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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The ANC according to itself

The African National Congress announced its adoption of armed struggle on December 16 1961. It is relevant to quote from the flyer distributed on that day, issued by Umkhonto we Sizwe, announcing that sabotage attacks had been carried out:

"Umkhonto we Sizwe will carry on the struggle for freedom and democracy by new methods, which are necessary to complement the actions of the established national liberation organisations. Umkhonto we Sizwe fully supports the national liberation movement, and our members, jointly and individually, place themselves under the overall political guidance of that movement.

It is, however, well known that the main national liberation organisations in this country have consistently followed a policy of non-violence. They have conducted themselves peaceably at all times...But the people's patience is not endless.

The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom.

The government has interpreted the peacefulness of the movement as weakness; the people's non-violent policies have been taken as a green light for government violence. Refusal to resort to force has been interpreted by the government as an invitation to use armed force against the people without any fear of reprisals. The methods of Umkhonto we Sizwe mark a break with that past..."

The manifesto explained that armed activity was necessary because of the ways in which legislation during the 1950s and especially since March 1960 had curtailed the legal space for non-violent, extra-parliamentary political protest. The manifesto held that within the previous eighteen months "virtual martial law" had been imposed: the reference was to the State of Emergency of March-August 1960 and the massive show of force in May 1961 against ANC efforts to organise a general strike. It asserted moral legitimacy for the resort to violence on the grounds of necessary defence: "The choice is not ours; it has been made by the Nationalist government."

Significantly, the ANC was not the only organisation to conclude that the only choices were to submit or fight. Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was preceded by a Committee for National Liberation, subsequently calling itself the African Resistance Movement, which included members of the Liberal Party as well as individuals from splinter socialist groupings. The PAC launched Poqo. There were also attempts to set up armed units by elements which had broken away from the Unity Movement.

The Umkhonto we Sizwe manifesto, characterised by one scholar as "one of the most eloquent assertions of revolutionary morality in the period after the Second World War", was firmly grounded in the historical realities of the day. The National Party government had drastically narrowed the arena of legal political activity available to the ANC; and then closed it by banning the organisation in April 1960. The use of police and army troops in May 1961 to defeat the planned national stay-away further emphasised that the politics of the 1950s - characterised by campaigns of non-violent mass mobilisation - would no longer be tolerated by the state. The impatience and mounting anger of many rank-and-file members of the ANC, particularly among the youth, exerted further pressure on the ANC leadership to turn to armed activity.

This statement by President OR Tambo, which makes it clear that the ANC was not only reacting to the closure of peaceful forms of demonstration but was also concerned to prevent undirected forms of mass violence, is relevant:

"Umkhonto we Sizwe was founded...in order to give coherence to the spontaneous revolutionary violence our people were beginning to assert in response to the repressive violence of the apartheid state. During the late 1950s, there had already been a number of armed uprisings in various parts of the country as the oppressed fought back to claim their rights, which were being ruthlessly suppressed by the Verwoerd regime. In the Northern Transvaal the peasants had risen against the imposition of the Bantustan system. In the Western Transvaal the rising of the peasants had been suppressed with great violence. (...) In the Transkei the imposition of the Bantustan system had provoked the most sustained peasant uprising in six decades, and in many portions of that region the rule of the puppet chiefs and the regime had been superseded by popularly elected peasants committees. The struggle in the urban areas had also reached a high-water mark The massacres at Sharpeville and Langa in 1960, the slaughter of a peasant demonstration at Ngquza Hill in Pondoland in 1960..."

A statement issued by the NEC in 1963 explicitly referred to methods of struggle at that time, and warned of the dangers of believing that freedom could be achieved by "plunging the country into riots and terrorist acts":

"Some (spontaneous actions of the people) result from Government provocation, the people's patience becomes exhausted, and the masses become desperate in the absence of a strong militant organisation. In these circumstances people are likely to resort more and more to senseless and dangerous forms of action. If we embark on unplanned and misguided political actions, we are playing into the hands of the enemy."

When MK was launched, its activities took the form of sabotage attacks on government installations, police stations, electric pylons and similar targets. At the same time, a different form of armed struggle was envisaged: rural-based guerrilla war. This was spelled out in Operation Mayibuye, a draft under discussion in the National High Command of MK. It envisaged guerrilla struggle being "sparked off" by military operations carried out by small groups of combatants, professionally trained outside South Africa. It was envisaged that such operations would serve to recruit thousands of internal auxiliaries. Attacks on strategic state targets would be complemented by urban sabotage and political agitation.

From the very beginning, Umkhonto we Sizwe emphasised that armed actions took place within a broader political context. Not only did this apply to the need for cadres to fully understand the basic policy positions of the ANC - the first port of call in all military training - but they were also taught to ensure that the moral high ground occupied by the liberation movement due to the justness of the cause must be maintained in the actual theatre of battle, in the choice of targets, attitude to civilians, and treatment of captives.

