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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.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 Nine: Tactics Of Talks, Tactics Of Confrontation

The Road to Vula, July 1985 - December 1986

resurrection cannot be led from afar

Mac Maharaj1


From about July 1985, the ANC faced a fundamental strategic choice. Its one option was revolutionary confrontation; the other was a negotiated settlement.

The ANC theorised that the two options could be mutually re-enforcing: revolutionary pressures could feed the prospects for negotiations; and, if negotiations started, this might create legal space in which it organisers could advance the prospects for revolutionary confrontation. But old disagreements on how best to apply revolutionary pressures persisted after the Kabwe conference, and realising a symbiotic relationship between them would prove difficult.

Operation Zikomo

Uncertainty over strategy after the Kabwe conference was evident in a large-scale infiltration of MK combatants, which began in mid-1985, codenamed 'Operation Zikomo'.2 Ronnie Kasrils, then head of MK intelligence, says its purpose was to inject 'several hundred' combatants as 'shock forces' in the township uprisings.3 They were to form a kind of officer class for township militants, providing them with leadership and training. Ivan Pillay, of operational political structures in Swaziland, says these combatants had minimal back-up. They had maybe...R1,000 or R2,000, maybe...12 hand grenades and an AK...many of them just being put across the fence and sent home to integrate themselves with the defence committees, street committees, etc.4

Several arguments preceded Operation Zikomo: over the absence of underground structures able to integrate and deploy those infiltrated; over what political role those infiltrated could play; over the poor quality of the political briefings they received before infiltration; and over whether they were merely 'canon fodder'.5 Mac Maharaj, then a key figure in the Political Committee of the Politico-Military Council (PMC), felt that Zikomo was merely another variant of the 'detonator' approach - the expectation that the injection of armed activity would somehow spark general conflagration.6

Whatever its declared purpose, Zikomo was a belated attempt by the ANC leadership to compensate for their unpreparedness when the new round of uprisings started nine month's earlier. MK structures had failed to ensure that stocks of arms were available inside the country. Arms, notably the hand grenades favoured by Umkhonto we Sizwe chief of staff Joe Slovo, had certainly been smuggled into country, but police statistics suggest a very high proportion had been captured.7 A more serious failure was that the ANC still lacked the ability to absorb combatants from abroad. Combatants hurriedly infiltrated after the Nkomati Accord had suffered an appalling casualty rate. This meant that, when the uprisings had broken out six months later, in September, armed activity had dwindled to levels below the previous year.8

Operation Zikomo did, however, have important short-term effects. As state security forces lost control over some townships in 1985, and for as long as the state's sources of intelligence in those areas dried up, the newly-infiltrated guerillas survived. Insurgent armed activity leapt to new levels in the period from June 1985. Whereas there had been 30 attacks in the five months to May, there were 31 in June alone and 75 more between July and December - a total of 136 attacks for the year, more than double the number in any previous year. Over the year, the state killed or captured a mere 31 ANC guerillas, which meant a ratio of three guerillas captured or killed for each 13 attacks - MK's best year and most favourable casualty rate ever.

Death of the 'Grenade Squads'

If Zikomo was a success, the fate meted out to the 'grenade squads' highlighted the ANC's domestic operational weakness. State security services chose the period immediately after the Kabwe conference to discredit the idea.

As clashes with security forces continued, thousands of young black militants were desperate for arms. Rumours of the availability of 'pineapples' [grenades] in a township would attract scores of young militants from surrounding areas.9 The ANC, which had little command and control over either these young militants or, indeed, the grenade squads, was unable to close off the opportunity which presented itself to security services. A state security agent, a young black man who had earlier received training and a supply of grenades from the ANC in Botswana, was used for the ruse. Cal Saloojee, the Botswana-based ANC member involved in training grenade squads, says that, after this particular young man had returned to South Africa,

[p]roblems developed. And we had already [by June 1985] put out an alert to say this guy is suspect. Unfortunately, the structures dealing with him could not do [anything] concrete about it. He went back... At that time in Duduza [the township serving Nigel] we didn't have anything. On his own initiative, of course in collaboration with the Boers [police], he went into Duduza and said...he was a movement [ANC] guy, he's been sent in on a mission and, if there are guys interested, they could form a unit...10

The agent was not short of volunteers among the Cosas students he approached.

Mayhem resulted. Eight young activists died in the process of attempting to prime or throw grenades, and seven others were seriously injured, some of them losing limbs. Security services had booby-trapped the explosives.

Township comrades now had cause to be deeply suspicious of anyone offering them arms. The incident received widespread publicity and meant the end of the grenade squad idea. Moreover, it made matters more difficult for guerillas infiltrated under operation Zikomo to link up with township militants. The mechanism which might have brought externally trained guerillas and local militants together securely, area-based underground commands dealing with all operational specialities, did not exist.

Suddenly, within the external mission, reports Saloojee, the grenade squad project - which senior ANC operational officials had once fought to control - became an embarrassment: 'Everybody was taking cover - nobody wanted to accept responsibility to what was happening.'11

The Tactics of Talks

In May 1984, two months after the Nkomati Accord, Tambo had disclosed that the ANC was under pressure to talk to the South African government (something he denied eight months later).12 Subsequently, a prominent white South African academic13 and a senior journalist from the government-supporting press14 had mounted well-publicised visits to ANC headquarters in Lusaka. Rumours abounded that some form of contact had opened up between the ANC and the state.

In January 1985, Tambo denied categorically that any such contacts had opened up.15 He attributed the rumours of talks to a realisation among some whites that, whereas the state was in crisis, the ANC had, notwithstanding the Nkomati Accord, increased its domestic stature.16 Tambo said the ANC would talk to 'anybody' who wanted to know its views on South Africa. It was prepared even to meet MPs from President Botha's ruling National Party as individuals if it was understood that such talks 'would not be binding on the ANC in any way'.17 But the ANC had objections to formal meetings which might create the false impression that somehow there are secret talks going on with the...regime. We don't think they should be secret... So, if we are talking, we would be talking with a clear mandate.18

Tambo said the ANC was part of the wish to see apartheid end painlessly, but our experience is that the regime is not prepared for that. Indeed Botha has just said his regime is not prepared to talk to the ANC - so that is that.

As far as the ANC is concerned, we are not opposed to talks in principle. Nobody ever is. But we have not been impressed by South Africa's policy on talks [with Swapo in 1981 and the MPLA and Frelimo in 1984]. [T]hey are shown not to have been serious about wanting peace.

