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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Umkhonto weSizwe

Founded in December 1961 as a response to the government's intransigence in the face of peaceful anti-apartheid protests, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) was rarely an effective military force, much to the chagrin of the thousands of young men and women who spent significant portions of their lives in the difficult conditions of the training and transit camps. Taught to think and act like soldiers, they were often condemned to long periods of waiting for an opportunity to go into action against apartheid. For those chosen for infiltration back into the country the attrition rate was very high, the strategic effectiveness of their operations - with few exceptions, such as the 1980 rocket attack on Sasol - limited. The Sasol attack, which sent white South Africa into a state of deep shock, was part of a 1980s strategy of armed propaganda, designed to respond to the township militancy which had become apparent starting with the Soweto uprising in 1976. The idea was to raise morale and militancy among township youth fed-up with the political vacuum created by the banning of the ANC and other organisations in the early 1970s.

MK commander Joe Modise and chief of staff Siphiwe Nyanda nevertheless take one significant element into the new defence force: despite the torture and execution of cadres in Angola during the 1980s following mutinies, their army is South Africa's most democratic armed formation, its cadres drawn from all of the country's ethnic groups, its rationale the struggle against an unjust and undemocratic system.

Since its unbanning in 1990, and the return of many cadres from exile, MK has battled to keep its forces together and to avoid unrest. With little financial support from the ANC, and experiencing difficulties finding jobs, cadres have found the wait for slots in a new military very burdensome. Some have turned to crime, others have tied their colours to the masts of other political parties, even that of the erstwhile enemy, the National Party.

Whatever MK's shortcomings, both technical and political, its formal dissolution and integration into the South African Defence Force when the new National Defence Force is formed after the election is bound to contribute to a change of culture within the military. The challenge for MK's cadres will be to absorb the conventional training which will be the prerequisite of command within the integrated SADF.

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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.