However, during all stages of the armed struggle, the ANC had to constantly contend with the tension between two tendencies: a strict adherence to these policies, and taking the easiest route of terrorist attacks against white civilians. It also had to assess the extent of public anger and the spontaneous actions by groups not falling under its discipline, and ensure that the anger of the people was channelled in such a way that it served the long-term political objective of attaining a democratic and non-racial society. Within its own ranks, debate on these issues would rage unceasingly, especially following the many brutal actions by the regime against unarmed civilians. The temptation to resort to indiscriminate attacks was always there: but at all times, the principled approach of the movement would prevail.

The arrests at Rivonia, and subsequent trials, ended the first phase of MK activity - the sabotage campaign between December 1961 and mid-1963. By mid-1965, not only MK but also the ANC had effectively been destroyed within South Africa. It was to be another eight years before there was significant reconstruction of an ANC underground, and eleven years before the resumption of armed activity inside South Africa. Immediately following this period, the major involvement of MK in armed activity took the form of a joint operation with ZAPU forces in then Rhodesia. The Wankie and Sipolilo Campaigns (1967-8) failed in their major objectives - to open a trail back into the country - but provided important lessons to the movement.

They also led to the new programme, Strategy and Tactics of the ANC, adopted at the Morogoro conference of 1969. This document, accepted the need for a protracted armed struggle before the "conquest of power" in South Africa by the ANC. Crucially, it asserted that successful development of armed struggle depended upon political mobilisation, an important precursor to theories of "people's war" developed during the early 1980s within the ANC.

In the 1980s the overall approach of the ANC was summed up in what was called the "Four Pillars" of struggle: mass mobilisation, armed operations, underground organisation and international solidarity work.

The circumstances which led to the ANC's decision to launch Umkhonto we Sizwe have been sketched broadly above.

With more specific reference to the ANC's approach to the role of armed actions in the struggle for democracy, and which targets it considered legitimate, two continuous threads in all ANC policies and public statements on this issue have been that armed struggle is only one of a range of inter-related methods of struggle, with the political leadership at all times directing armed struggle; secondly, armed struggle would be waged in order to bring peace to the country: the apartheid regime had to be stopped, as quickly and effectively as possible, as it was bent on a path which would only result in racial war.

The MK Manifesto states:

"We of Umkhonto we Sizwe have always sought - as the liberation movement has sought - to achieve liberation without bloodshed and civil clash. We do so still. We hope - even at this late hour - that our first actions will awaken everyone to the disastrous situation to which the Nationalist policy is leading. We hope that we will bring the Government and its supporters to their senses before it is too late, so that both Government and its policies can be changed before matters reach the desperate stage of civil war. We believe our actions to be a blow against the nationalist preparations for civil war and military rule."

The same point was made by Nelson Mandela, first Commander-in-Chief of MK, during his trial in 1962:

"Government violence can do only one thing and that is to breed counter-violence. We have warned repeatedly that the Government, by resorting continually to violence will breed in this country counter-violence among the people, till ultimately, if there is no dawning of sanity on the part of the Government, ultimately the dispute between the Government and my people will finish up being settled by violence and force."

As outlined above, preparations were made for the possible adoption of guerrilla warfare should the sabotage campaign fail in its objective, which was to get the government of the day to agree to negotiations in a National Convention. As Nelson Mandela put it in his 1964 statement from the dock, the leadership at that time believed four forms of violence were possible: "there is sabotage, there is guerrilla warfare, there is terrorism, and there is open revolution." Sabotage was the first choice of MK as it did not involve loss of life, and would cause the least bitterness and division to develop among people. However, the leadership of Umkhonto assessed white response to their sabotage campaign with anxiety: "The whites and blacks were moving into separate camps, and the prospects of avoiding a civil war were made less."

The draft document, Operation Mayibuye, made explicit reference to targets considered legitimate in Part V, titled "Detailed Plan of Implementation". It was envisaged that various departments be set up with detailed terms of reference to submit plans to launch guerrilla warfare. The terms of reference for the Intelligence Department include the following sub-section:

"(e) Selection of targets to be tackled in initial phase of guerrilla operations with a view to causing maximum damage to the enemy as well as preventing quick deployment of reinforcements. In its study the Committee should bear in mind the following main targets:

Strategic road, railways and other communications.

power stations police stations, camps and military forces irredeemable Government stooges."

As will be shown in the rest of this submission, this basic approach did not change over the years, even under extreme provocation.

A Changing Scenario and New Challenges (1969-79)

The Strategy and Tactics document adopted at the 1969 Morogoro Conference was the first comprehensive strategic guideline for the ANC in the period of armed struggle. A decision was made to shift the ANC's approach from sending armed groups of cadres into the country to "spark off" guerrilla warfare, and instead emphasised that a period of political reconstruction of the ANC inside the country was necessary, as this would provide the only secure base for successful military organisation. It was necessary to first extend and consolidate an ANC underground machinery and to generally mobilise the people, especially the black working population, into active mass struggle around both local and national issues. Military struggle was seen as forming only part of, and being guided by, a broader political strategy to ensure that the battle against apartheid was fought on all possible fronts, involving not just an army but all those oppressed by apartheid:

"When we talk of revolutionary armed struggle, we are talking of political struggle by means which include the use of military force (...) It is important to emphasise this because our movement must reject all manifestations of militarism which separates armed people's struggle from its political context. Reference has already been made to the danger of the thesis which regards the creation of military areas as the generator of mass resistance."