The ANC approaches the question of talks with the South African government with great caution. And our priority in these circumstances is that we escalate the struggle.19

The first signs of a significant political re-appraisal within the white South African establishment had come shortly before the ANC conference in June 1985. Intermediaries acting for South African business interests had approached the ANC to arrange a meeting. Tambo asked conference delegates for clearance to meet an unnamed group of 'important people' who wanted to talk to the ANC; the talks, he specified, would not amount to negotiations with the government.20 The conference gave its approval. While preparations for these talks remained secret, the ANC received a second approach shortly after the conference. An MP from the liberal Progressive Federal Party (PFP), Peter Gastrow, approached a journalist in Harare to arrange talks between an ANC and PFP delegation.21

Both groups seeking talks had been impressed by popular support for the ANC evident in the unrest. The uprisings, growing economic disinvestment from South Africa, international pressures for sanctions and the government's refusal to consider options outside an apartheid framework persuaded them to explore whether the ANC could help formulate a new South African social contract.

The behaviour of these businessmen challenged much ANC and, particularly, SACP orthodoxy. This held that a degree of socialism, and probably the destruction of capitalism, was necessary to ensure the destruction of apartheid and the achievement of 'genuine' national liberation of the African majority.22 Indeed, many ANC members considered major South African corporations part of the 'enemy forces'.23

In mid-1985, negotiations were not a prospect to which the SACP or ANC had given much attention. In 1962, the SACP had acknowledged that a 'crisis in the country, and contradictions in the ranks of the ruling class' might open up the possibility 'of a peaceful and negotiated transfer of power'.24 But, in 1970, the party had rejected this as a 'highly questionable' hope.25 The ANC's 1969 Strategy and Tactics had justified the resort to armed struggle partly on the grounds of ANC 'disillusionment with the prospect of achieving liberation by traditional peaceful processes because the objective conditions blatantly bar[red] the way to change'. But this implied the converse: that, if alternatives emerged, the ANC might suspend armed struggle. But Strategy and Tactics did not deal with the possibility of future negotiations.

This meant the ANC had now hastily to evolve a set of tactics for talks with non-government groups and possible negotiations with the government. It did so with some skill.

The ANC drew a basic distinction between talks and negotiations.26 In the case of talks, it identified two categories. The first comprised talks with representatives of non-government white groups, such as businessmen or the PFP. Here, the ANC's intention was to win over to its basic outlook as many potentially amenable whites as possible: at least to attempt to neutralise some hitherto actively reactionary elements, and thereby as much as possible to isolate politically the diehard defenders of...a racist and exploitative state power.27

The second category comprised talks with organisations which the ANC regarded as allies, such as the emergent trade unions and organisations associated mainly with the UDF. Here, the ANC's aim was to 'build maximum unity between all sections and formations of the oppressed, other democrats and progressives' and to draw them in as elements of an ANC-led assault.28

The ANC realised immediately it had held talks in the first category - the talks with business leaders occurred in Zambia on September 13 - that a new legal climate had been created which might enable it to open up public links to organisations in the second category, namely to allies in the popular and union movements.29

The ANC conceived of negotiations as having a clearly defined framework within which attempts would be made to settle the South African conflict.30 Here, a range of preconditions applied. Negotiations, according to the ANC, should be premised on agreement among participants that the objective was to dismantle apartheid and to achieve a modality for a united, democratic and non-racial polity. Another shared premise would have to be the desirability of a change in the character of the SA Defence Force and police.31 Other preconditions for negotiations would include the unconditional release of political prisoners and return of exiles, an atmosphere of political freedom inside South Africa and the agreement of the 'entire democratic leadership of South Africa'.

The ANC condemned a campaign at the time for a national convention led by Inkatha and the PFP. It was an 'attempt to cobble out a settlement of the fate of the country over the heads of the people'.32 The ANC said a national convention could be held in South Africa only if its preconditions for negotiations were met and there was 'a situation of democracy, free political activity and equality'.33

When the first two sets of talks occurred - those with businessmen and journalists, and with the PFP - many ANC supporters were anxious that the contacts presaged an abandonment of revolutionary struggle by the ANC.34 The leadership of the ANC responded that the talks were merely one tactic alongside, and not in contradiction to, its main strategic thrust: the gathering of revolutionary forces through political mobilisation and armed struggle. Nonetheless, the leadership declared that it had to exploit any potential for advantage or the reduction of suffering which talks might offer.35 The leadership said one advantage flowing from the talks was to grant it a status of de facto legality. This promised more 'space' within which to gather and deploy its forces for confrontation.36

In the event, the ANC's talks with business leaders and editors, and later with the PFP were declared a success by all three groups. They did, indeed, create a new legal atmosphere in which the ANC was able to hold public talks with a range of popular organisations, churches and other bodies to which it felt politically more akin or which it considered its natural allies.37 In the process, the ANC improved its image among elements in the white establishment and deftly promoted itself in militant circles as national aggregator of variegated democratic interests.

Unequal Combat

In South Africa's streets, grossly unequal combat continued. In the seven-and-a-half months to July 20, 334 people died in political violence, at least 55% of them as a result of security force action. Of the dead, only seven were members of the security forces killed by township residents; none were killed by guerillas.38 In three months to July, 207 people died in political violence, the largest single number on the east Rand, which remained the centre of revolt.39

In Duduza, which seemed to provide security forces with a sort of testing ground for new tactics, right-wing vigilantes had made an appearance in May 1985, attacking activists in UDF-affiliated organisations, such as Cosas and the civic association.40 It was among the first instances in which vigilantes were deployed against anti-apartheid activists - a development that soon became widespread and tipped the scale of combat further against the ANC and UDF. If not initially promoted by security forces, vigilante groups were certainly abetted by them in many instances.41

On July 21, the government declared a partial state of emergency.42 The intention was to isolate, contain and re-establish government control in those black townships affected by unrest. The ANC responded with an address over Radio Freedom two days later by Tambo who said that the fact that uprisings were not affecting all areas of the country had enabled the enemy to concentrate its forces on certain areas of our country... This is a situation which we must correct. It is vital that all areas of our country should join in the general offensive...43

Moreover, said Tambo,

We must take the struggle into the white areas of South Africa and there attack the apartheid regime and its forces of repression in these areas which it considers its rear.44

The UDF, as a body, was unable to give the unrest any direction in mid-1985. No doubt state repression seriously undermined its ability to do so. More than 10,000 people were detained in the first six months of the emergency,45 many of them leaders of the UDF and its affiliate organisations. A number of the front's top officials were still in custody facing security law charges. Moreover, as a popular organisation operating in the legal and semi-legal spheres, the UDF could not really be expected to coordinate a violent challenge to the state.

