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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Discussion Article - The Revolutionary Army

By Ronnie Kasrils

Ronnie Kasrils has been a member of Umkhonto We Sizwe since it was founded. He recently became a member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC.

Since Umkhonto We Sizwe was first formed, our positions on armed struggle have amounted to:

Ø     We are committed to a strategy of revolutionary armed struggle to achieve our goal - the seizure of political power and the creation of a liberated South Africa based on the Freedom Charter.

Ø     Umkhonto We Sizwe is the instrument of the ANC and of our liberation movement, and takes its leadership, direction and command from the ANC.

Ø     Political policy and strategy determines our military strategy; politics guides the gun.

Ø     Armed struggle must complement mass struggle, and we seek to combine all forms of struggle: violent and non-violent, legal and illegal.

Ø     The development of the armed struggle depends on its being rooted among the people - our Umkhonto combatants and organisers must therefore base themselves amongst the people in order to involve the masses in a people's war.

Numerous consequences and tasks flow from this. Our struggle is a most complex one. Problems have mounted, and have often been shelved owing to the exile years; there is the fact that we are based largely abroad, and lack an underground political base at home. How many of the consequences and tasks flowing from our positions on the armed struggle have not been addressed or tackled, or maybe not even perceived?

This is not simply a problem for the High Command of Umkhonto We Sizwe, but for our entire movement. Anything that relates to our fundamental strategy - seizure of power through force of arms - is a fundamental question for us all, and that includes the leadership and activists of our mass democratic movement at home as well as the various sectors of our movement abroad, whether military or political.

The fact that we proclaimed our armed struggle on December 16th 1961, and that it is still at an extremely low stage of development, must force us to examine the problem areas frankly and critically.

It is certainly true that the blows Umkhonto We Sizwe has delivered to the enemy and the heroic sacrifices of our combatants have played a vital role in inspiring our people and popularising the ANC. Yet, despite the tremendous upsurge of mass resistance over the past three years, we were not able to take full advantage of the favourable conditions that materialised. We were unable to deploy sufficient forces at home; our cadres still found big problems in basing themselves amongst our people; our underground failed to grow sufficiently, and our people were left to face the enemy and his vigilantes with sticks and stones. As a result, the incredible mass resistance and the strikes were not sufficiently reinforced by armed struggle.

Put Theory Into Practice

It is therefore clear that, though we have formulated theoretical positions such as "the armed struggle must complement the mass struggle" and "the guerrilla must be rooted among the people, " and so on, it is one thing to state the theory and quite another to put it into practice.

It is also clear that most people at home, including people within the mass democratic movement, still- regard Umkhonto We Sizwe as some kind of external force that must come and defend them from the vigilantes and destroy the enemy. They do not see themselves as being an integral part of the armed struggle.

Considering these defects, one asks: is it possible that we are incorrect in believing that armed struggle is the way forward? When Govan Mbeki was released from prison, Die Beeld gloated that he had had 23 years to ponder on the "incorrectness Of of his belief that armed revolution was possible.

The Subjective Factor

This period of township uprisings, which also spilled over into some rural areas and bantustans, has revealed strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand,' it has shown the existence of certain objective elements of a revolutionary situation in our country - the ruling class unable to rule in the old way; the oppressed masses not prepared to live under the old conditions; the heightened mass struggle and general crisis in the country. On the other hand, the situation has revealed our organisational weaknesses, both inside and outside the country - what is referred to as subjective conditions.

History has shown that a revolutionary situation will persist for as long as a ruling class is unable to resolve its contradictions. But a successful revolution is dependent on subjective factors - the mood of the masses, their confidence in the revolutionary movement, and its organisational ability to lead them out of the current impasse to the seizure of power.

When we speak of subjective conditions, we are referring to the presence of revolutionary organisations and their ability to organise and lead the masses in all forms of struggle - armed struggle included. The subjective factor is organisation. It is the existence of a revolutionary party or movement which is capable of providing the correct strategic and tactical guidance, having created the forces and means to carry out the tasks of the struggle. This includes also the political and military readiness of the advanced masses, who become part of the revolutionary army. When the masses fight with stones, it shows the absence of revolutionary organs.

The past three years have shown us how relatively underdeveloped the subjective factor is. To overcome this weakness is the key task of our movement. We have had endless discussions and meetings about how it should be done. We have experimented with different structural forms. Differences of approach exist between military and political organs of the movement. We appear to agree in meetings but differ in practice. Confusion exists among rank-and-file cadres going home as to what structures to create, and between externally trained cadres and those activists who have never left home.