On the question of the relationship between the political and the military, it was noted that from the very beginning: "our Movement has brooked no ambiguity concerning this. The primacy of the political leadership is unchallenged and supreme and all revolutionary formation and levels (whether armed or not) are subordinate to this leadership."(Strategy and Tactics, 1969.)

The perspective guiding the ANC at this time was that of classic guerrilla warfare, concentrated mainly in the rural areas, as this was where the enemy's military structures were weakest; targets would include military bases, command posts and personnel.

Decisions taken at the Morogoro Conference resulted in changes to political and military structures. A new Revolutionary Council was formed. Over the next few years, the ANC began to implement some of the Morogoro recommendations. Procedures were set up to facilitate liaison between leadership and the rank and file, and the arduous task of infiltrating cadres back into the country and setting up a rudimentary underground organisation began.

Such re-entry was painfully difficult in the first half of the 1970s. The key problem was the absence of internal support structures for cadres attempting to infiltrate the country, there were no reception facilities for guerrillas, or reliable underground structures, whereas the state could call on a vast army of security personnel, government officials and informers.

By the middle of the decade, several factors tilted the advantage towards the ANC. Firstly, a new combativeness established itself amongst the people with the rise of Black Consciousness and the new independent trade unions. Secondly, the accession to power of MPLA in Angola and Frelimo in Mozambique shifted the regional balance of power. Thirdly, senior ANC organisers who had completed prison sentences began to rebuild ANC units in major urban centres. Fourthly, the centre of gravity of the exiled movement shifted to countries bordering on South Africa.

Again, in this period, when the movement was facing many difficulties in rooting its underground within the country, resisting the temptation to spread such structures and armed actions in an opportunistic fashion was a difficult challenge. One instance of this was when contact was made with members of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), when a delegation of BCM leaders met with the ANC in the mid-1970s. They had come to appreciate the futility of student protest on its own as a means to liberate the country, and were seeking assistance to undertake armed actions.

Their submission was that they needed military training, and should then be allowed to operate independently within the country, with their own command structures. Given the difficulties the ANC experienced at this time, this was like a godsend. But the movement asserted its political position: that the politics of non-racialism and national liberation should guide whatever armed actions were undertaken, and that the politics of the ANC should guide whoever carried out operations on the basis of its training and supplies.

It was as a result of this interaction, over a long period, that the senior corps of BCM leadership started to co-ordinate their work with the ANC, and some of them became fully-fledged members of the underground. The brutality against Steve Biko in detention, leading to his murder in 1977, can partly be explained by the fact that he had made moves towards contact with the ANC, and was on the verge of a historic meeting with OR Tambo. Carl Edwards and Craig Williamson knew of the link between the ANC and Biko, and they are most likely to be responsible for his betrayal. But the murderers themselves should know better, and they should shed light on this matter before this Commission.

When Soweto erupted in 1976, thousands of young militants left the country and gravitated towards the ANC. Not only did the External Mission of the ANC double and redouble its membership; it also received one of the most precious assets that any exile force can receive - fresh links with organisations and individuals within the country.

During the years from 1976-1979 there was a marked escalation in armed actions: railway lines were sabotaged in many parts of the country, police stations in Soweto, Germiston and Daveyton were attacked, and Bantu Administration offices in Port Elizabeth were bombed. A number of notorious security police were executed, and for the first time battles between MK units and the police took place: the battle was slowly but surely being taken to the enemy. About 37 armed actions took place between the 1976 youth uprising and the end of 1978.

At that point - December 1978 - the ANC's National Executive Committee and Revolutionary Council held an important meeting in Luanda. Far-reaching strategic decisions stemming from this meeting shaped the nature of the armed struggle over the next decade, and paved the way for the ANC's resurgence within the country as the undisputed leader of the liberation forces.

5.3 Towards People's War and People's Power, 1979-90

The strategic emphasis which shaped struggle from 1979 onwards was the necessity for an organised underground political presence to complement armed activities. It was considered essential that ANC operatives should link up different forms of popular members from the generation of activists in youth and student bodies, in the trade unions, in township civics whose protest campaigns were redefining anti-apartheid politics. The "armed propaganda" of MK attacks would serve as a secondary means to deepen mass mobilisation.

The watershed 1978 Politico-Military Strategy Commission report under OR Tambo (also known as The Green Book/Theses on our Strategic Line), again stressed the primacy of political mobilisation:

"The armed struggle must be based on, and grow out of, mass political support and it must eventually involve all our people. All military activities must at every stage be guided by and determined by the need to generate political mobilisation, organisation and resistance, with the aim of progressively weakening the enemy's grip on the reins of political, economic, social and military power, by a combination of political and military action."