The ANC, however, could be expected to provide tactical direction to the uprisings. The very raison d'etre of its clandestinity was to enable it ultimately to do so. Yet there was no improvement in the ANC ability to do so after its conference. ANC operational officials acknowledge that their organisation's role in developing street committees and rent boycotts in the black townships in the 1985-1986 period was minimal. Garth Strachan says the street committees arose as an initiative by isolated internal activists, some with links with the ANC, and ordinary residents. Strachan says the ANC was picking up on initiatives like these and then, post facto, developing strategies which made sense of them.46 Both Slovo and Kasrils agree.47 Strachan adds that the underground's links into these street committees, as well as defence committees set up by township residents in a few cases to resist security forces, remained weak throughout 1985 and 1986.48 Pillay believes this weakness, and a resultant inability to integrate Operation Zikomo guerillas into the street committees, helps explain why 'the street committees and defence committees began to crumble pretty quickly' once placed under any pressure.49

Despite the infiltration of MK cadres under Operation Zikomo, the unrest-related death toll between July 21 and December 31 totalled 545 people, of whom at least 256 were township residents killed by security forces; and of 20 security forces who died, only one was reported killed by guerillas.50

International Dimensions and White Discord

The gravest shock to the state and whites during 1985 came not from the ANC or its supporters. Instead, it came as a by-product of the unrest in the form of the international response.

In late July and August, the state suffered a series of bewildering international setbacks. Concerned at instability in South Africa and pressures for disinvestment, Chase Manhattan Bank decided to stop rolling over some US$500-million in loans to South Africa, choosing instead to recall credits as they became due and to freeze all unused lines of credit. A number of Pretoria's other major commercial lenders, a cluster of whose loans were due for repayment, responded in similar vein.51 The Commission of the European Economic Community called for economic sanctions against South Africa unless the government rejected apartheid; 10 EEC states withdrew their ambassadors from Pretoria; the French government unilaterally announced a ban on investment in South Africa; and the United States House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favour of sanctions against South Africa.

The Johannesburg Stock Exchange's response in the last week of July was described as a 'bloodbath', as market capitalisation dropped 9.5% and the rand's international value plunged 12%.52 The South African government was in a 'panic', according to Professor Sampie Terblanche, an academic economist and government advisor at the time.53

This sudden deterioration in South Africa's international position elicited a bellicose response from President Botha, which shocked local commerce and industry. Botha threatened to repatriate 1.5-million migrant workers from neighbouring states and to cut back economic ties with them unless the international community abandoned moves towards sanctions.

Government advisers urged a more measured response and were encouraged in the second week of August when pre-publicity on a speech by Botha suggested he would announce the abandonment of apartheid and 'cross the Rubicon' into a new non-racial future. Local and international expectations were high. But, on August 15, Botha delivered a finger-wagging harangue against the international community, the ANC and SACP. Confidence in South Africa on international capital markets plummeted and the rand's value hitting an all-time low, 21 percent down on its end-July setting.54 In thoughtful quarters of the government, panic became near despair.55

To the ANC's basically moral arguments for South Africa's economic isolation had suddenly been added an apparently more compelling imperative: South Africa appeared a poor-risk investment. For Tambo, this dove-tailed with ANC attempts to render South Africa ungovernable and apartheid unworkable.56

The Formation of Cosatu

The Transvaal stayaway of November 1984 and the SACP's re-orientation towards domestic working class organisation prompted an ANC reappraisal of relations with the emergent unions. The ANC and SACP felt that an anomalous situation had developed. There was growing support for the ANC and SACP in Fosatu,57 and the federation was increasing its involvement in popular political campaigns. Moreover, hardline members of Fosatu's independent worker tendency doubted that political developments allowed them to isolate themselves any longer from the nationalist movement.58 Yet the ANC, SACP and Sactu were endorsing only the poorly-organised UDF-affiliated unions. This was needlessly limiting ANC, SACP and Sactu influence as trade union unity talks were on the verge of producing a larger federation from which the UDF-affiliated unions were likely to be excluded.59

The SACP moved decisively. Via its trade union arm, Sactu, in late 1984, it endorsed industrial over general workers' unions.60 Although this was an endorsement only of the organising strategy of Fosatu and its allies, it seemed to promise a more fundamental shift. This came when, in early 1985, the SACP and Sactu bluntly instructed the UDF unions to make whatever compromises were necessary to ensure they were part of the new super-federation when it was formed.61

But some underground members of the ANC, SACP and Sactu were suspicious of this new political line coming from the external mission. These members, believing that the envisaged super-federation threatened Sactu and the entire ANC-led alliance,62 tried to resuscitate Sactu publicly inside South Africa in early 1985.63 One of the key movers was Oscar Mpetha, one of the UDF's three national president's and a former leader of the Food and Canning Workers' Unions. Mpetha and most of the rebels were, however, soon faced down. Those who continued to oppose the new line were sidelined from ANC and SACP organisation on the orders of the external mission leadership - however proud the role that some, like Samson Ndou, had played in the past.64 After the defeat of the rebels, progress towards a new federation including the UDF-affiliated unions was quick. Fosatu was, clearly, its foundation.

Most unions in the Council of Unions of South Africa (Cusa) and the small black consciousness-orientated Azanian Confederation of Trade Unions (Azactu) decided not to join the new federation. The exception was the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), led by Cyril Ramaphosa. The largest union in the country, the NUM broke ranks with Cusa in favour of the super-federation, which was eventually formed in November 1985 as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) with 33 founding unions representing more than 460,000 workers.

Cosatu's formation represented a considerable advance for the ANC and SACP. Its leadership was dominated by individuals who either were, or shortly became, supporters of the ANC alliance or members of its underground.65 Moreover, it had the potential to deliver organised working class power for revolutionary objectives on a scale unprecedented in South Africa.

Yet Cosatu, in its turn, also had the potential to influence ANC and SACP strategy profoundly - away from the pursuit of violent and revolutionary outcomes. The important role within Cosatu of the former Fosatu unions meant that a basically 'participationist' approach to opposition applied. This was an approach which sought measurable gains, in the first instance through negotiations, very often conducted within state-approved fora; resort to strikes and boycotts appeared some way down the list of tactical options. Herein lay an important challenge to the non-participationist and 'anti-collaborationist' instincts so dominant among the ANC and its allies.

The Commonwealth Initiative and Negotiations - 1

International responses to the crisis also encouraged the ANC to revise its confrontational instincts. Diplomatic developments obliged the ANC to state formally its criteria and conditions for exploring a negotiated settlement in South Africa.

