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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.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 Five: Armed Propaganda And Non-Collaboration

     Rationalising weakness, August 1979 - December 1980

     We defined the purpose of our armed activity at the time as being to create a network of political revolutionary bases which would become the foundation of our people's war.

- Joe Slovo1


The ANC had concluded in 1979 that it had to take one step back in the conduct of armed operations if it was eventually to be able to mount a sustained armed struggle. Its strategic emphasis should temporarily fall on organising by political means inside South Africa. This would enable it to create an organised domestic political base with two basic components: one, a front of popular organisations operating in the legal and semi-legal spheres; the other an underground organisation operating clandestinely but relating to, recruiting within and maintaining a presence inside public bodies. Military activity should be limited to the kind that facilitated political mobilisation. Coordination between political and military operational structures should be improved. The ANC hoped that the political base so created would serve as the foundation for a sustained armed struggle (interspersed with popular insurrectionary activity) for the seizure of power. Under this perspective, political organisation remained subject to military operational imperatives.

This chapter examines the extent to which the ANC carried forward this perspective in the period to December 1980.

Internal Reconstruction, January 1978 - August 1979

The South African state's banning of black consciousness organisations2 and the detention of their leading activists in October 1977, a month after Steve Biko's death in detention, created more fertile domestic ground for the growth of the ANC. Some 47 leading black activists of different political views found themselves locked up in communal cells in preventive detention. There they held lengthy discussions on the way forward. The detainees considered, among other things, the need to form a new black school students' organisation to replace the outlawed South African Students' Movement (Sasm). Those involved in the discussions included Diliza Mji, the pro-ANC president of the now-outlawed Saso, the black university student's organisation, and Jackie Selebi, a member of the formal underground in the Transvaal.3 Another was Curtis Nkondo, who had chaired the Soweto Teachers' Action Committee during the 1976 uprisings and who had maintained contact with Joe Gqabi's Transvaal underground network.

With the bannings and detentions in October 1977, the state appeared to have closed off much of the narrow legal space for popular non-violent resistance which had opened up since the early 1970s. To many young black militants, clandestine forms of organisation, particularly armed struggle, appeared indispensable. The ANC was widely considered experienced in both.4 Popo Molefe,5 a young Soweto political activist at the time, recalls the views of his political circle:

[B]y 1977, it was becoming quite clear that the only instrument through which our freedom could be attained was the African National Congress and in particular through its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. It was clear to all of us at that stage that the movement [i.e. the ANC] was the only organisation which had the facilities to train us, to prepare us to fight for our freedom.6

Armed activity gave the ANC an image of seriousness among political activists which the remnants of the black consciousness movement and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) could not match.7

Before the ANC developed the confidence to exploit this lustre openly it hid much political reconstruction work inside South Africa after 1976 under the cloak of black consciousness. This involved astute ANC penetration of black consciousness organisations and the capture of leadership positions that might enable it to steer these organisations in directions it favoured. Only later, from about 1980, did ANC involvement in some popular organisations begin to give them a distinctive political profile.

Two categories of people were involved in this domestic ANC political reconstruction. The first was an extremely small formal political underground working clandestinely and illegally. After the Natal and Transvaal setbacks, the underground had no extended networks of units. Rather, it comprised an array of isolated units which, though they seldom communicated with each other, did maintain irregular contact with various external mission structures. The second category might be termed an 'informal underground';8 it comprised a larger and expanding group of political activists working in the legal and semi-legal spheres who did what they inferred the ANC's bidding to be, although they had no direct or conscious contact with it.9

Mac Maharaj, appointed secretary of the RC's internal reconstruction and development department (IRD) in early 1978, estimates that the formal political underground in 1979 comprised between 300 to 500 individuals working mainly in the larger urban centres.10 Its number fluctuated in subsequent years. New members were recruited, old members fell into inactivity, often because the external mission did not have the capacity to service and maintain contact with scores of discrete units, and others were absorbed into popular organisations operating in the legal and semi-legal spheres.11

Maharaj's programme for internal reconstruction had anticipated the 1978-1979 strategic review. He had concluded in 1978 that it was vital to precipitate popular organisation inside South Africa.12 His method was to stimulate organisation around whatever issues were of practical importance to people in specific areas or sectors of the population. Sue Rabkin,13 who worked in Mozambique-Swaziland political machineries in 1978, recalls Maharaj instructing underground cadres whom he met clandestinely in Mozambique and Swaziland:

[Y]ou go down to the people. This is a people's struggle. You know we have to build from the grassroots... [I]f people are moaning about their window panes (this is the most famous example - window panes!); if people are complaining about their window panes being broken, take it up, write a leaflet. Deal with it. Organise around it. There is no issue that is too small.14

Among Maharaj's more important underground units was one headed by an attorney, Pravin Gordhan. Maharaj had first had dealings with this unit in Durban immediately after his release from prison in late 1976.15 Then, the unit had been providing 'rudimentary' support to local ANC structures.16 But it had since grown in importance. It comprised a number of prominent professionals17 and, by late 1978, had extensive political links into the Natal and Transvaal Indian communities and with popular organisations emerging in African areas. After the setbacks to the Natal underground in 1975 and 1977, the unit avoided involvement in issues, such as education, which might immediately draw security police attention. Instead, it built popular organisation around civic and welfare issues, initially in segregated Indian areas.18 Their approach accorded with Maharaj's evolving perspective.19 According to Rabkin, the Gordhan unit was held up as an example of how to do work in the political machinery... They sent people out for training...they were efficient and they were prepared to do the muck work, the hard slog. They were almost perfect.20

Other individuals in the Transvaal who aligned themselves with the ANC, such as Cassim Saloojee, also involved themselves ion civic and welfare issues, apparently autonomously of the Gordhan unit's immediate influence.21