On the role of armed activity at that stage, the report stated that this served "to keep the perspective of people's revolutionary violence as the ultimate weapon for the seizure of power", and "to concentrate on armed propaganda actions whose immediate purpose is to support and stimulate political activity and organisation rather than to hit at the enemy".

In line with this approach, the Revolutionary Council, formed in 1969 and chaired by OR Tambo, was restructured to consolidate not only the supremacy of political leadership but also to ensure that the task of mass mobilisation and underground organisation received the necessary emphasis.

The senior organs formed in neighbouring countries consisted of senior leaders and specialists in the building of the political underground and mass mobilisation, as well as commanders of armed units. Within the country this translated into an effort to form Area Political Committees which would take ultimate responsibility for both political and military work in their areas of operation. Later, these were transformed into Area and Regional Politico-Military Committees.

A Special Operations group reporting directly to the President was formed with the mandate of undertaking high profile attacks on targets such as the Sasolburg oil refinery, Koeberg, and Voortrekkerhoogte - armed propaganda which would hit the South African economy hard and capture the imagination of the people.

In 1983 the Revolutionary Council was disbanded and the Politico-Military Council created, with a Military HQ and Political HQ falling under it. The detail of these structures is outlined in later sections; but their evolution again underlines the constant commitment on the part of the ANC to ensure that the armed struggle formed an integral part of the overall strategy of the movement, as defined in the "Four Pillars".

At the same time operations by other MK units mounted steadily; one study estimated that 150 cases of armed action took place between 1976 and 1982, overwhelmingly concentrated on economic targets, the administrative machinery of apartheid, as well as police and SADF installations and personnel.

In contrast to this highly disciplined and restrained approach to the use of violence, the South African regime committed countless atrocities against civilians not only within the borders of South Africa, but also through their support for the terrorism of UNITA and Renamo. Cross-border raids were launched against what were portrayed as "ANC targets" in neighbouring states - such as the attack on Matola in 1981, the Maseru massacre of 1982, the raids on Gaberone in 1985, Lusaka in 1987 and attacks in Harare and Bulawayo, to quote a few examples. Many of those civilians killed in these operations were nationals of the host countries. No distinction whatsoever was made between "hard" and "soft" targets. Anger against the perpetrators of these atrocities mounted.

Again, the words of Oliver Tambo on the avoidance of civilian casualties in the conduct of armed struggle, come into focus:

"In 1980 we signed the Geneva protocols and said that if we captured any enemy soldiers we would treat them as prisoners of war. The fact is we are not against civilians. We do not include them in our definition of the enemy. The ANC was non-violent for a whole decade in the face of violence against African civilians. What do we mean by civilians? It really means white civilians. No one refers to Africans as civilians and they have been victims of shootings all the time. Even children. They have been killed in the hundreds. Yet the word has not been used in all these years. Now it is being used, especially after the Pretoria (SAAF HQ) bomb. But implicit in the practice of the South African regime is that when you shoot an African you are not killing a civilian. We don't want to kill civilians. But some will be hit, quite accidentally and regrettably".

In mid-1983 MHQ produced a discussion document, Planning for People's War, which posed the question as to whether the time was ripe to move away from the 1979 approach towards people's war, defined as a "war in which a liberation army becomes rooted among the people who progressively participate actively in the armed struggle both politically and militarily, including the possibility of engaging in partial or general uprising". Among the conclusions were that the ANC should continue carrying out and even escalating those actions which had played an important role in stimulating political activity, mass resistance and mass organisation, but that "there should be more concentration on destroying enemy personnel". The concept of potential future guerrilla zones inside the country was raised.

This document noted that the policy of arming the people:

"cannot mean that we begin now to distribute arms to whosoever wishes to receive them among the oppressed. In the first place, we have neither the capacity nor the means to do this on any meaningful scale. In the second place it would be completely wrong to engage in a policy of merely distributing weaponry to people, trusting to luck that they will use them on the side of the revolution."

What does this discussion document signify? In the first instance, it reflects the continual debates that were taking place within the ranks of the liberation movement on how to respond to new situations as they emerged. Secondly, these debates essentially revolved around the tension between the restraint of the ANC in the face of the enemy's brutality - whether we should adopt the easy route, and ease control over the usage of weapons. Thirdly, at each stage of struggle, people on the ground would respond with anger to repression, and start to take initiatives themselves which were not strictly in accordance with the strategy and tactics of the ANC.

In this context, in addition to the imperative of intensifying the struggle, the constant challenge facing the ANC was how to channel anger on the ground to ensure that the strategic perspective of a democratic and non-racial society would not be sacrificed on the altar of quick-fix, dramatic and misguided actions. The tension between such intensification of struggle, and the need to avoid a racial war that the MK Manifesto eloquently expressed at the time of the founding of the liberation army, remained with the movement to the last day of armed struggle.