The Commonwealth summit in Nassau in October established a group of eminent persons to encourage a 'process of political dialogue' in South Africa.66 It also laid out a list of demands to the South African government whose content complied substantially with those then being developed by the ANC. The summit demanded that Pretoria declare that it would dismantle apartheid and also that it take meaningful action demonstrating this intent; that it end the state of emergency; that it release all political prisoners; that it legalise outlawed parties and 'establish political freedom'; and that it initiate, in the context of a suspension of violence by all sides, dialogue to establish a non-racial, representative government.67

Increased international interest in South Africa was accompanied by a flurry of rumours in late 1985 that the government would shortly release Nelson Mandela and fly him into exile. In the midst of these rumours, in November 1985, the government and the ANC engaged in their first known exchange of signals since the 1960s. The ANC quickly dispatched Maharaj to Botswana to take charge of, and explore, any communications with Pretoria. The exchange, which originated from the government side, followed talks with Mandela in prison. A South African cabinet minister68 told a prominent anti-apartheid activist,69 apparently in the expectation that his statement would reach the ANC external mission, that the government knew it could not resolve the burgeoning crisis alone; that it had decided to release Mandela and other political prisoners but was unable to work out a modality for doing so which would enable it to save face; and that current levels of unrest made the release difficult as there was a danger that Mandela's freedom might further inflame political emotions.70 The implication was that, if the ANC softened its position and reined in unrest, Mandela might be released and government-ANC talks of one or other kind might be possible.71 The intermediary told the external mission that the attitude of Mandela and his colleagues in prison was that they would not be drawn into any deals outside the framework of the ANC and the broad democratic movement.

The external mission's response, through the intermediary, was to raise the stakes. The ANC signalled that it was waiting for the government to create 'a climate conducive to talks about talks'. To do so, the government should release all political prisoners, lift the state of emergency, withdraw troops from the townships, release all emergency detainees and immediately terminate current security law trials. The ANC added that it would have to be able to consult with its domestic allies before it could engage in any substantive communications with the government. In effect, the ANC was holding out for safe passage into South Africa of a delegation comprising members of its national executive committee (NEC).72

Publication of the exchange of signals73 enraged the government, which charged it was a fabrication by 'propaganda experts from behind the Iron Curtain'.74 The matter of the cabinet minister's approach was never satisfactorily explained. The best available subsequent explanation was that a 'small but influential' lobby for Mandela's release surrounded the Justice Minister, Kobie Coetsee; that this lobby's thinking was that Mandela's release could ease foreign pressures on South Africa and demythologise Mandela; that this group had overplayed its hand in the preceding weeks; that publicity on its activities had infuriated President Botha; and that the pro-release lobby had been 'stymied' by a hardline group in the cabinet.75

'Operation Butterfly'

Meanwhile, two operational initiatives in late 1985 demonstrated that ANC field strategy remained bogged down. The first was a programme to develop an integrated political-military underground command structure in the greater Durban area; the other was a campaign to destabilise the border regions of South Africa.

The first had its origins among a group of operational commanders based in Mozambique and Swaziland. Operations they had conducted in the past had suffered directly from the absence of political-military liaison. Lack of cooperation meant political and military cadres often 'tripped over' each other inside South Africa.76 They believed the solution lay in the integrated approach of the area political committee (APC) plan drawn up in 1981 and they drew up a plan in early 1985, codenamed 'Operation Butterfly' to build, in effect, an APC in Durban. But the group felt that they had to disguise this because the APC concept had become a disputed issue. Hence, they called the leadership they envisaged for Durban a 'regional committee or district committee'.77

Thami Zulu, the Swaziland-based commander of MK's Natal machinery,78 and one of his deputies in MK's Natal machinery, known as Ralph, together with Sue Rabkin and Terence Tryon79 from political structures, drew up an organisational chart for the operation, which they sent to PMC headquarters in Lusaka for assessment.80 When they received no response,81 they pressed ahead regardless, encouraged after June 1985 by some decisions at the Kabwe conference favouring a closer political-military relationship in operational structures.

Some groundwork for the operation was provided by earlier clandestine missions into South Africa by middle-ranking ANC members, including Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, a former Robben Island prisoner who would soon head the regional political-military committee in Swaziland, Sipho Khumalo82 and Ivan Pillay. Pillay had overseen the development of, among others, a network of leafleters in Durban, which grew to include about 13 members,83 among them two young students, Moe Shaik and Yacoob Abba Omar.84 Shaik also maintained contact with Ebrahim who, together with Khumalo, entered the country in about April 1985 to solicit recommendations from the underground for the Kabwe conference.85

The ANC underground in Durban still included the highly efficient network around Pravin Gordhan. There were other formal political units as well, though they were generally less well organised. One of the MK machineries in Durban falling under Swaziland was headed by Vijay Ramlakan.86

Operation Butterfly aimed to settle a group of middle-ranking, externally trained political and military cadres of proven discipline87 in the Durban area; to re-organise the local underground from the top downwards,88 asserting authority over existing (and often isolated) underground units; to reflect the principle of integrated political-military command in structures;89 and to prepare the ground for the clandestine entry into the area of more senior leadership.90

The operation was to have a single line of command from exile to the district committee in Durban. This district committee would, whatever the individual expertise of its three members, operate as a single unit jointly controlling all specialised operational activities in the Durban area.91 The specialist units falling under the district committee would include ones dealing with mass mobilisation, propaganda, logistics, communications, security and intelligence.92 Military headquarters in exile was not to be granted its own, parallel line of command to military units involved in Operation Butterfly.93

The operation travelled a rocky road from the outset. There were several delays through August and September in infiltrating personnel. In October, underground units inside South Africa heard that the operation might be called off. But, in late October and early November, it was revived.94 In late November, the Sheik-Omar propaganda unit was told that there would, be 'one political person' in the group to be infiltrated from Swaziland for the operation.95

From the moment the Butterfly contingent, who totalled about nine,96 entered South Africa from Swaziland in early December,97 there were, according to Omar, a series of basic security breakdowns. Notwithstanding the fact that Omar had warned Ramlakan on a previous occasion that his security had been compromised by speculation in Durban political circles that he was involved in MK activity,98 the Butterfly contingent's first port of call was Ramlakan's own house. Ramlakan also used telephone communications with Omar, instead of the less direct methods used in the past. And the political cadre, who turned out to be Terence Tryon, had initially to be accommodated at a hotel, where Ramlakan maintained telephone contact with him.99 Tryon himself, together with some of his military counterparts, indicated deep unhappiness about the security of the entire project,100 yet they continued to hold meetings at Ramlakan's house.101

The end came barely a month later, in the early hours of Christmas Eve. Evidently employing good intelligence, police raided several homes and university residences in the Durban area.102 They netted all the exiles infiltrated for Operation Butterfly, bar Tryon,103 who had wisely maintained minimal links with his military counterparts, preferring to rely on his own contacts in Durban,104 and who now returned to exile.105 Police decimated Ramlakan's unit, though a few subsidiary structures survived.106 And Omar left for exile shortly afterwards.107

Operation Butterfly was conceived as a subterfuge against both the state and those in the ANC leadership wanting separate military command in underground structures. It failed in both instances. Participants still debate why and how.108 Some believed they had walked into a trap set by South African intelligence.109 Ramlakan insisted there must have been a security leak in Swaziland. Years later, one of those who had helped draw up the Butterfly schema, 'Ralph', apparently admitted to being a long-term South African security police penetration agent,110 after which Rabkin and others concluded the entire operation had been 'drawn up by the enemy'.111