Whereas the Gordhan unit and a few others concentrated on sectoral organisation, other underground members addressed problems at a national level. Various tendencies in black politics - echoing the outlooks of the ANC, Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and black consciousness22 - decided in May 1978 to form a new national black political organisation to replace the banned Black People's Convention, national umbrella of the black consciousness movement. They included Molefe, who recalls:

We agreed to form [the Azanian People's Organisation] on the understanding that what was required was to unite the masses of our people regardless of ideological inclination and harness them in the struggle for national democracy and freedom.23

Members of the formal ANC political underground, encouraged Nkondo, the former Soweto teachers' leader who considered himself an ANC member, to stand for election as Azapo's first president.24 The underground wanted to ensure that the new organisation did not grow into a rival of the ANC. Nkondo recalls being told by some members of the underground:

Because of your influence, because you are known by the teachers and students and the community, perhaps if you become president you will be able to maintain the balance so that the organisation does not become a third force.25

Ham-fisted security police action helped place Nkondo at the head of Azapo. Shortly after his release from preventive detention in mid-1978, police again detained him because, in his capacity as an educationist, he had encouraged a female pupil to continue her schooling in Swaziland. Unbeknown to Nkondo, the girl was being taken abroad for training by the PAC. Police evidently concluded that Nkondo was an underground treasurer of the PAC, as did PAC-inclined individuals. Consequently, PAC supporters also backed his bid for the Azapo presidency!26

While Nkondo was Azapo's first president from 1979,27 he consulted regularly with members of the ANC's formal underground in Soweto. Among them were Samson Ndou, Rita Ndzanga and Solomon Pholoto - veterans of attempts at ANC reconstruction since the late 1960s.28 Nkondo was in the process of becoming a prominent front man for the formal ANC underground in the Transvaal.

Nkondo says he learned from his ANC contacts that Joe Gqabi, the former Transvaal underground leader who by June 1979 was in exile in Botswana, played an important role in the formation at this time of the Congress of South African Students (Cosas), the school students organisation set up to replace the outlawed Sasm.29 Gqabi involved himself in developments via his wife, Aurelia, who remained in South Africa. The perspective behind Cosas' formation was, according to Nkondo, that

[I]t became important to form a student movement which [would] establish organisation at schools...so that the schools [became] a terrain of struggle. [Students had to] wage their struggle, educational struggle within the schools... [T]he protests against Bantu Education or against the regulations should not be seen in isolation from the broad political dynamics... [T]he protests there [had] a link, directly...to the national democratic struggle.30

In November 1979, five months after Cosas' formation, a similar organisation was established for black university and college students to replace Saso, the outlawed university students body. According to Nkondo, ANC underground members (who now included his son)31 helped form the Azanian Students' Organisation (Azaso).

Like Cosas, Azaso also initially appeared to fall under the wing of Azapo and hence of the black consciousness movement. But this was merely a flag of convenience for what the underground always intended should be an ANC front.32 Over the next two years, both Cosas and Azaso threw off the trappings of black consciousness, eventually adopting the Freedom Charter, the ANC's programmatic lodestar.

In black townships, prototype civic organisations began to develop outside the framework of state-created local government structures, concerned with bread and butter issues. These civics were responses to real community problems; their formation seldom depended upon ANC stimulation. In some cases, however, individuals who either had formal links with, or an informal allegiance to, the ANC helped initiate them. The ANC wanted to ensure that communities linked their local struggles to the struggle for democracy at national state level - as part of a national democratic struggle.

In October 1979, ANC underground members in the eastern Cape, who were in touch with RC structures in Lesotho headed by Chris Hani,33 helped form the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organisation (Pebco). It brought together a number of civic associations in, initially, local African, but also in coloured and Indian, townships.34 A similar body, the Durban Housing Action Committee, was established that same year with input from the Gordhan unit.35 And in the Transvaal, the Soweto Civic Association was established.

Military Operations, November 1978 - March 1980

Between the ANC delegation's return from Vietnam in November 1978 and March 1980, there were 17 recorded incidents of armed insurgent activity inside South Africa,36 of which the ANC was responsible for at least 15.37 Nine incidents amounted to sabotage, and had been aimed at economic installations such as railway lines and fuel depots; four were against police stations or personnel; two involved civilian targets; one court building was bombed; and there was one bomb attack against a building administering the pass laws. The two hit-and-run attacks on police stations in Soweto and on a third in the small northern Transvaal town of Soekmekaar were major news events. All the attacks were, however, modest in their dimensions and military consequences.

The incident which evidently proved most popular within the ANC's potential constituency was an attack directed against civilians - the 'Silverton Siege' in January 1980, in which three MK combatants took customers hostage at a branch of Volkskas Bank near Pretoria. The attack contradicted ANC policy which eschewed the targeting of civilians. COH, MK's operational command, deduced that the three combatants had probably been surrounded by police and had taken hostages in response.38 Slovo recalls:

Our immediate reaction as leadership [was] one of uncertainty about this type of tactic. Individual reactions within our movement tended to be generally negative. The formal statement issued by our leadership on the raid was ambiguous in the sense that it did not specifically endorse the action of our MK cadres involved. Yet there could be no doubt that the overwhelming majority of our people inside the country responded positively to the siege.39

The funeral in Soweto of one of the MK combatants, who were all killed when police stormed the bank, drew 10,000 mourners,40 and an opinion survey revealed that three out of four residents of Soweto felt some sympathy with these MK men.41 The ANC leadership faced two challenges: Could it allow MK units now to target civilians? And could it plan for, or allow, the taking of hostages in support of political demands? Its answer was, apparently, No in both cases.42

