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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Armed Struggle and Umkhonto - Forward into the 1970s and '80s

Source: 75 Years of Struggle, ANC, London 1987. The original title of this item was 'Armed Struggle and Morogoro'.

In 1960, under conditions of a state of emergency and a harsh crackdown on the ANC, a number of our leaders were sent abroad to establish an external mission under the then Deputy President-General of the ANC, Oliver Tambo. Faced with the regime's reign of terror and the closing of all avenues of legal protest and organisation, the ANC decided to form an army of liberation. In 1961 the ANC, together with the South African Communist Party, formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), a people's army, with Nelson Mandela as the first Commander-in-Chief. Large numbers of cadres left the country for military training.

On December 16th, 1961 organised acts of sabotage took place throughout the country. marking the emergence of MK - the Spear of the Nation, the armed wing of the ANC. A leaflet issued by the High Command of Umkhonto stated in part that: 'Umkhonto we Sizwe will be at the front line of the people's defence. it will be the fighting arm of the people against the government and its policies of race oppression. It will be the striking force of the people for liberty, for rights and for their final liberation . . . In these actions, we are working in the best interests of all the people of this country - black, brown and white - whose future happiness and well-being cannot be attained without the overthrow of the Nationalist Government, the abolition of white supremacy and the winning of liberty, democracy and full national rights and equality for all the people of this country'.

The violence of the regime was now to be met by the revolutionary violence of the people . To prepare effectively for this new stage of our struggle, Nelson Mandela illegally left the country and travelled extensively in Africa and Europe. He returned to South Africa in July 1962, and worked underground until his arrest in August of the same year. He was sentenced, at that time, to five years' imprisonment.

The early actions of MK were based-mainly on sabotage attacks against state installations, and were initially very successful. However, on 11 July 1963, our underground movement suffered a serious setback with the capture of some of our leaders at Rivonia. The Rivonia trialists - Mandela, Mbeki, Sisulu, Goldberg, Kathrada, Mhlaba, Mlangeni and Motsoaledi - were sentenced to life imprisonment. The state had demanded the death penalty, and it was only the massive international campaign on their behalf, inspired by their courageous and uncompromising stand, which saved their lives.

Despite such setbacks, the struggle continued. 1967 saw the Lutuli Combat Detachment comprising ZAPU and ANC guerrillas cross the Zambezi into Rhodesia at the start of the Wankie and Sipolilo battles, which lasted until late 1968.

In May 1969 a seven-day ANC Consultative Conference took place in Morogoro, Tanzania. The main aim was to bring about a qualitative change in the organisational content of our movement in keeping with the new situation - namely a Revolutionary People's War. The pace for the 1970s was set by the historic Morogoro Conference, where the strategy and tactics that would guide our movement in the pursuit of our cherished goal - total liberation - were adopted. Thus by the early 1970s the strength of the people was manifested in the extensive strike waves, the militancy of the youth and students and the oppressed people's clear identification with the armed struggle being waged-and won - in neighbouring Angola and Mozambique. The whole world reverberated with the barbarity of racist aggression in the 1976 nationwide uprisings which left more than a thousand of our youth dead, but marked a new stage in our struggle, raising mass resistance on all fronts to unprecedented heights.

The 'seventies also saw the situation in the whole of Southern Africa change dramatically. The political and military defeat of Portuguese colonialism in Africa significantly altered the balance of power in favour of the revolutionary forces. There emerged people's power in Mozambique, and Angola. These countries evolved new kinds of state power, new types of social and property relations, and therefore sharpened the confrontation between the forces of progress and those of colonial and racist reaction in Southern Africa. Similarly. the liberation of Zimbabwe was to be of great significance to our struggle.

Of crucial importance, too, will be the victory of the people of Namibia under the leadership of SWAPO.

South Africa remains the last bastion of colonialism and racism on the African continent. The apartheid regime now faces an all-round offensive in the spirit of the ANC's rallying call for united action.

Armed Struggle Complements People's Struggle

The struggle of the people of South Africa consists of four inter-linked elements - the vanguard role of the underground structures of the ANC; the united mass political action of the people; the international campaign to isolate the Pretoria regime, and the armed struggle, spearheaded by our people's army, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

Our struggle embraces a variety of methods and tactics, the different forms of struggle complementing and strengthening each other. We are freedom fighters set out on the road to build a new society. We are waging a political struggle with arms in hand. We have always defined the enemy in terms of a system of domination, and not as a people or race. Our war efforts are directed at the state machinery, not at civilian targets.

The liberation war we are engaged in is often referred to as people's war, a war which actively involves all the people of South Africa, a war where all the oppressed people are involved in battle against the oppressor, a war in which men and women, young and old, are active fighters.

We hold the firm view that there can be no separation between the military and political leaderships. The army is. and must remain, the instrument of the political movement. Revolutionary armed struggle is political struggle by means which include the use of military force, and the victory we strive for has as its aim the seizure of power by the people led by their political vanguard, the ANC.

MK has to fulfil two main elements in our strategy. It must raise the level of mass action inside the country. This means that the army should reinforce the people's struggles. Such struggles are taking place along a very wide front. Our army has to step up its operations in order to imbue the masses with confidence in their ability to fight back. Building a people's army to fight a people's war means that our movement and our army must create and consolidate the conditions for the existence, survival, growth and expansion of our army among the people. These condition should be so created that no matter how hard the enemy tries to uproot us. our existence and our capacity to attack over a large area increases.