Omar argues that, with or without early South African intelligence penetration, breakdowns in security inside South Africa were, alone, sufficiently serious to guarantee the operation's failure.112 These breakdowns were a product of other, long-term shortcomings in ANC organisation. The operation needed to have been commanded by individuals of more seniority and maturity who might have kept a tighter rein on discipline and security. Moreover, the operation envisaged rebuilding the ANC underground in Durban from top downwards - a task requiring the wielding of considerable authority and, so, better suited to senior cadres. Furthermore, there needed to be a higher proportion of political to military cadres infiltrated from abroad - which might have made operatives more sensitive, on balance, to difficult operating conditions.113

Destabilising the Border Areas

The programme to destabilise South Africa's border regions had its origins at the Kabwe conference. The intention was to create conditions allowing guerillas to traverse, and survive in, these areas. After the conference, MK formulated a plan to use landmines to denude the border areas of white farmers.114 Attacks against white farmers were deemed justifiable because of their role in state border defence networks. It was a role the government also recognised, and valued. From 1980 it had spent more than R200-million in these regions improving radio and telephone networks, tarring roads, enlarging commando forces, improving the security force presence and easing the debt burden on border farmers.115

Joe Modise, head of military headquarters, commanded the operation from Zimbabwe,116 while Chris Hani, MK political commissar, slipped into Botswana on a false passport just after Christmas 1985 to oversee operations from there.117 Between November 27 and the end of the year, seven landmine explosions were reported, mainly in the northern Transvaal, just across the borders of either Botswana or Zimbabwe, while police reported recovering another six landmines.118

The landmine campaign continued through 1986, with the focus of attacks shifting towards the eastern Transvaal (where it was being fed by ANC operational machineries in Swaziland, then working under desperate pressure). But the campaign failed to destabilise border areas significantly. By 1987, it was beginning to fizzle out.119 Most landmine attacks occurred in narrow belts of South African territory just over the borders of Botswana, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Evidently, the devices had been planted by units who spent no more than a few hours inside South Africa.

Some on the PMC, among them Maharaj, argued this method of operation was bound to be counter-productive. They suggested that the units should set up base and store their armaments deep inside South Africa before commencing operations. Otherwise, the first landmine explosions would prompt a massive increase in South African security activity on the border and anguished objections from those countries whose territory the ANC was using for the campaign; this would not only make the planting of more mines doubly difficult but probably defeat the entire objective of the campaign.120 Events vindicated these dissenting voices. Security force deployments rose sharply after the first explosions; neighbouring states were seriously embarrassed; moreover, poor intelligence available to MK units meant many casualties were not white farmers or security forces but, instead, blacks from the ANC's potential constituency.

The Commonwealth Initiative and Negotiations - 2

By January 1986, the ANC leadership maintained that there were still no 'fundamental developments' in the South African situation that warranted a change in strategy. People's war, interspersed with popular uprisings, remained the organisation's perspective. There could be no negotiated settlement, said the ANC, 'while the Botha regime continues to imprison our leaders and refuses to acknowledge that South African must become an undivided, democratic and non-racial country'.121 Again, the implication was that, if the Botha government did change its mind on those two matters, negotiations might indeed become the ANC's main approach. This implication was, however, hidden among doomsday prophecies about the South African state and warlike rhetoric.

The ANC said it detected a shift in the balance of forces. The state had 'lost the initiative', which was now in the ANC's hands.122 The state had 'no policy either to save the apartheid system from sinking deeper into crisis or to extricate this system [of apartheid] from that crisis.'123 The 'white power bloc' had 'never been as divided'.124 Any state counter-offensive was bound to result in a worsening of the state's strategic position.125 On the other hand, ANC members had 'prepared the conditions further to transform the situation to that position when it will be possible for us to seize power from the enemy'.126

In order to seize power, an 'urgent task' was the 'rapid expansion and extensive activisation of Umkhonto we Sizwe within the country, drawing in the millions of our people into combat'.127 In the previous year, the ANC and its supporters had made significant strides towards the transformation of our armed confrontation with the apartheid regime into a people's war. Of crucial importance in this regard has been the creation of mass insurrectionary zones in many parts of our country, areas where the masses of the people are not only active, but also ready in their hundreds of thousands to assault the enemy for the seizure of power.128

Yet, when ANC leaders met the Commonwealth EPG between February and May 1976, their amenability to negotiations was again evident. Whatever their movement's rhetorical flourishes, a number of ANC leaders, it would seem, now viewed armed activity mainly as a form of pressure which might induce negotiations rather than as a credible element of revolutionary strategy.129

The South African government, too, indicated some amenability on the issue of negotiations in early 1986. Pretoria's lifting of the partial state of emergency on March 7 seemed a conciliatory gesture. While the EPG evidently had no reason to doubt the ANC's sincerity on negotiations, it was apparently more cautious on the postures adopted by the Pretoria government which, the EPG said, were shrouded 'in a specialized political vocabulary which, while saying one thing, mean[t] another'.130

Nonetheless, by mid-May, the EPG had cause to feel optimism that it might, indeed, be able to develop a negotiating concept acceptable to the main parties. Nelson Mandela had responded favourably from prison, and the exiled ANC leadership had asked for 10 days to consider it.131

But the South African response, when it came, laid waste the EPG mission. South African security forces mounted raids, ostensibly against ANC facilities, into three neighbouring Commonwealth states - Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. No ANC members were killed; all casualties and fatalities were non-South Africans; and only two (publicly known) ANC properties were hit.132

'From Ungovernability to People's Power'

The ANC reverted to talk of revolution. Its response was a yet more explicit call to insurrection. The ANC executive released a leaflet under the slogan, 'From Ungovernability to People's Power',133 which amplified its call for an insurrectionary offensive made a year earlier in its leaflet, 'ANC Call to the Nation. The Future is Within Our Grasp'.

The new leaflet argued that the uprisings had made it impossible for the state to govern in many areas of the country. It was, therefore, now possible for people to replace the displaced outposts of apartheid administration with their own popular organs of self-government and self-defence. Here was an explicit case of ANC strategy following developments inside the country; inside South Africa, people had already displaced state organs of government in some localities with rudimentary governing structures. The ANC was endorsing this development and, via the act of endorsement, seeking to appropriate the development as one which fitted best in ANC strategy and properly belonged under its command.