The vulnerability of the three combatants involved in the Silverton seige resulted at least partly from the enforced separation between military and political structures in the forward areas and inside South Africa. The three, and many MK cadres like them, had no organised internal base - no proverbial forest in which to slip away, no sea in which to swim - and, had they had such a base, the design of ANC operational structures would have deprived them of a way of linking up with it. Rabkin recalls guerillas reporting back to base in Mozambique and Swaziland, arguing:

Wait, wait, wait, we can't do it like this. We can't just go in and hit. What are we doing it for? We've got to get the people to help us. We've got to get them involved. Because only then can we be protected.43

IRD and the Strategic Review, September 1979 - March 1980

For Maharaj, the strategic review, largely endorsed by the NEC in August 1979, represented a qualified advance.44 He no longer had to argue against the kind of formulation found in Strategy and Tactics (1969), among others that only armed struggle could bring liberation.45 Secondly, the review had approved, post facto, IRD's approach to political organisation.

The review did not alter IRD's approach in any way. For Maharaj, the review dealt in generalities, whereas he was concerned with practicalities. IRD was not working for the front of organisations which the review envisaged as far as Maharaj was concerned.46 Rather, his department was, as before, 'working for the revival of any and every possible mass organisation that could carve a space for legal existence'.47

The review had condoned flexibility on internal reconstruction, something Maharaj welcomed.48 It had suggested that state-created structures, such as the bantustans and black local government, be attacked from within and/or without.49 Hence, IRD was not restricted to boycotts of elections for state-created institutions. A range of circumstances in late 1979 and early 1980, however, combined to make the boycott the main tactic and standard of ANC-aligned domestic political organisations. There was to be no assault from within; it would all come from without.

IRD units were involved in several campaigns in late 1979 and early 1980. The more important included a campaign to popularise the Freedom Charter,50 a campaign for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners,51 and a campaign against the South African Indian Council (Anti-SAIC).52

During the anti-SAIC campaign, IRD began to develop a scale of influence in domestic politics which the ANC had lacked since the 1950s. The Gordhan unit was crucial in this. So, too, was the Natal Indian Congress, historically an ally of the ANC which had long lain dormant and never been outlawed.53

Under 1978 legislation,54 the state had originally planned the first direct elections for the SAIC for late 1979. But, apparently sensing opposition, elections were postponed to March 1980. One ANC-aligned faction in the Indian community wanted a boycott of the elections. The other, which included Gordhan's unit, favoured what was termed 'rejectionist participation' - taking part in the elections in order to take over the SAIC and destroy it from within.55 The latter was the position the ANC NEC had, in fact, decided on in relation to the SAIC when it had considered the strategic review's recommendations in August 1979.56

The two factions were at loggerheads. Maharaj intervened, with crucial backing from Dr Yusuf Dadoo who, apart from being chairman of the SACP, was a former leader of the South African Indian Congress held in very high esteem within the Indian community. Maharaj summoned the antagonistic groups to London for two weeks of meetings in late 1979.57 Maharaj told them that there were two basic considerations in deciding tactics for the anti-SAIC campaign: ensuring 'the involvement of the masses' and 'maximum unity' among them.58 This meant what was 'done on one front in one community' had to 'dovetail with the rest'.59 But, he argued, rejectionist participation would not dovetail with the current tactics in African areas, which favoured boycotts of all elections for state-created structures.60 The black consciousness movement's view - that any participation in government-created structures amounted to collaboration61 - still predominated. Maharaj dissuaded the Gordhan unit from 'rejectionist participation'. Maharaj knew that this highly disciplined unit was more capable of accepting compromise than its opponents.62 The unit was pacified with a letter to take back to South Africa, signed by both Dadoo and Maharaj, recommending a total boycott of SAIC elections but adding that the final decision had to be taken by activists inside South Africa.63 The eventual decision favoured a complete boycott of elections. Maharaj reported to the NEC that he had contradicted its decision of August 1979. There was some embarrassment on the NEC but no recrimination.64 The incipient trend in the ANC was that unity between sectors of the emergent popular movement required uniform boycott of state-created institutions.

A second attempt to intervene in emergent domestic organisation in late 1979 had a less favourable result for the ANC. ANC policy was now to attack the bantustan system from within and without and to work with and through organisations basically opposed to apartheid. The external mission saw Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha movement, which claimed about 300,000 members, as a candidate for this approach - despite growing tensions between Inkatha and ANC-aligned individuals who objected to Buthelezi's participation in state-created structures. The external mission (which had held earlier informal meetings with Buthelezi and his lieutenants)65 met formally with Inkatha in London in late 1979. Oliver Tambo headed the ANC delegation. Many ANC supporters inside South Africa were horrified.66 As their anguish reached the external mission, talk of destroying government-created structures from within evaporated.67 The entire assault should, henceforth, be from without.

A month later, in the 1980 ANC New Year address to South Africans, the ANC executive tried to steer a way out of its embarrassment over its meeting with Buthelezi. It argued that, while many who did work within state-created institutions were 'irretrievable traitors and fortune seekers', there were others working there 'in pursuance of patriotic objectives'. 'Patriotic participation' entailed trying to destroy an institution from within, or using that institution to halt the apartheid programme, or exploiting that institution's resources 'to wage mass struggles'. But, contended the executive, it was an illusion to think 'that we will win our demands by dialogue and conciliation with the fascist regime'.68 Those working in government-created structures should, rather, struggle from without 'for the seizure of power by the masses of our people through a combination of political and armed struggle'.69 The ANC's drift towards a uniform boycott of state-related institutions strengthened.

The ANC's Trade Union Confusion, 1979-1980

This drift also affected relations with the emergent trade union movement, where intervention by the ANC had divisive results. Trade union policy became the main blind spot in the political strategy of the ANC and its allies, the SACP and Sactu in this period.