Debates at the highest level of the ANC's political structures during the 1981 anti-Republic Campaign provide an example. Reconnaissance units had been tasked to identify potential targets to register rejection of the 20th anniversary celebrations of the racist republic. One of our units had studied the government's programme for the occasion, and reported on the fact that a mass celebration was to be held at Bloemfontein, in which PW Botha and his entire cabinet would be present. The sketches of the venue and details on where a car-bomb could be placed to decimate the leadership of the NP government were drawn up. The operation needed only the go-ahead from the national leadership. What could have been the most dramatic operation ever, reinforcing the mass upsurge at the time and weakening the apartheid ruling structure, was set aside after much debate. The leadership concluded that there would be too many civilian casualties, and that the obliteration of the NP cabinet could start to blur the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate targets.

This restrained approach contrasts sharply with the attitude of the regime itself, which considered all members of the ANC, whether they were MK cadres or not, inside and outside the country, as fair game; which tried on many occasions to assassinate Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani and other leaders; which had killed diplomatic Chief Representatives of the ANC and bombed their offices.

In line with the doctrine of Total Strategy, the Botha regime attempted to introduce limited constitutional reforms aimed at defusing growing popular resistance to apartheid rule. In this context, the ANC's January 8th statement of 1984 explicitly identified targets as follows:

"the apartheid regime maintains an extensive administrative system through which it directs our lives. This system includes organs of central and provincial government, the army and the police, the judiciary, the bantustan administrations, the community councils, the local management and local affairs committees. It is these institutions of apartheid power that we must attack and demolish, as part of the struggle to put an end to racist minority rule in our country. Needless to say...we must select for attack those parts of the enemy administrative system which we have the power to destroy(...). We must hit the enemy where it is weakest. (...) Thus, through our efforts, the so-called Coloured Persons Representative Council ceased to exist; as a result of extensive mobilisation, the puppet South African Indian Council was brought in by an insignificant minority.."

"This year, Botha and Malan will be busy implementing the provisions of their apartheid constitution. (...) White South Africans alone should man the apartheid constitutional posts, which it alone has created, to its exclusive benefit. Those who elect to serve in these apartheid institutions must expect to face the wrath of the people."

The Kabwe conference was held in June 1985 to assess developments since the Morogoro conference of 1969. The day before it opened, Pretoria attacked several homes in Gaberone, Botswana, killing 12 people including Botswana citizens. Not one shot was fired in self-defence; all those killed were unarmed.

From early September 1984, in response to attempts to increase rent and electricity levies by the new Black Local Authorities introduced by the Pretoria regime, an unprecedented united front of trade union, political, civic, youth and student organisations had mobilised against these moves; apartheid was in a state of general crisis, and the strategic initiative had unmistakably shifted towards forces for change. There was a growing sense that the country was approaching a crossroads.

At Kabwe consensus was reached on a number of major questions including the approach to military action. It was felt that the Strategy and Tactics document adopted at the Morogoro conference, which laid stress on the development of classical guerrilla warfare in the rural areas and designating a supportive role for urban warfare, was flawed. The primary perspective that emerged was that the ANC should step up the all-round political and military offensive sharply, and prepare for protracted people's war. A general insurrection was seen as the logical culmination of this struggle, necessitating preparation to take decisive action at the right moment in order to seize power. This would entail building combat forces inside the country, ensuring that they link up at all times with the people and draw the masses into people's war. It was decided that as many cadres as possible should be trained inside and outside the country and a detailed cadre policy was to be developed - a handing out of guns to anyone willing to shoot was never envisaged.

Conference reaffirmed ANC policy with regard to targets considered legitimate: SADF and SAP personnel and installations, and selected economic installations and infrastructure. But the risk of civilians being caught in the crossfire when such operations took place could no longer be allowed to prevent the urgently needed, all-round intensification of the armed struggle. The focus of armed operations had to shift towards striking directly at enemy personnel, and the struggle had to move out of the townships to the "white" areas.

President Tambo summed up the mood of the Conference. It represented, he said:

"...a turning point in the history of all the people of South Africa. Our Conference itself will be remembered by our people as a council-of-war that planned the seizure of power by these masses, the penultimate convention that gave the order for us to take our country through the terrible but cleansing fires of revolutionary war to a condition of peace, democracy and the fulfilment of our people who have already suffered far too much and far too long."

And later in his address:

"The apartheid system is in a deep and permanent crisis from which it cannot extricate itself. (...) Despite massacres and murders that are carried out daily by Botha's assassination squads, the masses of the people are engaged in a widespread struggle which the enemy cannot suppress and which is driving it ever deeper into crisis. Of decisive importance is the fact that this mass offensive is directed at the destruction of the apartheid state machinery, at making apartheid inoperative, at making our country ungovernable."

The questions of ANC policy towards "soft targets" and "taking the struggle to white areas" arose in the context of the massive increase in confrontation taking place within the country at the time.