Today, the people of South Africa are on the march. Our demand is for people's power. Apartheid cannot be reformed. It must be destroyed, root and branch. In his January 8th, 1985 address to the nation, President Tambo said: 'Through struggle and sacrifice we have planted the seeds of people's war in our country, that is, a war waged by the people against the white minority regime. One of our central tasks in the coming period is to transform the potential we have created into the reality of people's war. Guided by that perspective, we must build up the mass combat forces that are training themselves in mass political action for sharper battles and for the forcible overthrow of the racist regime. The mass combat forces that are and have been engaged in the popular offensive, these death-defying patriots, must now become part of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the vital cutting edge of our onslaught. It is in this way that we will ensure that the people's army deepens its roots and grows inextricably among the popular masses. It is in this way that we will ensure that it grows in size, in the spread and quality of its operations and in the weight of every blow it delivers'.

Pretoria's response to the mass upsurge of our people has been to impose martial law, blanket press and media censorship, and the granting of unlimited licence to kill to the racist soldiers, police and death squads. Thousands of our people are paying the supreme sacrifice for liberty - laying down their lives in the bitter war that is raging. Pretoria is able to arm, deploy and finance its massive military machine because of the economic, political and diplomatic support granted by Western governments, in particular the United Kingdom and the USA.

Forward to People's Power!

In the decade of the 'eighties what does an all-round offensive within South Africa mean? The ANC has decided to engage the enemy on all fronts - political struggle, trade union activity, mass women's campaigns, school boycotts, struggle on the religious front, peasant revolts, and military actions. Umkhonto we Sizwe always attempts to apply military theory to our concrete conditions.

We are aware that there is no victory possible without mass participation, that is to say active and conscious involvement of the oppressed black masses. No group of revolutionaries, acting on their own, however gallant, disciplined and self-sacrificing they may be, can succeed in overthrowing the fascist regime.

The main content of the present stage of the South African revolution is the national liberation of the largest and most oppressed group - the African people. This strategic aim must govern every aspect of the conduct of our struggle, whether it be the formulation of policy or the creation of structures. Among other things, it demands in the first place the maximum mobilisation of the African people as a dispossessed and racially oppressed national majority. This is the mainspring and it must not be weakened. There can be no ambiguity on the question of the primary role of the most oppressed African masses. But the African, although subject to the most intense social oppression and exploitation, is not the only oppressed national group in South Africa.

The Coloured and Indian communities suffer from varying forms of humiliation, discrimination and oppression. They are part of the oppressed black base upon which is built white privilege, constituting an integral part of the forces ranged against white supremacy .

The ANC fights not only against the oppression of the black people by the white, but also for the establishment of a united South African nation, not based on race, tribe or creed. The struggle of the ANC for one nation embodies the aspirations of those democratic and peace-seeking white people who are prepared to throw their lives into the struggle with the oppressed majority in the cause of a non-racial, national identity.

Unity in action among all the oppressed groups is fundamental to the advance of our liberation struggle. Historically, all these communities have played a most important part in the intensification of our struggle for freedom. The jails in South Africa are witness to the large-scale participation by Indian, Coloured and White comrades at every level of our revolutionary struggle.

The Second National Consultative Conference, June 1985

The ANC held its Second National Consultative Conference in Lusaka, Zambia on June 16 to 23, 1985. It was a representative Conference of 250 democratically elected delegates representing all sections of our movement: the workers, the women, youth, media workers, soldiers - everybody.

For seven days our people discussed issues connected with our struggle, our strategy and tactics, our strengths and weaknesses. The mood and spirit of Conference was that of comradeship and frankness. This Conference, which took place on the Ninth Anniversary of the Commemoration of the Soweto Uprising, also endorsed the principles enshrined in the Freedom Charter, whose 30th anniversary we commemorated on June 26, 1985. It reaffirmed the decisions of the 1969 Morogoro Conference and re-endorsed the anti-imperialist positions of the ANC.

Indeed, this Conference has been described as a Council of War precisely because it charted the way forward to the intensification of the armed struggle. It decided that the distinction between 'hard' and 'soft' targets should disappear. This was not a new idea. It had been discussed (like all other issues) in the numerous, continual regional pre-Conference discussions which involved everybody, including all those who were not elected as delegates to the Conference.

The question of intensifying armed struggle poses new challenges for, and responsibilities on, the ANC and on the international community which - by the look of things and the nature of the violence of the enemy - is going to be more involved in that struggle for liberation.

One of these questions is the question of sanctions, comprehensive sanctions. In 1977 the UN called for sanctions. We are far from suggesting that sanctions will bring apartheid to its knees. All we are saying is that sanctions will weaken apartheid and that will enable us to fight against a weakened enemy. This will minimise the loss of lives, shorten the duration of our struggle and lessen bloodshed. This will be a contribution to our struggle and an act of solidarity with our people.

Another important decision, taken at the Conference, was the question of opening ranks at all levels inside and outside the country, to all South Africans who have come to join the ANC. Conference felt that the ANC composition at all levels should reflect the South African society - people who are sacrificing and fighting for the national liberation of the blacks. especially the Africans, and social emancipation of both the blacks and whites.

Conference also adopted a new Constitution and a Code of Conduct. A new National Executive Committee was elected, and it was charged with the task of implementing Conference resolutions and leading the ANC in the coming battles.

As the ANC observes the 75th anniversary of its formation, it is conscious of the bitter struggle that lies ahead for our people. But it is also conscious of the ever-growing solidarity, support and strength of the international democratic community, which has set itself against colonialism, apartheid, racism and fascism. The ANC has, for these 75 years, remained faithful to the cause of freedom. It leads the struggle for the emancipation of all oppressed and exploited black people. It stands for a new order in South Africa where racism shall be a thing of the past and human dignity and equality shall prevail in the life of the country. But before that new order is born many lives will be lost. We are prepared to meet the challenge.

Advance to People's Power!

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.