The ANC-led alliance's contribution to the rebuilding of black trade unions in the early 1970s had been interrupted by the alliance's prioritisation of armed activity. The SACP, which definitionally saw itself as the political vanguard of the working class, was preoccupied with strengthening the ANC as a multi-class national liberation movement - in line with a theoretical approach which de-emphasised working class organisation.70 And Sactu's external representation had almost no sources of information inside the emergent trade union movement in the late 1970s.71 While there was considerable political support for the ANC and SACP among the emerging unions' officials and members in the 1970s,72 the alliance had almost no organisational presence within the emerging unions.

These weaknesses fed fears that the new unions might develop into a working class centre independent of the alliance's influence and susceptible to state cooption. Abroad, some Sactu officials promoted their organisation as the sole legitimate representative of South Africa's (black) trade union movement, actively lobbied against direct contacts between external agencies and the emerging unions and demanded that all funds for domestic union reconstruction pass through it.73

By early 1980, there were four main tendencies within the emerging trade union movement. They were defined more by differences of organisational style and tactics than by antagonistic political currents.

The first of these tendencies had cohered in April 1979, when many of the best organised emerging trade unions grouped together in the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu).74 Although it originated mainly from the Natal-based Trade Union Advisory Coordinating Committee (Tuacc) unions of the early 1970s, Fosatu had presences in the Cape and on the Witwatersrand.

A second tendency was based in the Western Cape. There, by 1979 the Western Province General Workers' Union (WPGWU) had developed out of the Workers' Advice Bureau, and the Food and Canning Workers' Unions (FCWU),75 a former Sactu affiliate, had been resuscitated after a period of decline. A third tendency developed out of a breakaway from the black consciousness-aligned Black Allied Workers' Union's (Bawu) in 1979. It resulted in the formation of the South African Allied Workers' Union (Saawu) and, a year later, of the General and Allied Workers' Union (Gawu).76

These three tendencies shared a commitment to non-racial organisation consistent with policies of the ANC-SACP-Sactu alliance. But, whereas the Fosatu unions, FCWU and WPGWU tended to emphasise strong factory floor organisation, Saawu and Gawu sought to organise workers in black communities. Moreover, Fosatu avoided political campaigning, arguing it was not yet strong enough to advance worker political interests and survive a hostile state response. Fosatu's tactical perspective, which emphasised sectoral (in this case, working class) struggle challenged the multi-class nationalist project at the heart of the ANC-led alliance's perspective. Indeed, Fosatu's temporary avoidance of politics was based upon a critique of Sactu's subsumption within the nationalist movement during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Two of the other tendencies, however, were less inhibited on political questions. The FCWU and WPGWU, together with Saawu, sought community support for consumer boycotts of products produced by companies at which their members were engaged in industrial action.77 IRD units, and attendant informal ANC underground structures, played important roles in organising these boycotts.78

From 1980, Saawu actively sought a popular political role and led opposition to Ciskei bantustan 'independence', which meant that its leaders were regularly detained. On the other hand, Fosatu's motor union refused to support calls for strike action in Port Elizabeth in 1979 in support of political demands by the local black civic, Pebco. This led to the formation of a breakaway motor union, Macwusa, which supported calls for direct union involvement in political issues.

A Fourth tendency among the emergent unions, based mainly on the Witwatersrand, was the Consultative Committee of Black Trade Unions. It tended to organise only African workers and largely avoided direct political involvement. In 1980, most Consultative Committee unions formed a rival federation to Fosatu, the Council of Unions of South Africa (Cusa), which emphasised 'black leadership' while being formally non-racial.

Tensions between the tendencies were exacerbated by government labour reforms, the gist of which became apparent in May 1979. In its first report, the Wiehahn Commission of inquiry into industrial relations recommended that African workers be allowed to belong to trade unions that were registered participants in the official industrial relations system. The emerging unions believed the purpose of this suggested reform was to control them, or prevent them from being 'driven in a revolutionary direction'.79

The state issued two provisos to this envisaged reform. The first, quickly dropped, sought to exclude 'contract' or 'foreign' workers (which included all workers from the 'independent' bantustans) from membership of registered unions. The government initially indicated it would insist on a second condition: that no racially mixed unions could be registered. This contradicted the non-racial principle espoused by most emerging unions.

The emerging union movement split over whether unions should register. Fosatu decided its affiliates would register, but only if they could do so as 'non-racial' unions. Several unions argued against registration, claiming that state controls would far outweigh the benefits of participation in the official industrial relations system, and that the unions would lose autonomy in order to acquire bureaucratic bargaining rights which would corrupt their internal democracy.80

At root, the issue was whether or not the emergent unions were strong enough to gain practical advantages within state-approved bargaining structures. Fosatu believed its unions were. Moreover, its unions were industrial unions competing for workers' loyalties against a variety of less militant alternatives. There was a prospect that registration might help particular Fosatu unions achieve a position from which they could eventually negotiate wages and conditions across an entire industry. But the WPGWU, soon joined by Saawu, Gawu, Macwusa and others, argued the emergent unions were not strong enough to frustrate the state's designs.

The ANC-SACP-Sactu alliance's response to this debate was confused. The SACP politburo had endorsed Fosatu's formation in April 1979 and also its eschewal of political involvement. According to Maharaj, the SACP's reasoning behind this position was eccentric. Moses Mabhida, a senior member of both Sactu and the SACP,81 had managed to convince the politburo that, if Fosatu avoided politics, it could more easily be used as a recruiting ground for MK!82 It was 1960s thinking all over again.