In a press conference after the Kabwe conference, President Tambo dealt with the issue as follows:

"I will summarise the position taken by the Conference in these terms: that the struggle must be intensified at all costs. Over the past nine to ten months at least - at the very least - there have been many soft targets hit by the enemy. Nearly five hundred people have now died in that period. That works out to about fifty per month - massacred, shot down, killed secretly. All those were very, very soft targets. They belong to the sphere of the intensification of the struggle. What we have seen in places like the Eastern Cape is what escalation means for everybody. The distinction between "hard" and "soft" targets is going to disappear in an intensified confrontation, in an escalating conflict. (...)

"The question of soft targets was quite out of place during World War II, to mention a big war. Ours will be a small one, but we are fighting the same kind of system. It was Hitler who attacked, it is the apartheid system here which attacked, and we are fighting that system, our own version of Nazism. I think the distinction between hard and soft targets is being erased by the development of the conflict. I am not saying that our Conference used the word "soft targets". I am saying that Conference recognised that we are in it. It is happening every day. It happened two days before we started our Conference - a massacre in Gaberone. We did not complain that soft targets were being hit, because they have been hitting them, as I say, all the time. What we did was to re-commit ourselves to intensify the armed struggle until that kind of massacre, until the system which makes massacres and conflicts necessary, is abolished..."

The ANC's understanding of the need to carry the struggle out of black areas is succinctly expressed in an article which appeared in the November 1985 issue of the ANC mouthpiece Sechaba. Although a personal opinion, this extract captures the essence of the debate in ANC ranks:

"An outstanding lesson of this determined popular resistance is that revolutionary activity whose scope does not extend beyond the black township is a misdirected blow. It does not hit the established order at its soft spots. The townships are not the weak links, rather they are ramparts of the status quo, like the Bantustans. No strategic or significant government or economic installations are in the townships. There are only administrative boards, community councils, minor police stations and magistrates' courts. There are no businesses under ASSOCOM, FCI or AHI, the destruction of whose businesses can make political heads roll. Township upheavals reach the attention of white households through television screens, the radio and newspapers. This is the way whites come to know of Beirut car bombs or Israeli invasions of Lebanon and the carnage that accompany them. There is no sense of immediacy. Soweto, New Brighton, Alexandra township and so on are as far from PE or Johannesburg as Beirut is (...) To shake the regime, Soweto must come to Johannesburg, New Brighton to Port Elizabeth. (...)

"The present mass action has by far outpaced armed struggle and armed propaganda. Armed propaganda at a time when the masses are stoning Casspir armoured vehicles is an anachronism.

"We have witnessed for a whole year sustained mass onslaughts against the enemy, that have reached fever pitch with every cruel blow that the bloodstained apartheid regime has unleashed... A critically urgent demand of the present situation is for the unarmed mass battles that have raged without cessation in the last year to be synchronised with co-ordinated, stunning armed blows against the enemy's armed personnel and installations."

By the end of 1985 an official ANC pamphlet titled Take the Struggle to the White Areas! was distributed inside the country. Targets were identified as "the racist army, police, death squads, agents and stooges in our midst", and the call to "take the war to the white areas" is defined as follows:

Strengthening our workers' organisations and engaging in united action in the factories, mines, farms and suburbs.

Spreading the consumer boycott to all areas of the country.

Organised and well-planned demonstrations in the white suburbs and central business districts.

Forming underground units and combat groups in our places of work and taking such actions as sabotage in the factories, mines, farms and suburbs, and disrupting the enemy's oil, energy, transport, communications and other vital systems.

Systematic attack against the army and police and the so-called area defence units in the white areas.

Well-planned raids on the armouries and dumps of the army, police, farmers and so on to secure arms for our units.

There was reference to the "special role" of "all anti-apartheid whites".

"Let us all act in unity against a system that has brought so much suffering to so many, and that continues to drown thousands in blood."

The period between 1985 and 1988 witnessed unprecedented violence, overwhelmingly directed at black civilians. As the regime fought to regain the strategic initiative it had lost, it employed unbridled terrorist violence and a range of overt and covert measures which are dealt with more fully elsewhere in this document.

MK attacks mounted steadily with most operations concentrated on targets as set out in ANC policy; there was an all-round intensification of efforts to destroy all organs of the apartheid state, to encourage the emergence of People's War (summed up in the 1986 slogan "Every patriot a combatant, every combatant a patriot!") and to promote the establishment of organs of people's power. By the end of 1986, the regime had lost administrative control over large parts of the country.

It was during the mid-1980s that attacks on certain targets with no directly apparent connection to the apartheid state took place. In some cases these attacks resulted from the manner in which cadres interpreted the decision to sharply intensify the armed struggle, which would entail exercising less restraint, and the call to take the struggle to the white areas. Militant rhetoric in Sechaba articles reflected the mood of the times: "The attack on South African refugees in Botswana by the racist forces just before the conference emphasised the need for our movement to bleed the enemy."