The Insurrectionary Schema, 1986

By 1986 those in the ANC calling loudest for the adoption of an insurrectionary strategy - individuals like Kasrils, Maharaj (though less bluntly) and a group of middle-senior operational officials - predominated in debates over operational strategy. They argued that the notion of 'people's war' as a protracted phenomenon had been undermined by the intensity of the uprisings, by the growing divisions among whites and by the likelihood (as they saw it) that black members of the state's security forces must soon defect to the cause of black liberation and the ANC in significant numbers. To the extent that they still talked of 'people's war', they conceived of it as being solely a gathering of forces for national insurrection, in the course of which the vast majority of people were drawn into rebellion against the state, with armed struggle their main form of engagement.134

The insurrectionary tendency was alone in attempting to incorporate the new forms of struggle being developed on the ground inside South Africa systematically into a strategic schema in which the ANC might play a directive role. Other identifiable strategic tendencies within the ANC were, each for its own reasons, less concerned about the details of developments inside the country. Slovo was the foremost exponent of a different insurrectionary strain, which seemed to hold that insurrections were, for all intents and purposes, spontaneous phenomena; that no revolutionary movement either had led, or could lead, an insurrection or determine a revolutionary 'moment'; therefore Kasrils' and others' stress on preparing a revolutionary vanguard in order to provide leadership at the moment of insurrection was largely misdirected. Another tendency, identified most closely with MK's commander, Joe Modise, believed no change was necessary to ANC strategy and its practice.135 And a fourth tendency was barely concerned with the details of armed or popular struggles. Its thinking seemed based on an assumption that it was no longer possible to formulate a credible revolutionary strategy for South Africa; ostensibly revolutionary developments were important only to the extent that they might induce the state to negotiate with the ANC.

The insurrectionary tendency around individuals like Kasrils ascribed a role in its schema to phenomena like street committees, rent and consumer boycotts and strike action. Kasrils explains:

[T]he people themselves, during the period 1983-1986, were creating their own rudimentary organs of people's power. They were creating street committees. They were creating people's courts. They were beginning to create self-defence units. Of course, on perceiving this, we would...give them a lead in our propaganda, would give instruction, would tell them: this is what to do; this is the way forward.136

The ANC gave these autonomous creations the legitimacy of its sanction and - often wrongly - the impression that it had originated them. But there was still no indication that the ANC underground could provide a significant level of tactical guidance to the uprisings.137 The ANC found itself leading - and still having to lead - from behind.

The insurrectionist tendency identified a central role for the street committees (small committees elected to represent the civic interests of residents of a street). The tendency believed a street committee had the potential to be 'clandestine and semi-clandestine organ[s] for mass participation in insurrectionary tactics'.138 Street committees offered a form of popular structure within which the underground could reproduce itself and through which the ANC might draw millions into its campaigns.139 Since street committee members were well known to each other, street committees might also close off opportunities for enemy intelligence penetration.140 The ANC did not, however, see street committees as ANC organs. It was keen that they should reflect a broad range of political opinion to which its underground would provide leadership.141

The tendency reasoned that a nationwide system of street committees and their rural equivalent, village committees (elected village representatives), could facilitate simultaneous popular insurrection over a vast area, perhaps making security force containment impossible.142 Moreover, a sound street committee system with underground leadership might indeed constitute a 'mass revolutionary base' or a 'mass insurrectionary zone'. These zones or bases might mitigate the lack of reliable external bases and provide the ANC with a form of liberated zone where the enemy increasingly finds it difficult to deploy either puppets or agents, where its liberty to move through those areas at least is restricted to daylight hours and moving in force with all the limitations that [this] would place on it... [The townships could be] a form of liberated zone...of great strategic importance...because of their geographic locality...closer to the industrial heartlands than the white cities, the army bases, etc. So it is not like the peasantry, which is very removed - let's say in the Zimbabwean situation - from the really important strategic targets of the economy in particular.143

In this sense, the insurrectionary tendency conceived of street and villages committees not merely as 'organs of people's power' at the local level144, but also as organs for the seizure of people's power at the national level.

The tendency also re-examined political strike action. It believed political strike action could extend beyond withdrawal of labour to include seizure of factory premises and plant. Whatever historical precedents the insurrectionists found for this,145 the seed of their thinking was a strike tactic developed by some trade union members from 1985. Called siyalala la (or, 'we sleep here'), the tactic amounted to sleep-in strikes at, or orderly occupation of, factories.146

For the workers who originated siyalala la, the tactic had a number of advantages. It helped avoid mass dismissals and harassment outside factory gates; it was an obstacle to managements' attempts to hire alternative work forces; it allowed workers to exercise more control over their situation than a conventional strike; and it fostered greater solidarity among strikers.147 When originated, the tactic was not intended to facilitate seizures of premises or plant. But, for the ANC's insurrectionists, this potential was its true significance. Joel Netshitenze,148 who was running PMC internal propaganda in 1986, recalls how strategy discussions concluded that the siyalala la phenomenon indicated the existence of a new mood among workers - one of

'the workers in and the bosses out'... [I]t had the potential for insurrectionary action at a level...never seen before in the struggle, and signified the development of consciousness among workers with the potential to contribute decisively to insurrection.149

It seemed, to the insurrectionists, to provide a way in which workers could aggressively project their power beyond security force containment into the industrial zones and 'white areas'.150

Kasrils, had, since early 1986,151 talked of forming workers' militias. Among other advantages, militias could help overcome one of MK's main weaknesses - the fact that it consisted almost entirely of former students or unemployed youth. Apart from the probable greater maturity of their members, workers' militias might also better project MK activity into the strategically important industrial zones.152 Kasrils, head of ANC military intelligence at the time, recalls how his thinking on this was influenced by the Bolsheviks' experience (or by a particular account of it):

Lenin and the Bolsheviks...learned...that what was required for discipline and greater efficacy was to organise factory-based combat forces. Those that emerged from the streets tended...to be led by anarchistic elements... It's out of the factories, then, that the combat forces of the Bolsheviks grew, of course side by side with the major Bolshevik armed forces which were those within the Czarist army. So, for us, a lesson of 1983-1986 [was] clearly to develop our underground and our combat forces within the factories, within the industrial zones, and not simply [to] confine it to the townships...153

In the evolving schema, the domestic underground was to be assigned the main role in developing these forces and tactics, and in combining them. But the underground remained pitifully weak, notwithstanding the ANC's huge and growing popular support. Still comprising only a few hundred people, the underground remained divided into separate political and military components. Strachan estimates that in late 1986, the underground was no stronger or better able to provide leadership inside the country than it had been before the onset of the uprisings in September 1984.154

The Kabwe conference had decided in June 1985 that area-based underground command structures, area political military committees (APMCs), should be established. But, a year later, few, if any, APMCs existed.155 This meant that externally based regional political military committees (RPMCs) - in Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe - were still trying, across heavily policed borders, to oversee almost all political and military operations inside the country.156 Strachan, secretary of the Zimbabwe RPMC, notes that this was 'extremely difficult';157 lines of communications were long, slow and insecure.