Followed to its logical conclusion, this reasoning would have meant SACP support for union registration since the party would have wanted Fosatu to project a compliant political image to the state. This is not, however, the position the party evolved. Maharaj, a senior SACP member though not on the politburo, objected to its endorsement of Fosatu, arguing that Fosatu's leadership was 'economistic'83 - that is, that it separated political from economic forms of struggle and concentrated on the latter. Maharaj was, strangely, denying Fosatu tactical flexibility in a situation which he recognised required much subtlety.

Sactu, meanwhile, chastened by a revolt in exile by the small group which became the Marxist Workers' Tendency of the ANC rejected registration and backed the least well-organised of the emerging trade unions. So, too, did the ANC and SACP. The three allies assumed that the government's intentions behind the labour reforms would necessarily prevail: trade unions that registered would be coopted and neutralised. Hence registration was equivalent to 'collaboration' with the state.

New Operational Structures, March 1980

New operational structures suggested by the strategic review and approved by the NEC in August 1979 were established only in March 1980. There were two significant breaks with the past (see Figure 3 overleaf).

The first was intended to improve coordination between political and military operational structures. Hitherto, operational political and military machineries had been obliged to operate entirely separately from each other in the forward areas and inside South Africa. Coordination of political and military operations could occur only at top level - that is, in meetings of the RC itself. Absenteeism and other weaknesses on the RC had meant that this arrangement had not worked well.

The new arrangement sought to make possible coordination at forward area level.84 A new kind of operational organ would be established in each forward area. Known as the 'senior organ' it would be a sort of regional mini-revolutionary council.85 It would bring together the most senior political and military operational officials (as well as the security and intelligence department, known as Nat)86 in a forward area in order to coordinate their various specialisations.87 Each senior organ would have responsibility for operations in a particular region of South Africa. The NEC, however, elaborated no plan at this stage to institutionalise coordination between political and military units inside South Africa.88

The second change reflected a contradictory set of intentions and had contradictory results. It was the establishment of a military special operations unit (SOU),89 for which Joe Slovo, deputy commander of COH, MK's operational command, had long lobbied and of which he was appointed head.90 SOU was supposed to be the main vehicle for a campaign of armed propaganda suggested by the strategic review. It would mount spectacular armed actions to back up ANC political work and to keep alive the perspective of armed struggle as the ultimate means by which the ANC would achieve state power.91

SOU did not fall under the RC, as might have been expected. Instead, it was answerable directly to the ANC president, Oliver Tambo.92 This line of command undermined attempts to improve coordination between political and military activities at forward area level.

The intention behind SOU's armed propaganda was not to substitute for attempts to root military formations firmly inside South Africa for a sustained popular armed struggle. Rather, armed propaganda actions were intended to complement these efforts at long-term building. But SOU could perform this complementary role only if it remained a sideshow to the main drama. Yet hit-and-run special operations came to dominate and drew energies and resources away from the painstaking business of building foundations for a protracted military campaign.

As it gripped the imagination of the ANC, the notion of armed propaganda provided the organisation with a rationalisation for the weaknesses of its military activity. Back in 1976, the ANC had seen a propagandistic purpose in armed activity, but the main objective was to engage its enemy in combat in what it considered the early stages of 'people's war'. In the course of the strategic review, however, Vietnamese revolutionaries had introduced the ANC to armed propaganda as a formal concept.93 And the ANC now seized upon it to recast the past. It began to redefine almost all its armed activity - not as heralding the early stages of people's war but rather, as being, and as having been, primarily propagandistic in its purpose. This recasting accurately reflected the limitations of ANC armed activity and the primary benefit the organisation had derived from it, namely popular acclaim, but it was a less than frank statement of original ANC intentions.

The notion of 'armed propaganda' was, however, consistent with the past. The detonator approach resonated through it. Kasrils' notes of this period:

[W]e always felt that we had the people; there was this militancy; and that all that was needed was a little bit of a spark to light a prairie fire. So, you know, if you believe in that,..you are looking for the...guerilla strike, rather than the long-term approach to building the base.94

For Maharaj and a few other officials, notwithstanding the improved coordination promised by the senior organs, the new structures condoned separation and parallelism between political and military operations. Maharaj now opposed the notion of 'integration' to 'coordination'. Coordination meant that political and military structures were first drawing up their operational plans separately and 'marrying' them into one plan.95 Maharaj wanted to reverse this order of planning. The 'integration' he proposed meant two things. It meant the leadership would analyse the situation, identify operational needs and determine operational plans for political and military structures.96 Secondly, political structures had to set the parameters of military operations at all levels - on the RC, in the forward areas and inside South Africa.97 In Maharaj's opinion, structures arising out of the review still allowed military commanders to behave as if the purpose of political work was merely to facilitate armed activity.98 Moreover, the RC would - and did - retain a perspective and a balance favouring the military.99

From August 1979 to March 1984, as in the past, ANC machineries in Mozambique and Swaziland mounted most ANC operations into South Africa.100 ANC structures there were still twinned in a single operational entity.101 From March 1980, these operational structures came under the command of the newly-created Mozambique-based senior organ.102 The scale of this senior organ's activities and the rank of its members gave it unrivalled influence in strategic debates in this period.103

The chairman of the Mozambique senior organ was John Nkadimeng,104 who also headed its subsidiary political machinery. Chairman of the ANC's Transvaal underground leadership in the mid-1970s, he now also served on the NEC105 and RC,106 where he was deputy chairman of IRD.107 Jacob Zuma was secretary of both the Mozambique senior organ and its political machinery.108 Formerly a key figure in the Natal underground, he was now also a member of IRD109 and the NEC.110 The other representative of the political machinery on the senior organ was Ronnie Kasrils,111 who had spent several years in ANC camps as a political commissar after the Soweto uprisings.