Most of those cadres who carried out bona fide operations of this nature had reason to believe that they were operating in accordance with the political will of the leadership of the ANC. But the apartheid regime was very quick to exploit this tactical shift with regard to intensification of the struggle and shift in focus of armed operations, combined with the misinterpretation of these decisions by some cadres, and carried out a number of "false flag" attacks on civilian targets with the sole objective of destroying the ANC's claim to the moral high ground, considered strategically essential by the ANC leadership to the success of the national liberation struggle. The apartheid regime fought tooth and nail to destroy the ANC's image and damage the steady growth of international solidarity with the struggle for democracy, portraying the liberation movement as no more than a gang of bloodthirsty and cowardly terrorists with no popular support.

The ANC leadership took action to assert policy with regard to the avoidance of civilian targets, which had in some cases become confused with the need to intensify the struggle "at all costs."

The January 8th, 1987 statement called on ANC supporters to:

"ensure that we build up our combat forces into a true People's Army in its national and social composition, in its size, effectiveness and the nature of its operations.

"It must continue to distinguish itself from the apartheid death forces by the bravery of its combatants, its dedication to the cause of liberation and peace, and its refusal to act against civilians, both black and white. But the People's Army, Umkhonto we Sizwe, must in all its elements, act boldly against the apartheid enemy and create the conditions when our superior forces will finally overrun and overthrow the apartheid regime of terror."

This statement called on ANC cadres to mobilise the white population, which should fuse with and become part of the motive forces of the democratic revolution:

"Our white compatriots have to learn the truth that it is not democracy that threatens their future. Rather, it is racist tyranny which poses a dire peril to their very survival. (...) Black mothers have to live with the agony of burying their children every day. (...) Across the barricades, white mothers see their children transformed and perverted into mindless killers who will not stop at murdering the black unarmed (...) These black and white mothers must reach across the divide created by the common enemy of our people and form a human chain to stop the murderous rampage of the apartheid system."

When attacks which did not accord with ANC policy started to become a trend in late 1987, MK commanders were instructed by OR Tambo and the NEC to go to all forward areas and as far as possible also meet with units operating inside the country to reassert ANC policy with regard to the avoidance of purely civilian targets. Failure to comply with these orders would be considered as violations of policy and action would be taken against offenders.

In August 1988 the NEC issued a statement specifically on the conduct of armed struggle in the country:

"The NEC further re-affirmed the centrality of the armed struggle in the national democratic revolution and the need to further escalate armed actions and transform our offensive into a generalised people's war. (...,) However, the NEC also expressed concern at the recent spate of attacks on civilian targets. Some of these attacks have been carried out by cadres of the people's army, Umkhonto we Sizwe, inspired by anger at the regime's campaign of terror against the oppressed and democratic forces, both within and outside South Africa. In certain instances operational circumstances resulted in unintended casualties.

"Yet it has come to our notice that agents of the Pretoria regime have been detailed to carry out a number of bomb attacks deliberately to sow confusion among the people of South Africa and the international community, and to discredit the African National Congress.

"The ANC hereby underscores that it is contrary to our policy to select targets whose sole objective is to strike at civilians. Our morality as revolutionaries dictates that we respect the values underpinning the humane conduct of war. Any other course of action would also play into the hands of the enemy."

As we have indicated earlier the ANC's approach to armed struggle was underpinned by the fact that this form of struggle was part of, and not parallel to, the other "pillars of struggle": underground organisation, mass mobilisation and international solidarity. In addition, as the struggle intensified, it became clear that greater insecurity was starting to set in within the white community. Many individuals began to appreciate the inhumane and immoral nature of the apartheid system, and began to actively support the anti-apartheid cause. Resistance to forced conscription grew dramatically. Developments of this nature reinforced what had always been ANC policy: to mobilise as many South Africans as possible, from all backgrounds, against the system of apartheid.

The mass revolt and intensification of the armed struggle enhanced the ANC's efforts to mobilise international support against apartheid; the Western powers which had viewed our struggle through the narrow and distorted lenses of East-West conflict, began to acknowledge the justness of our cause and the legitimacy of the ANC. The organisation itself had intensified its attempts to make contact with these governments, and these initiatives were begining to bear fruit. At last, what had long been acknowledged by Africa and other developing countries, by the governments of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and a few developed countries within the Commonwealth, was starting to take root within the governments of the major Western powers.

This range of developments, coupled with the ANC's own firm policies, vindicated and reinforced the approach that the ANC had consistently maintained regarding conduct of struggle in general and armed struggle in particular.