The ideal underground conjured up by the ANC insurrectionist tendency should be able to coordinate all clandestine domestic political, military, ordinance, logistics, communications, security and intelligence work at regional level, as envisaged in the area political committee (APC) document of 1981 (see Figure 4), and eventually at national level as well; and it should also have a presence in, and be able to bring together almost all popular anti-apartheid forces - from political organisations, unions, street and village committees, defence committees, combat units of militants and workers' militias. In sum, the underground was supposed to oversee development of the forces for, and eventually lead, an insurrectionary assault along the lines dictated by the Military and Combat Work (MCW) doctrine.158 Kasrils implied this quite clearly in an article in the ANC's official organ, Sechaba, in May 1986.159 The approach was, as the interviewer noted and Kasrils conceded, 'quite a way' from classical notions of guerilla warfare in peasant societies.

By mid-1986, the insurrectionist, MCW-based schema had achieved ascendancy among ANC operational personnel - if only because of the strategic vacuum bequeathed by the Kabwe conference and the enthusiasm of its advocates. Moreover, against the background of the conspicuous operational failure of the past, the MCW approach had the advantage of a clear organisational framework, compared to the chronic ad hoc appearance of most MK attacks in the past.

Leading proponents - such as Kasrils, Maharaj, Pillay and Strachan160 - were apparently serious about wanting to build the kind of underground that might in some sense lead an insurrection. To others in the ANC, insurrection was attractive for the opposite reason: because of the way it seemed to free the exiled ANC leadership from most strategic responsibilities and place the burden for developing the forces and tactics for revolution on to people inside the country, many of whom acted in the ANC's name. Between these two tendencies and the realisation of insurrection lay not merely a powerful and highly organised enemy but also organisational and strategic habits and assumptions of 25 years, together with a large section of the ANC leadership.

The National Security Management System

As the uprisings continued, the ANC failed to mount a breakthrough. 'Insurrectionary zones', which developed mainly under the ANC's banner in Alexandra township in northern Johannesburg, the Crossroads squatter camp near Cape Town and in the Kangwane bantustan , could not be sustained. In each case, the state was able to isolate, contain and eventually neutralise the local insurrectionary forces.

The state's decision on June 12 1986, as the 10th anniversary of the Soweto uprising approached, to impose a second state of emergency, this time covering the entire country except the nominally independent bantustans, worsened the ANC's operational problems. During the emergency, security forces detained an estimated 25,000 people under emergency regulations (with an average 5,000 people in detention on any one day),161 more than half of them associated with the UDF and its affiliate organisations.162 A further 2,840 people were detained in South Africa and the nominally independent bantustans under standing security legislation in the course of 1986.163 These detentions narrowed down the pool of people from whom MK combatants could hope to get shelter and other forms of assistance.

The state also continued to expand a counter-insurgency innovation introduced in late 1984 - a clandestine system of politico-military security management conceived in 1979, the year after P W Botha became prime minister.164 The national security management system, as it was known, came under the command of the state security council (SSC), the most powerful of four cabinet standing committees, which was chaired by President Botha himself. Serving the SSC were 12 interdepartmental committees covering most areas of civilian administration, whose task it was to ensure that state policy in all civilian areas of government serviced national security imperatives.

The implementation structures of the NSMS comprised a network of joint management centres (JMCs), each responsible for a particular region of South Africa. These JMCs coordinated a total of about 60 sub-JMCs, responsible for smaller designated areas. Each sub-JMCs, in its turn, coordinated a number of mini-JMCs, each responsible for a particular township or local authority area. Each JMC, sub-JMC and mini-JMC had three committees: one dealing with intelligence; on assessing political, economic and social developments in its area; and a third overseeing propaganda and publicity work within its particular region or area.165 Each brought together local military and police officers, administrators, local government representatives and businessmen. It provided for direct lines of communication between junior officials serving in townships and the highest level of government. Large or small security force deployments could be readily decided by officers serving on sub- or mini-JMCs, or by fairly speedy reference to higher authority.

The NSMS resembled France's establishment of Section Administrative Speciale (SAS) from 1955 in its war against the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria. The SAS assumed politico-administrative duties, combined with operational responsibilities, to fill the vacuum created by unrest and war.166 As with the guerre revolutionaire


doctrine,167 the NSMS tried to integrate political and military command at every level of society to serve the counter-revolutionary objective.

The NSMS was, in a sense, a programme to construct a politico-military counter-underground organised on a national and regional basis. It sought to achieved a level of integration (albeit under military predominance) also long sought, but never realised, by the ANC.

Armed Activity

After the declaration of a state of emergency in June 1986, state security forces gradually re-established intelligence penetration into, and basic security control over, areas affected by unrest. The ANC and MK could not spread insurrectionary pressures beyond scattered localities and, so, could not attenuate security forces to any significant degree. As the state rolled back the unrest, MK's casualty rate rose sharply.

Some MK combatants infiltrated in Operation Zikomo and subsequently had managed to establish links with township and other militants. Security police report an unspecified increase over previous years in the number of people (263) arrested in 1986 on suspicion of being internal MK recruits, members of MK support machineries or of


recruiting others for MK.168 As the high rate of MK infiltration continued in 1986, the number of guerilla attacks underwent a further increase, to a total of 231.169 A third of these attacks were against police personnel and stations, SA Defence Force personnel and state witnesses in political trials.170 But, while the total number of attacks for 1986 represented a 70% increase on the total for 1985, the rate of security force neutralisations of guerillas rose even more steeply - to 186, or a 500% increase on the previous year, as security forces improved their position. MK's success rate thus dropped from only 3 guerilla neutralisations for every 13 attacks in 1985 back to four guerilla neutralisations for every five attacks.171

MK's ability to deliver ordinance securely to township battle fronts was also limited in 1986. Whereas police reported 76 instances in which hand grenades were


detonated, they captured or recovered nearly seven times that many (530).172 The rate of capture of other ordinance was also high during 1986.173

These casualties and losses indicate that, whereas the ANC and MK had been able to exploit a breakdown in security force control between late 1985 and early 1986, they were unable in that period to develop inside South Africa mechanisms of organisation to protect their own personnel and military capacity. There had been no qualitative improvement in the ANC's capacity to locate an armed presence inside the country.

The emergency measures also appear to have helped reduce the number of incidents of popular political violence, or 'unrest', according to police statistics. Whereas in 1985, there had been 16,396 incidents of 'unrest in which murder or other illegal acts of violence were perpetrated', the figure dropped to 13,663 (down by 17%) in 1986. By 1987, the street insurrection was, effectively, at an end: the total number of incidents of unrest for the year dropped to 4,140 (down by 75% on 1985, or by 70% on 1986).174


Strategic Hiatus and the Genesis of 'Operation Vula'

As 1986 drew towards its close, operationally the ANC was stuck in a profound strategic hiatus, if not crisis. Across the gamut of its operational activities, it showed no sign of a breakthrough, although conditions were more favourable than at any time since the resort to armed struggle in 1961.