The military machinery on the Mozambique senior organ was headed by Slovo. Other military members included Peter Sello Motau (alias Paul Dikeledi),112 Lennox Lagu, a Wankie campaign veteran,113 and Bob Tati.114

Slovo also headed SOU, the new special operations machinery, on which he concentrated. In SOU, he gathered around him 'the best' of the new ANC recruits.115 They included Motso 'Obadi' Mokgabudi116 and Richard 'Barney' Molokoane, both highly regarded military commanders. Slovo also secured first call on operational resources for SOU in this period.117 This created some bitterness among political machineries. A member of the political machinery recalls: 'You just had to say, "We can blow up such and such", and all the money was directed there.'118

Parallel to Slovo's SOU in Mozambique was the other military structure, COH, charged with rooting an ANC military presence inside South Africa en route to a popular armed struggle. Its leading commanders in Mozambique-Swaziland included Mduduzi Guma (alias Nkululeko), a lawyer who worked in the ANC's Natal underground before the Soweto uprising who now commanded the machinery of MK in Natal covering both urban and rural areas;119 Zweli Nyanda (alias Douglas) who worked with Guma in Natal; and his brother, Siphiwe Nyanda (alias Gebuza), formerly a recruiter for MK in Johannesburg in 1975 who now commanded the Transvaal urban machinery of MK.120

Whatever the improvements to coordination at senior organ level, members of the new body were severely stretched trying to coordinate the activities of at least six machineries from Mozambique down lines of communication that had to pass through Swaziland into South Africa. To cover the urban areas of the Transvaal, there were separate political and military machineries. To cover Transvaal rural areas, there were similarly separate political and military machineries. And in Natal, there were separate political and military machineries.121 In addition, Slovo's SOU had its own line of command up to Tambo, the ANC president, and down to his units.

Early Debates in the Mozambique Senior Organ

Tambo visited Mozambique as the senior organ was being established in March-April 1980. Addressing its members, he called for an end to the dislocation which had previously afflicted operational structures. Kasrils recalls that Tambo outlined some of the problems...comrades not being able to work with each other, particularly the military and political underground... [He said] we needed to find a way of overcoming this problem which, he said, had been raised as a problem time and again, the fact that we were operating like virtually two different organisations... [T]he trip to Vietnam had shown that what was essential was that we find a way of building...integrated forces, and of building our base at home... [U]nless we had that underground base, it was not going to be possible to really develop the armed struggle... [He said] it was up to us... We should not be hidebound by the past...122

Encouraged by Tambo, Zuma and Kasrils argued for integration of political and military structures123 - along lines suggested by Maharaj, but taking matters further. They argued that there needed to be a single, integrated political-military command in the senior organ engaged in building a single underground in the region of South Africa for which that senior organ was responsible; in turn, the command structure of that underground should oversee all specialisations in that region, including military activity.124 Whereas Maharaj was prepared to countenance separate political and military lines of command at both RC and senior organ level,125 Zuma and Kasrils were not.

Zuma and Kasrils' proposals received majority support on the Mozambique senior organ.126 But Slovo strongly opposed them, saying that they could not be implemented without RC approval.127 A month later, the senior organ received the RC's decision: it had rejected the proposals.128 Kasrils was enraged. He and Slovo had a fierce confrontation.129 Cassius Make, assistant secretary of the RC, and Maharaj were dispatched from RC headquarters in Lusaka to Maputo, according to Kasrils, 'to try to sort things out because of the way we had argued with their decision...to continue with separate structures'.130 Zuma and Kasrils might have hoped for Maharaj's support. But they did not get it. Maharaj was fighting his own particular battles on the RC and was livid about a comment that Kasrils had made - that political structures were in a 'chaotic' state. According to Kasrils, Slovo and Maharaj 'really went for' him.131

The Zuma-Kasrils proposals for an integrated structure were defeated. Years later, Kasrils was to conclude that the explanation lay in the vagaries of 'exile politics': the recommendations had threatened certain individuals' positions, the existence of their departments and their 'empires'; his and Zuma's criticisms were interpreted as attacks on these individuals; and these individuals had responded accordingly.132

Military operational policy after the Strategic Review

Slovo, meanwhile, was developing his own perspective on the way forward. He produced a document, 'Our Military Perspectives and Some Special Problems', which the RC adopted shortly after Zimbabwe's independence in April 1980. It dealt with armed activity under two headings. The first was armed propaganda; the second, the longer-term objective of developing a sustained armed struggle inside South Africa. It contained an implicit endorsement of the coordinated approach to operational structures, making no concession to the integrated approaches suggested by Maharaj or Kasrils and Zuma.

In line with the strategic review, Slovo's document accepted that armed activity was temporarily of 'secondary' importance and that political mobilisation by political means remained 'the main task'.133 But armed activity had a vital contribution to make towards domestic political mobilisation134 and had to be guided by the requirements of it.135 MK attacks should be tailored to IRD's political campaign to popularise the Freedom Charter inside South Africa.136 Slovo reasoned that

Every clause in the Freedom Charter pointed to a target which would serve to highlight a particular demand. For example, the blasting of a court, of a government Bantu Education building, a rent office, of a pass office, would assert the principle that there should be justice for all, that there should be free and equal education, that there should be houses for all, and that there should be freedom of movement.137

MK's high rate of casualties, which was now admitted,138 did not mean it should temporarily suspend armed activity. The RC endorsed Slovo's view that 'People's revolutionary violence [was] the ultimate weapon for the seizure of power'.139 The 'key perspective' was 'the creation of a national liberation army with popularly-rooted internal rear bases'.140 According to Slovo,

We defined the purpose of our armed activity at the time as being to create a network of political revolutionary bases which would become the foundation of our people's war.141

