review still turned on popular armed struggle for the seizure of state power. It laid more emphasis on political struggle by political means than any ANC strategic formulation since 1961. The perspective saw only a secondary role for armed activity in an interim period in which a popular revolutionary base would be constructed. But, still, this base was intended to service eventual decisive revolutionary armed struggle. The strategic vision remained one in which political organisation was ultimately seen as subject to military imperatives - notwithstanding traces of ambiguity in some formulations.

Where there was ambiguity, it would later be settled in practice in favour of armed struggle. A major reason for this was the military bias in ANC operational organs which persisted after 1979. The NEC refused to accept one of the PMSC's key recommendations to change the composition of the RC which might have redressed this military bias (which is dealt with in the next section).

The PMSC's recognition of the insurrectionary potential in South Africa's townships implied a shift towards the view that urban rather than rural areas should constitute the main terrain for a revolutionary challenge. Simultaneously, the ANC's understanding of the concept of 'revolutionary political base' was changing. Classic, rurally-based guerilla struggles tended to conceive of a 'base' in terms of control over geographical space and whatever else occupied it. But this was giving way to a view in the ANC that a base was primarily a measure of people's political consciousness and organisation. This shift in perception would, some years later, found expression in the statement that the revolutionary political base was 'the people in political motion'.72

The ANC had also (re-)discovered the importance of sectoral and local political struggles. It now recognised that the full development of these struggles was crucial to revolutionary success. But there was a tension in this change since the ANC remained intent on subordinating these sectoral political struggles to both an over-arching national project whose terms it could substantially dictate and to military imperatives. Yet, although the ANC's previous stress on military struggle had suffocated its involvement in these struggles, the ANC was now apparently determined that this would no longer be the case.

Furthermore, the ANC had pragmatically conceded there were limits to the vanguard role it could play. Before 1978 ANC behaviour had implied that it expected its potential constituency merely to follow its prompting. Now, however, it sought a more symbiotic relationship with that constituency. The ANC recognised that its potential constituency had a significant degree of autonomy as well as creative energies from which it could derive considerable benefit.

ANC Operational Structures after the Review

The PMSC recommendation rejected to disastrous effect by the NEC was one in favour of a smaller, more muscular and more cerebral RC. Before 1979 the RC had been afflicted by problems of military predominance, absenteeism and inter-departmental tensions which had adversely affected its ability to monitor successes and failures and to coordinate the work of political and military structures. The PMSC report recommended that the size of the RC be reduced from about 20 to about 10 members, including only the ANC's most talented political and military strategists. They should be freed from all non-operational ANC tasks, such as diplomacy and general administration, and be deployed solely to lead a more closely coordinated political-military offensive. The new council should reflect a much stronger political presence. Crucially, it should have increased, quasi-executive powers of decision-making on internal work.73

The main reason for the NEC's rejection of this recommendation in 1979 was fear among some NEC members, among them ANC treasurer general Thomas Nkobi, that a new central operational organ of the kind being suggested might develop into a locus of power to rival the NEC.74 The rejection would have far-reaching and damaging results, as subsequent chapters will show. The RC continued after 1979 essentially as before, with much the same membership, personal and interdepartmental rivalries. There was only marginal improvement in political-military coordination. And improvements in IRD representation on the RC after 1979 did little to reduce military predominance.75

What improvements there were within operational structures resulted from another PMSC recommendation: to establish mini-RCs in each of the forward areas, to be known as 'senior organs'. These senior organs were intended to overcome the dislocation that had bedeviled the activities of the entirely separate political and military machineries in the forward areas. The senior organs would enable these separate political and military machineries, for the first time, to coordinate their operations at forward area level. Until now, coordination of political and military operations had been possible only at the level of the RC itself; but chronic absenteeism and other shortcomings had made this very difficult.

These moves towards coordination of political and military operations were, however, to be offset by another development. Arising out of the PMSC proposals, Slovo was given the go-ahead to form a military special operations unit (SOU), something for which he had long argued.76 Its task would be to mount spectacular armed propaganda attacks. Its effect would be to reinforce political-military parallelism in ANC operational structures.

Conclusion

As a result of its visit to Vietnam, the ANC recast its operational strategy without, however, getting rid of its military orientation. There was no fundamental change in moving from Guevara to Giap.

The ANC concluded in its strategic review that its emphasis on armed activity had failed to foster an organised domestic political base. Yet it needed such a base in order to wage a sustained armed struggle. The ANC concluded, therefore, that its stress on armed activity had, paradoxically, undermined its ability to mount a sustained armed struggle.

The main change resulting which resulted from this reasoning was the ANC's conclusion that, in order to build an organised political base, it needed now to engage in political organisation by non-violent political means - legal, semi-legal and underground. Its interest in doing so remained what it had been earlier, namely to equip itself to mount a sustained armed struggle for the seizure of state power. In this sense, ANC operational strategy after the review still conceived of (non-violent) political work as serving overriding military imperatives.

The strategic review formally sanctioned and lent rhetorical support to the style of political work already decided upon and being undertaken by political operational structures under Maharaj. Its authors' motive for doing so was not to see sectoral political struggles flourish at their own pace and in line with their own dynamics. Rather their intention was to harness these various struggles into a single struggle which would be represented by a front led from the underground by the ANC, a struggle which would progressively transform itself into a popular armed challenge for state power.

In the event, the outcome would be different. Sectoral political struggles would develop a variety and a dynamism which the ANC would be unable to homogenise or subjugate to military imperatives. Moreover, the ANC's own interventions in the legal and semi-legal spheres of domestic politics after the review would coalesce with other, often autonomous forces and developments inside South Africa to ensure the supremacy, actually, of politics by political means. The review, which had suggested ways in which the ANC might better use non-violent political means to advance armed struggle, would end up undermining armed struggle and promoting politics by political means. How this paradoxical outcome resulted is the major part of the narrative of the chapters that follow.

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.