The Seizure of Power: Policy Positions?

In fact, there are extremely few policy positions on how power is to be seized. And this is central to the problem. For, unless we have a clear vision on how power is to be seized, we cannot effectively address the question of what type of organs are required for such a task. We cannot effectively address the subjective tasks.

What is demanded is a vision of how power is to be seized and a plan for the building of the forces and means to do it. This vision and this plan must be clearly understood by all activists, at home and abroad, within the terms of their tasks and responsibilities, so that all have a clear and common understanding of their own role within the machinery of struggle.

Central to the creation of the subjective factor is Umkhonto We Sizwe. For to achieve our goal - the seizure of political power through our strategy of revolutionary armed struggle - it is necessary to create a revolutionary army.

The main obstacles on the way to power are the South African Defence Force and the South African Police. These obstacles can be removed only through the means of a revolutionary army. At present, Umkhonto We Sizwe is only the nucleus of such an army. It has to be extended and developed to embrace all potential revolutionary forces.

A revolutionary army must be composed and structured in such a way that it can be situated among the masses. The problem facing us is that the bulk of our army is recruited and trained outside the country, and remains there. We face considerable problems in the infiltration and rooting of our combatants inside the country. The enemy understands this, and his security forces work overtime to prevent it occurring. For once we succeed in basing our forces within the country, the armed struggle will merge with the mass struggle, and this will really spell the end of White supremacy.

An ex-Rhodesian farmer who has settled in the northern Transvaal border area said that our land mines, while creating a nuisance, would not really change the situation because we simply run in and out of the country. What caused the problem in Zimbabwe was that the 'terrorists' were living among the people. And one might add that, until Zimbabwean guerrillas learn-ed how to live among the people, their struggle remained in the doldrums as they engaged in hit-and-run raids in and out of the country.

My contention is that a clear conception of what the revolutionary army could and should be will help solve this problem.

Three Components

Clearly, the revolutionary army is the armed force of the revolution. But we should not see it as a single uniform organ. It could consist of three component parts, each representing different levels of political and combat readiness and different forms of organisational work. It is essential to identify each of these components and have an organisational plan as to how to recruit them, prepare and train them, and bring them into the revolutionary army.

The organised advanced detachment is the nucleus of the revolutionary army. The trained, full-time combatants of Umkhonto We Sizwe are central to it; but they must themselves have different specialisations, be grouped into combat units of various types:

Ø     Guerrilla units of the countryside, whose size and mode of operation will depend on the terrain. They aim to link up with villagers and farm labourers.

Ø     Underground urban combat groups based in factories and other work places, and residential areas. They may be combat groups, sabotage units, elimination squads; they may be part-time combatants who work by day and operate by night.

Ø     Self-defence units, which have already begun to emerge out of necessity as the popular democratic organisations have been forced to defend themselves, their leaders, their homes, offices and meetings from the enemy. Self-defence units can be organised by legal or underground organisations, and can form the basis of a people's self-defence militia. Trained cadres of Umkhonto We Sizwe must merge into these people's self-defence units and lead them.

Creating the advanced detachments is the first necessary step to building the revolutionary army. For over 25 years we have concentrated on building one element of this core - Umkhonto We Sizwe. This has been done under extremely difficult and problematic conditions, and has been a tremendous achievement, which should not be belittled. Conditions have now developed which give us the possibilities of enlarging Umkhonto. The emergence of self-defence units illustrates this point.

By creating underground combat groups in the urban areas and especially the factories, by developing the self-defence units in towns and villages, by basing small units among the rural people, we will begin to recruit combatants inside the country, among the workers, the women, the rural people and the youth, and overcome the most problematic consequences of having been based externally for so many years. We will no longer be dependent for recruits on those who are prepared to leave the country for training. If we are locally based, the enemy's chances of infiltrating our ranks will be restricted.

Revolutionary Armed People

The development of the organised advanced detachments, from their Umkhonto base, will enable us to root the armed struggle amongst our people within our country. This will enable us to arm our people and realistically prepare and plan for the armed seizure of power.

The revolutionary armed people consist of the most conscious, active elements from amongst the masses, who have shown their readiness to confront the enemy with whatever means are at hand, from stones to petrol bombs and knives, to the building of barricades. These are the street fighters who, in their tens of thousands, have already engaged the enemy in numerous pitched battles. They are not only willing to take up arms; they have been calling for them.

They must be drawn into the revolutionary army. It is the task of the nucleus the full-time combatants and guerrillas to recruit, prepare and train them. They must be given military skills and weapons, and be organised into disciplined fighting units under the organised command and leadership of the advanced detachments, to take part in the armed struggle for political power.

