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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The Sabotage Campaign

"It was just the beginning"

By Joe Slovo

The sabotage campaign began when we launched Umkhonto, and continued until 1963. This period from 1961 to 1963, was a particular phase in the life of Umkhonto. This was because it was the first time that the liberation movement began to use violent methods. It is also a particular phase because after this, Umkhonto changed its approach to the armed struggle.

Pylons and pass offices

We attacked things that represented the economy like pylons and things that represented oppression like pass offices. We made sure that it was all done at night so that nobody would be injured. At the same time as the first bombs went off, we issued an appeal to the authorities which said to them:

We are demonstrating what we can do and this will grow. This is just the beginning. A mild beginning. It is not yet too late to change course and there may yet be still time for reason to break through.

We never thought that we could actually overthrow the regime or bring revolution by overturning a few pylons and putting some rather weak explosives at night in targets like pass offices. But we had good reasons for choosing these targets and avoiding taking lives.

No lives must be taken

We wanted to show people that a new phase in the resistance against apartheid had begun. We had to do this because non-violence had been the main policy of our movement. This had not been officially changed in the Congress movement. Some organisations like the Indian Congress still believed very strongly that non-violence was the only way we could struggle against the regime.

For the same reason when Umkhonto we Size was formed, it was not said to be the armed wing of the liberation movement. When MK was formed it was decided to say that it was an independent military body that supported the liberation movement.

During this period of the sabotage campaign, the leaders of MK had two major tasks. The first was to set up MK structures. The second was to send comrades out of the country for military training and to bring them back.

To set up the High Command of MK the ANC appointed Mandela and the SACP appointed me. We set up regional commands in all the main cities: Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London.

The High Command

At first the Command consisted of Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Mlangeni and Mhlaba. Joe Modise was put onto it later, before he left the country. Kathrada, Goldreich and Goldberg were also involved and were part of the Johannesburg Command to gather with Hodgson and Motsoaledi.

The High Command sent many hundreds of activists out of the country to be trained in guerrilla warfare and military struggle.

The High Command wrote a document called 'Operation Mayibuye'. This document was a plan of what Umkhonto would do during this period. We planned ways of bringing trained cadres back into the country.

To do this we planned to set up MK structures throughout the country. We were going to employ political organisers in each region immediately to prepare these structures. We also planned a political campaign to begin at the same time as trained cadres returned to the country.

Unrealistic plans

But our plans for bringing trained cadres back into the country were not realistic. We thought the African states could do much more for us than they could really do. We even thought they could provide aeroplanes to drop our soldiers.

To prepare for Operation Mayibuye, we also had a plan to make weapons inside the country. Denis Goldberg was in charge of this. We planned to make 50,000 hand grenades. We had a way of doing it using materials we could get in South Africa.

A meeting of both the ANC and the Party, decided that it was urgent that this plan of Operation Mayibuye be taken to those leaders who had already left the country. Myself and JB Marks were sent to do this.

Meeting with Tambo

We met Tambo and the whole leadership of the ANC outside the country and discussed Operation Mayibuye. We immediately sent people to Algeria and other places to find out what other governments could do for us.

But six weeks later, while I was still out of the country the leadership of the ANC and Umkhonto were captured at a farm in Rivonia. This farm had been our headquarters.

They were put on trial and were given life sentences. Because of the destruction of our structures inside the country we could not even try to carry on with Operation Mayibuye.

Looking back on it, it was not surprising that Rivonia was discovered and destroyed. We had not been careful enough.

Government got harsher

Once we began the armed struggle, the government also changed their methods. They became much harsher. They sent out policemen for special training in Algeria and the United States. They came back and completely changed the government's security structures and methods to deal with the new situation. They also began to make new laws that were much harsher.

We were not ready for this. In the years immediately after the Rivonia trial, all our attempts to rebuild underground structures failed. The structures of the ANC inside South Africa had been destroyed.

Yet the ANC never gave up on rebuilding these structures and in time these were revived.

© Liberation Archive 2003.

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.