Having been unprepared for the uprisings that had broken out in September 1984, two years later the ANC was no closer to being able to give them tactical direction. Its biggest-ever infiltration of military cadres - under Operation Zikomo - had been only a short-term and, ultimately, an illusory success. The 'grenade squad' concept, which might have provided a bridge between MK and township militants, had been destroyed through a mixture of mismanagement and security force penetration. The land mine campaign to destabilise the border areas had achieved little more than increased security force deployments and vigilance in these areas and cause neighbouring state's acute embarrassment. The ANC's tactical influence over street committees and other rudimentary forms of alternative government which emerged to replace displaced official local government structures was largely rhetorical. And the state was able to concentrate its forces and isolate, contain and re-establish control over


areas of unrest with the use of only a fraction of its total capability.

Elsewhere, in basically non-operational areas, the ANC's efforts were better rewarded. In the realm of popular politics, the UDF, the stayaway in November 1984 and the formation of Cosatu and the activities of its unions embodied real, not merely symbolic, threats to white minority political and economic domination. Moreover, they revealed the considerable potential for the involvement of millions of people in a challenge to state power. Diplomatically, the ANC skilfully addressed different audiences to its own advantage: it persuaded elements in the white South African establishment that it was a serious and mature contender for power; it cemented alliances with a number of other anti-apartheid organisations, broadening its political base and raising its profile in the process; and it harmonised with the tone of international concern over South Africa set by the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group.

Since the mid-1980s, the ANC's declared intention had been to combine different areas, or 'pillars', of struggle - underground political activity, armed struggle, popular campaigning and diplomatic pressure against the Pretoria government. In 1986, the two weakest pillars remained those for which the ANC was most directly responsible: the pillars of operational strategy - the political underground


and MK. Indeed, in late 1986, as the most favourable operational conditions the ANC had ever experienced began to recede, neither of these pillars could be said to constitute a credible element of revolutionary strategy. Tacitly, this view was, it seems, quite widespread within the ANC leadership. But a handful set out to challenge this view and confront, or circumvent, and circumvent anybody who might be an obstacle.

After the Kabwe conference, the ANC executive had begun to meet more frequently, about once every two months.175 The usual form at these meetings was that, at some stage in proceedings, the PMC's political and military headquarters would report that they had still not made any significant progress in developing internal underground structures.176 The occasional claim that they had made progress never survived scrutiny. Maharaj recalls he found it a boring thing to have that item [progress in building the underground on the agenda], because all that happens is that, after you show that there is no real progress - whatever the reports that are presented - the discussion shows nothing really dramatic, no qualitative change. The discussion becomes: Well, you had better pull up your socks; ...something's got to be done; by the next meeting there must be progress. Finish.

No real suggestion is coming forward on how to move forward. Same debate [all the time].177


The debates over operational failures invariably ended up considering how best the ANC might remedy the weakness of its underground. Since 1981 and the formulation of the area political committee (APC) concept, there had been a serious body of support in the ANC for the infiltration of senior leadership figures on the grounds that only senior individuals could rebuild the underground.178 This was particularly relevant to servicing an insurrectionary perspective, which required the combination of many different forms of struggle and, it was thought, hence the exercise of considerable authority. Maharaj believed that, if the ANC had senior leadership inside the country then, whatever the battering the mass organisations took, you had, present there, hidden from the enemy, personnel who were interacting with these forces, who were prepared, even when they were detected, [so that] they could continue to survive and provide leadership. Insurrection cannot be led from afar.179

At an NEC meeting in mid-1986,180 these matters came to a head - but in a way that all but those in on the secret would have found difficult to discern. The ANC leadership had, yet again, been obliged to concede that the


PMC had made no substantial operational progress. During a tea break, Maharaj approached a few NEC colleagues. He lobbied them with a proposal. The only way out of the hiatus, he argued, was now to move senior leadership into South Africa to take charge of building the underground as well as of all ANC operations there.181

Evidently, Maharaj believed that a senior leadership could be successfully infiltrated into the country and take over the domestic underground only if most members of the NEC were not merely ignorant about what was happening in their name but unaware that anything was being done. Security considerations were, formally, one set of reasons for this: how many ANC leaders would 'need to know'? But it is clear from the way that Maharaj manoeuvred that these security considerations were secondary. They provided a cover behind which Maharaj (and others) could isolate from the envisaged project those in the ANC leadership who they believed were still wedded to old habits: crass militarism, the detonator theory and political-military parallelism.

The challenge before Maharaj, as he lobbied colleagues during the tea break, was to develop an appropriate organisational mechanism to achieve his objectives. This mechanism had to take forward the internal leadership project while isolating most of the ANC leadership from it.


The best way, he concluded, would be the NEC's establishment of a small subcommittee to oversee the project; the subcommittee should have a completely open mandate and full discretion on which of its activities to report to the NEC, if any, and when to do so. Maharaj considered that ANC president Oliver Tambo, whom he regarded as one of the most creative strategic minds in the ANC, and Joe Slovo, who was beginning to decouple himself from military concerns and involve himself more deeply in the SACP, where he would soon become general secretary, would be the most suitable members of the committee.

Maharaj first took his thinking to Slovo, who was 'not very impressed' with the idea.182 So, according to Maharaj,

I go to Chris [Hani], I go to [Jacob] Zuma. [They say:] 'Ja, ja, you've got a point. I say: 'It needs a formula to handle this problem.' So the three of us discuss it. And, when we see that we are in agreement that we should have a small committee made up of the president and probably [Slovo] to take charge of this,...we say: 'Let's go and see [Oliver Tambo].'... [Tambo] says: 'Well, put the proposal to the meeting; let's see what the meeting says'. So, when we resume, Chris turns up and makes the proposal... Zuma stands up and supports it.

And it is a measure of the NEC that no discussion took place. The meeting just said: 'Right, agreed'...

The decision is that, in order to send in senior people from NEC level into the country, a special committee, comprising the president [Tambo] and [Slovo] is appointed; their task is to take charge of this type of mission, whether on a short-term or long-term basis; it's a free hand; they are empowered to conduct this work without reporting to the NEC; they may choose the moment at which they wish to report progress; and


they are given a blank cheque...183

Apparently dismayed at the inertia of most NEC members response, Tambo intervened to say:

[Y]ou are taking a very serious decision here...[I]t means everybody in this room must be available [to be infiltrated into South Africa]; it means you are giving us those powers.184

Maharaj was appalled: Tambo seemed to be insisting upon active NEC participation in the project - precisely what he wanted to avoid. So Maharaj then interjected:

Look, this is a very sensitive task and I think it should be left to volunteers; nobody should feel pressured.185

But Tambo was very reluctant to let NEC members get away with their silence. In the end, however, according to Maharaj, the issue of NEC members' being willing to return to South Africa doesn't become integral to the resolution... The decision is that [Tambo] and [Slovo] have a blank cheque. They can command; they can choose to call volunteers. It is up to them.186

The NEC decision Maharaj describes was the genesis of 'Operation Vul'indlela', more widely known as 'Operation Vula'.


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.