As the armed struggle develops, so more and more activists from among the mass political struggle will be reached and drawn into the ranks of the revolutionary army. In this way, the nucleus - or the vanguard - bridges the gap between itself and the masses, finds ways of arming the people and creating the revolutionary army.

There are also units of the enemy armed forces, elements from within the enemy army and police, who are won over at decisive moments to side with the revolution. It is a vital task to work within the enemy forces, to agitate and politicise soldiers, police, vigilantes and other auxiliary forces of the enemy, in order to show them who the true enemy is, and thus render them ineffective for the purposes of the state. Some sections will be neutralised, while others will be won over. Those who are won over to the side of the revolution bring their arms with them and become part of the revolutionary army.

Discontent Among The Enemy Forces

Recent developments at home show the potential for such work, particularly among Black soldiers, officers and police. Some examples are the Transkei coup; the abortive coup in Bophuthatswana; mutinies among municipal police in Sebokeng and Lekoa; mutinies among Namibian troops on the Angolan border. Clearly there is considerable scope to win over these elements, making the enemy pay the price for utilising Black troops as cannon fodder.

The fact that many White conscripts in the SADF are disaffected creates possibilities of at least neutralising significant sections of the White soldiers and possibly winning some elements over to our side, at the decisive moment. Given the enemy's acute White manpower shortage, the mere neutralisation, at a decisive moment, of even - let us say - one-tenth of the White conscript army could make all the difference to the balance of forces.

We have to move away from simply encouraging Whites to refuse to serve in the SADF, to getting them actively involved in the SADF for purposes of clandestinely organising and agitating from within, no matter how difficult such a task may appear to be. In a lecture on the 1905 Revolution, Lenin remarked that, "it is foolish peacefully to refuse to perform military service." It is necessary to struggle to win over the enemy forces or neutralise them, for revolutionary movements seldom achieve their objectives unless they can convert or weaken the spirit of the soldiers whose duty it is to uphold the existing regime.

Before the Rivonia setback, when we had a strong underground at home, the idea was that the trained cadres of Umkhonto We Sizwe, returning to the country, would be received by the underground network, and fall under it. The logical development would have been a revolutionary army based on that underground.

The Underground and the Army

The underground would have carried out the all-essential political tasks of organising the masses, developing illegal means of propaganda, engaging in all-round vanguard activity. The underground would have been the backbone of our revolutionary forces and army, would have recruited for it and given it leadership. Such an underground would have been clear about the use of revolutionary violence, in which Umkhonto We Sizwe is the main striking force. After all, it was the underground that created Umkhonto We Sizwe in the first place!

The intervening years have seen many problems building up. The lack of such an underground at home, and the presence of a large guerrilla force outside the country, waiting to come to the defence of the people and punish the enemy, has, I feel, clouded our vision. In the most pragmatic sense, the need to deploy cadres of Umkhonto at home for combat work could not wait on the reconstruction of our internal underground. In the process, this has helped to create a serious imbalance between our political and military structures.

It has not been possible to suspend combat actions and concentrate on the building of the underground network, although it could be argued that greater talent, energy and resources should have been put into redressing the imbalance. For it is incontrovertible that a strong underground presence at home would help solve all the problems we face. We are talking about an underground that can bring the masses into action, that can work for a nation-wide general strike, that can help build and lead the revolutionary armed forces.

Internal Structures

Where an underground structure does not exist, or only partly exists, we must build both the underground structures and the revolutionary army. Such a structure must be capable of organising our people for political work and combat work. For this purpose we must use the best MK cadres as organisers. There is no need to have an artificial division between political work and combat work, as long as we follow the principle that the ANC gives leadership to Umkhonto We Sizwe, and that the structures of the political movement control the revolutionary army.

The political underground and combat forces will grow side by side with the combat forces, falling, of course, under the leadership of the local politico-military committee. Attention will be paid to all forms of struggle, with the activists and combatants ready to show the masses how to raise the struggle to the higher forms of armed struggle. The politico-military committees must guard against both 'leftist' and 'opportunist' tendencies, that is, against employing purely military or purely peaceful and legal forms of struggle.

During the process of developing the revolutionary army, we build our combat units, mercilessly attack the enemy forces, concentrate on eliminating his personnel which he cannot replenish and which is his Achilles heel, demoralise his forces, and all the time gather our own strength. We develop from a nucleus to a fully-fledged people's army, waging a people's war.