The ANC believed the recent independence of Zimbabwe vindicated this military approach in the eyes of the ANC's potential constituency.142 The RC, like Slovo, also believed that an increase in MK's 'quality and striking power' over the previous 18 months made this perspective realistic.143

How many combatants were active in South Africa in 1980 is unclear. But the rate of MK attacks and casualties,144 suggests there were no more than a few score MK cadres operating inside the country at any one time. MK was still experiencing 'particularly severe' difficulties in situating guerillas in rural areas, and had approached Vietnam for training on adapting to the terrain.145 In urban areas, the problem of survival for MK combatants had been only 'partly solved'.146

MK was still 'unable to act effectively in support and defence of our people', according to Slovo.147 This limited the kinds of attacks MK could mount against security forces. Slovo recalls:

We were considering...the role of armed activity in relation to mass demonstrations... We were still a long way from having sufficient armed strength to defend the people in the mass against the armed terror of the enemy. An ill-judged military intervention on our part...during a mass assembly of people could lead to a massacre with little hope of effective retaliation.148.

The alternative was to '[hit] the enemy at his points of muster and rendezvous'.149

The RC also concluded that it had to prepare for another round of uprisings inside South Africa. According to Slovo,

We recognised that, in such an upsurge, the conditions under which we survived and operated would...dramatically change. The normal law enforcement agencies of the enemy would be either weakened or break down altogether - as happened at times during the Soweto revolt... We had to be ready for a situation in which we could enter a region in large numbers, relying on the massive and overwhelming mood of militancy to provide cover and protection. Depending on the character of this upsurge, we believed that this perspective would apply with equal force for political cadres, from the leadership to the rank and file. So we had to be prepared. It was, in our view, particularly important to build up within the country adequate supplies of ordinance which would be protected and adequately preserved for use when such a time came; stores which would be sufficient for our professional cadres, as well as material such as hand grenades and small arms which could be distributed to selected groups of people.150

The RC now also haltingly asserted the need for MK attacks in the bantustans. Hitherto, MK had been restrained from mounting attacks in bantustans because the ANC feared that MK attacks might confuse local populations who, given the almost complete absence of ANC political work in these areas, believed the bantustans might be the first step towards black liberation. Moreover, the ANC had hoped to be able to develop the bantustans as survival bases for MK units.151 By early 1980, however, the RC believed that local populations recognised the bogus character of bantustan 'independence'.152 Moreover, any MK presence in the bantustans would lead to direct reoccupation South African security forces, which would further expose the bantustans' fraudulent political promise.153

The RC also drew up plans to take advantage of Zimbabwe's independence by opening up a new front of MK infiltration along the 250-odd kilometres of border with South Africa. The RC aimed to use Zimbabwean territory as springboard for a classic rural guerilla war in two zones of the northern Transvaal: a western zone from Messina to the area just south of Botswana's Tuli Block; the eastern zone from Messina through Venda to the Kruger National Park.154 The RC envisaged that guerillas would move from Zimbabwe through Botswana into the western zone; and, for the eastern zone, directly into South Africa from both Mozambique and Zimbabwe.155 The RC planned to infiltrate guerillas in large numbers - up to platoon156 and eventually company strength157 - and settle them in the terrain. They were to undertake armed actions, begin to contact local people and train them.158 At the time, the ANC had about 100 MK members inside Zimbabwe itself under the command of Zapu's guerilla army, Zipra, with perhaps another 150 in gorges on the Zambian side of the Zambezi River moving periodically into Zimbabwe, again under Zipra command.159

The general RC view was that armed activity gave the ANC unrivalled credibility among its potential constituency.160 IRD machineries, on the other hand, while not disputing that armed activity helped to create favourable domestic conditions for the ANC in a general sense, believed it was not helping to organise an ANC domestic political-military base - the single most important task given that the ANC was unlikely ever to enjoy reliable bases in states adjacent to South Africa - a point which the RC conceded in its 1980 deliberations.161

Military Operations, April - December, 1980

Armed operations inside South Africa in 1980 reflected the continued absence of a domestic network for absorbing guerillas. MK was responsible for at least 16 of the 19 insurgent incidents reported in 1980.162 But the price was high: police captured or killed 28 MK personnel.163 This meant about three MK guerillas were neutralised for every two attacks, most of them modest.

Little progress was made towards a guerilla war in the northern Transvaal. The ANC sent probing missions into the Lebowa, Venda and Pietersburg, among others.164 But tensions between political and military leaders on a commission overseeing the project undermined progress. Whereas the political machinery wanted slow preparations, the military were impatient for action.165

A string of spectacular acts of armed propaganda in early June - mounted by SOU - obscured MK's weakness. They included attacks on South Africa's Sasol oil-from-coal plants at Sasolburg and Secunda. An attack on Booysens police station, two kilometres from the centre of Johannesburg was similarly dramatic. The Sasol attacks - in early June, in the build-up to the anniversaries of both the Soweto uprisings on the 16th and the adoption of the Freedom Charter on the 26th - were timed for militant black South Africa's political 'high season'. In the Booysens attack in early April, MK combatants left behind them leaflets demanding the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, which fed into the political campaign on the issue.166

These attacks indicated that MK now had new arms better suited to its tasks. The Sasol attacks appear to have been the first instances in which limpet mines were used inside South Africa.167 Likewise, the Booysens attack was evidently the first recorded instance of an RPG rocket launcher being used in an insurgent attack in the country.168