The ANC is immensely proud of the bravery, discipline and selfless sacrifices of its MK combatants, many of whom laid down their lives in pursuit of freedom for all in South Africa. They worked in one of the most dangerous and difficult arenas of struggle for a non-racial and democratic South Africa. They were prepared to work under conditions in which, if captured or abducted, they faced the possibility of summary execution whether they surrendered or not. They faced being tortured to death, or coming under intense pressure to choose between death and collaboration. If brought to trial, they faced the death penalty or extremely lengthy prison sentences

At times, particularly during the mid-1980s, our cadres worked under conditions of blanket state terrorism against a largely unarmed and defenceless civilian population, and indiscriminate, merciless attacks on any available ANC target abroad. Given these conditions, and also taking into account that a general state of people's war against apartheid was developing, it is remarkable that very few attacks by MK cadres violated ANC policy with regard to civilian targets.

Yet we do acknowledge that some incidents not entirely consistent with ANC policy did take place.

The ANC and internal mass revolt: The role of the Mass Democratic Movement in the 1980s

While the ANC pursued its concerted campaign against apartheid from exile and the underground, there were new internal political developments from the late 1970s onwards which reinforced the effectiveness of the organisation and slowly but surely helped shift the balance of power in favour of the disenfranchised majority in South Africa. The struggle became increasingly organised on three main fronts: the armed and underground struggle of the banned ANC, the rapidly expanding black trade union movement (membership jumped from 40,000 in 1975 to 247,000 in 1981 and to 1.5 million in 1985), and re-emerging legal, mass-based community and political movements.

These strands of resistance on various fronts became increasingly interlinked in the 1980s, in the process enhancing the position of the ANC as the vanguard movement in the struggle for democracy in South Africa.

The formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) as a broad internal anti-apartheid umbrella body transformed the South African political landscape. Not only did it bring with it an unprecedented level of popular mobilisation, but it also marked a maturing of ideological orientation away from the Black Consciousness movement of the 1970s towards the more broadly-based non-racial struggle propounded by the ANC.

Most UDF supporters backed the Freedom Charter, the guiding document of the ANC adopted in 1955, and while the UDF emphasised its autonomy for legal and tactical reasons it became recognised by friend and foe alike as part of the ANC "congress tradition". Although it was illegal to identify openly with the ANC or express support for the armed struggle, the UDF stressed that it shared the broad aims espoused by the ANC. It opened a new front in the struggle for democracy that would complement and not, it emphasised, attempt to supersede the struggle of the respected exile movement. Imprisoned ANC leaders were made patrons of the UDF, and some joined the UDF in leadership positions on their release from prison. The UDF also appropriated many of the songs, slogans and symbols of the ANC.

Despite the identification of the UDF (and later, the Mass Democratic Movement) with the ANC, they were essentially separate bodies, not direct extensions of the ANC. While broad policy was often in line with ANC positions in exile and the underground, day-to-day activities and campaigns were based on local initiatives and conditions. The strength of the UDF was that it linked diverse organisations among youth, students, workers, township and village residents, took up bread-and-butter issues directly affecting the daily lives and living conditions of the people in the various sectors, and was able to organise successful non-violent mass campaigns around these concerns and grievances.

The mass struggles of the 1980s went through two main phases. The first was the legal, mass mobilisation on an ideological and organisational level to promote a non-racial alternative to apartheid and to discredit manoeuvres by the apartheid state to sell its sham tricameral "reform" programme, geared towards entrenching racial separation and privilege. The cross-section of groups which coalesced into the UDF succeeded spectacularly in their aim of creating an anti-apartheid platform for the democratic-minded majority, despite continual harassment and the closing of already limited legal avenues of expression by the state.

Then, on September 3, 1984, the day on which the racist tricameral system and the new executive state president of South Africa were inaugurated, the so-called Vaal uprisings broke out, ushering in a new phase of militancy and resistance in South Africa. Over the next few months urban revolt became endemic, spreading from the Witwatersrand to many other parts of the country.

Spontaneous street clashes between township residents and the apartheid security forces superseded the organisational forms of response established by the recently-formed UDF.

Soon state authority collapsed completely in certain areas as angry crowds responded through direct action to economic hardships and the imposition of illegitimate black local councils as part of the new tricameral system. By mid-1985, in line with ANC strategy, which both influenced and was inspired by the popular revolt against apartheid, a situation of "ungovernability" existed in many areas. The distinction between legal forms of political activity and the underground struggle of the ANC was becoming blurred. Enthusiastic support for the ANC was expressed daily despite strict deterrent laws. The organisation could claim without contradiction at that stage that "the people are engaged in active struggle as a conscious revolutionary force, and accept the ANC as their vanguard movement". By the end of the 1980s the ANC had effectively been unbanned by the people despite all the efforts to demonise and crush it.

Recognising that it was in danger of losing control, the apartheid government decided in July 1985 to proclaim a State of Emergency in 36 districts throughout the country. Virtual martial law descended over these areas. The apartheid rulers were acknowledging the collapse of apartheid reform, and their ever-increasing reliance on violence to maintain control.

The country was plunged into the dark abyss of hit squads and extra legal state terror, bannings, army occupations and further states of emergency - a history which we trust the TRC will piece together bit by bloody bit, so that the jigsaw puzzle of what happened can finally be completed.

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.