As to which of the components of the revolutionary army will give us the best results, the likely force, given South Africa's industrial base, will in all probability be the underground combat units based in the factories and townships - the very forces that have reminded us these past years of our people's industrial and urban insurrectionary strength.

Though the fierce repression unleashed by the enemy appears at the moment to have turned the tide of resistance of the past few years, we must bear in mind that mass resistance comes in waves. The struggle ebbs and flows. The people have learned a great deal about their potential strength in this period. We must prepare our forces and means so that, when the next waves of mass struggle rise again to batter the system of apartheid, we are able to ensure that the armed struggle coincides with, and reinforces, the high tide of resistance. The nature of the revolutionary situation that still persists in our country is such that the next waves of struggle will surely reach higher than ever witnessed hitherto.

Building the revolutionary army is the key to creating the subjective conditions of a revolutionary situation. As the forces and means of our revolution become more powerful, so the possibilities of seizing power will materialise.

Developed Strategy

How will power be seized? We cannot say exactly, but we must have a developed strategy. Yet in our policy documents and official statements, surprisingly little guidance is given. One is left with the impression that a combination of mass struggle, strikes and armed blows will somehow create so much pressure on the regime that it will collapse, and our movement will take power. The impression is also created that such a situation might come about through some form of negotiation.

There have been some lively debates, and some lively articles written, about the role of insurrection. Sometimes it is counterpoised to protracted guerrilla struggle, sometimes seen as its culmination. No firm conclusions, however, have yet been drawn in our strategy documents.

I stated at the outset that we need a clear vision of how power may be seized if we are to sort out our organisational problems and structures, as well as motivate our cadres, because structures must be geared to the strategy of seizing power, and that means not only leadership organs but structures at the grassroots.

Armed uprising or insurrection has always been considered by revolutionaries as the main way to seize power. The onset of guerrilla struggles in colonially dominated countries, from the 1950s on, usually resulting in negotiation and national independence, has perhaps created the impression that insurrection is nowadays something far removed from the realm of possibility. Tom Lodge, assessing the military potential of the ANC in Work in Progress 50/51, wrote that the importance of guerrilla insurgency "will remain chiefly psychological," and that "the probabilities are against a military-based seizure of power." He is wrong, of course, but can be excused because we have given him no cause to assume otherwise.

Of course, we do not dogmatically claim that the seizure of power by one group from another must entail violence. History shows that a peaceful way is possible. But what is necessary to both - whether violent or peaceful - is the presence of the revolutionary army. The ruling class or group will never give up power voluntarily. If the ruling power in South Africa ever reaches a stage where it is hopelessly divided and is forced to negotiate, it win only be in the circumstances of a major crisis from which there is no other escape, and because of the presence of a revolutionary army.

Powerful Armed Force

On the other hand, the possibility of a national armed uprising of all our people can be open to us only-if we have the necessary forces and means to carry out the insurrection. Every revolution that has to depend on popular support for its ultimate success demands an active revolutionary situation before insurrection can be safely launched. It also needs a movement which has the forces and means powerful enough to overthrow the existing order.

Insurrection is an open armed action taken by certain classes or social forces against the existing political power. It is the highest stage in the revolutionary process - the culmination of the objective and subjective factors at a decisive moment which, if the revolutionary forces are properly guided, leads to the seizure of power.

A successful insurrection requires planning and preparation. Among these preparations are:

Ø     the presence of a political underground;

Ø     the presence of the revolutionary army;

Ø     work within the enemy forces to weaken their effective capacity.

The events of the last three years in our country - more particularly the fighting mood and spirit of our people, the strength of the working class and the urban masses, the rising spirit in the countryside - have reminded us of the insurrectionary energy of the South African people. The gathering of our forces, so that the subjective elements of our revolution are strengthened, may be protracted, or they may be more rapid than we imagine. If we take advantage of the favourable conditions, and are clear as to what organs we need to create, then it may take a much shorter time than we imagine. Building the revolutionary army, and with it the underground, with the insurrectionary seizure of power in mind, is an objective that can be achieved by planned, purposeful organisational work in a relatively short period of time (such as five years) where the conditions are favourable, and where the revolutionary army is waging the war.

One final point. The revolutionary army is not only the organ for building up the revolutionary forces and for seizing power; it also becomes the organ for defending and guaranteeing the revolution. If power came prematurely, through some negotiated formula imposed by circumstances beyond our control, and we had no revolutionary army at our disposal, we would find our people cheated of real power. So whatever way we look at it, the creation of a revolutionary army is our most crucial task.

Source: Sechaba, September 1988

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.