Political reconstruction, April - December, 1980

During 1980, school boycotts started among African and 'coloured' students in the Western Cape and spread across the country. The origins of the boycotts lay in the lower per capita expenditure on education for blacks and grossly unfair schooling for Africans. They prompted yet another exodus of militant young blacks into the ANC, a number of whom were inspired to join by the attacks on Sasol.169 The boycotts enabled ANC front organisations, such as Cosas and Azaso, to take some political lead. However, when the boycotts spread to African schools in Natal in April 1980, Buthelezi set about suppressing them, so precipitating a conflict with the ANC which ended any pretensions of friendship between the two. The ANC's attempt to draw Buthelezi and Inkatha into a close relationship gave way to mutual vilification. Buthelezi alleged that the ANC planned to kill him.170 In fact, Tambo, in response to calls from some ANC members for Buthelezi's assassination, ordered that no ANC member was to try to kill Buthelezi - a restraint some found difficult.171 Tambo insisted Buthelezi should be defeated politically.172

The enmity with Buthelezi and the Inkatha leadership created considerable problems for the ANC in Natal.173 The ANC's presence among Africans in Natal was weak; its political organisation there was strongest among the Indian community.174 Political machineries had to begin a protracted process of eating away at the edges of Inkatha's support. Ivan Pillay, who worked in the ANC political machinery in Swaziland, recalls:

Throughout this period, one of the ways [we] advanced in combating Inkatha was to try to cut the ground from under their feet by drawing ordinary Inkatha membership into struggle over ordinary bread and butter issues.175

Housing and civic associations in the Natal area and trade unions were the main vehicles of this creeping ANC offensive.

For MK cadres operating into Natal, Inkatha's hostility entailed greater costs. The ANC had acquired an additional, well-organised and ruthless enemy who inhabited a large part of the terrain MK combatants had to traverse after passing through Mozambique and Swaziland. The prospects for progress towards a 'people's war' had received another serious setback.


Between August 1979 and December 1980, the ANC had mixed success in carrying forward the perspective developed in its strategic review. Armed activity continued to give the ANC unrivalled authority in militant circles, which benefited ANC or crypto-ANC attempts at political organisation. But, apart from generally encouraging each other's separate, parallel development, the ANC's political and armed struggles were no closer to being linked in the way in which the people's war doctrine at the centre of the review suggested they needed to be.

This continued political-military parallelism had much to do with ANC operational structures, which remained inappropriate to the objectives they were intended to service. The 'senior organs' in the forward areas helped introduce a modicum of operational coordination between political and military structures. But rivalries and insecurities on the NEC and the RC obstructed closer cooperation.

IRD, the political reconstruction department, became more active inside South Africa at both underground and popular legal levels. The strategic review did not induce this increase in IRD activity; rather, IRD's approach and initiatives predated the review, which merely endorsed them post facto. Nor did the increase in IRD's activities result from significantly more resources being put at its disposal. There does not seem to have been any marked reallocation of resources away from military structures towards political reconstruction; the opposite may even have been the case. Moreover, the review did not alter IRD's priorities; IRD was not working for the formation of a front of popular organisations allied to the ANC, an idea suggested in the review; instead, at the level of popular politics, IRD sought to stimulate ANC-aligned organisation in any form possible.

The small ANC underground moved skilfully to secure its presence within new national popular legal bodies, such as Azapo, Azaso and Cosas. Its involvement in helping develop local civic and welfare organisations would prove to be perhaps more important. Here, the ANC's modest efforts were helped by the view then developing among various black strata that, repression notwithstanding, popular organisation in the legal and semi-legal spheres could produce tangible gains. Some emergent trade unions were particularly credible instances of this. But the pattern was not restricted to industrial workers. Prototypical civic organisations began to develop in townships, some with ANC involvement, pre-eminent among them Pebco in Port Elizabeth.

But the weakness of the ANC and its small collection of allied popular organisations, compared to the state and the residue of the black consciousness movement, convinced the ANC that it had to pursue a strategy of non-participation in, and boycott of, state or state-approved institutions. Its decision to boycott elections for the SAIC was the clearest example of this. The ANC rationalised the weakness which lay behind this strategy by claiming that it was motivated by a principle of 'non-collaboration'.

The cost of the strategy was high. It began to alienate the ANC not merely from a range of potentially rich strategic alternatives but also from two valuable constituencies: from those emergent black industrial trade unions that eventually formed Fosatu and from Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha movement.

Yet insisting upon a strategy of boycott, despite the risks of alienating some others, was, in a sense, vital if the ANC was to be able to justify its past and its present. The ANC could not defend its current armed struggle and the near extinction it had once caused if, as Fosatu and Inkatha were claiming in their different ways, participation in state-approved bodies provided a credible path to achieving meaningful progress or fundamental democratic change.

Thus the ANC promoted and organised around two assumptions in the ranks of the militant opposition. The first was that any participation in state-created or state-approved institutions would necessarily entail the corruption or cooption by the state of the participant's own purposes. The second followed from the first: that participation in state-approved institutions therefore amounted to collaboration with the state.

On the military side, the concept of 'armed propaganda' provided a basis for rationalising the weaknesses of the ANC's armed struggle, the pattern and results of which remained much the same as before the review. Armed struggle still comprised mainly sporadic sabotage attacks mounted by hit-and-run units that were usually commanded and supplied from abroad. The only difference was that there were now a few spectaculars such as the Sasol attacks, which disguised MK's actual weakness while having a very considerable propaganda effect. ANC armed activity still posed a minimal military threat to the South African state while it exacted a high cost in casualties among MK cadres.

Armed propaganda appears also to have been a ruse of sorts against political operational structures. Slovo's newly-created SOU provided a cover under which the military could continue to receive the lion's share of operational resources under a decision to bolster political organising!

Yet, whatever the talent for rationalisation and manoeuvring on the RC, the victory of politics by political means was imminent - as the next chapter will reveal.

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.