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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

6. The Path to Power in the National Democratic Revolution

The path to power lies with our masses. In recent years they have shown their immense resilience and strength. Nothing which the enemy has unleashed against the oppressed or their organisations has broken their morale or dampened their combative spirit. The harnessing of this mass political energy and the realisation of its enormous potential continues to be the dominant task of the liberation vanguard. It is a task which requires the firm rooting of the underground, consisting of political and military formations under political leadership, and the strengthening of all organs of the mass democratic movement. The prospects of a revolutionary advance are greater today than ever before in our history. The regime continues to face an allround crisis which can only be resolved by a qualitative transformation of the whole economic, political, social and cultural system.

The people headed by their revolutionary vanguard advance on the road to liberation with a rich and varied tradition of struggle, both armed and unarmed. The triballybased armed resistance to the colonial forces went on for centuries until the defeat of Bambata and his guerrillas in the Nkandla forest in 1906. This signalled the end of a phase. The liberation organisations of our country, including our Party, were born in conditions when the core of the former resistance in the countryside had been destroyed and the new forces were not yet fully developed.

In these conditions it was imperative for the liberation organisations to pursue a strategy of militant but nonviolent methods of struggle for many decades after their foundation. But, already in the late 50's, evidence was beginning to accumulate which called for a departure from this strategy.

All remaining possibilities of advancing the struggle through exclusively nonviolent means were, one by one, being blocked. A growing number among the oppressed sensed (perhaps sooner than some of their leaders) that a change had come about in the objective conditions of struggle. The strategy of nonviolence and passive defiance were being questioned by more and more militants. Our working people, through their own experience, no longer saw much point in nonviolent protest alone in the face of escalating state savagery and were beginning to show a readiness to accept the sacrifices involved in the new methods.

The slogan of 'nonviolence' had thus become harmful to the cause of our revolution in the new phase of struggle. It disarmed the people in the face of the savage assaults of the oppressor and dampened their militancy. The movement was obliged to respond. The time was clearly ripe to combine mass political action with armed struggle.

A New Strategic Line

In response to this situation, our main strategic line in the struggle for people's power was radically reshaped in the middle of 1961. Joint measures were taken by the ANC and our Party to create MK as the armed wing of the liberation movement. Although there was no possibility of successfully challenging the enemy in armed combat, action could not be postponed. It became vital to demonstrate an organised alternative to unplanned and suicidal outbursts which were beginning to take place. It was also necessary to make an open break with the politics of nonviolent protest which had dominated the strategy of the previous halfcentury and which had unavoidably bred an ideology of pacifism among many leaders of the liberation movement. That open break was symbolised by the national sabotage campaign launched on December 16th, 1961.

This new approach did not imply that all nonviolent methods of struggle had now become useless or impossible. Nor did it imply a retreat from agitational, organisational and educational work among the masses. Our Party, it its 1962 Programme, continued to advocate the use of all forms of struggle by the people, including noncollaboration, strikes, boycotts and demonstrations. We also placed prime emphasis on the need to make underground structures and illegal work more effective, more efficient and more successful in reaching the masses of the people and evading repressive action by the authorities.

The adoption of armed struggle as an important part of the political struggle brought our movement into uncharted territory. We were unpractised in the art, techniques and skills of military organisation and combat, and lacked solid experience of clandestine work.

Apart from these subjective weaknesses we had to contend with a number of unique and complex objective difficulties. In contrast to armed liberation struggles in the rest of the African continent, some of the conditions in which we had to implement our new approach were particularly disadvantageous:

Ø     South Africa's special form of colonial subjugation had withheld all military knowhow from the subject peoples and prevented any black person from being in possession or using any modern weapon or other instruments of war. Effective training could, therefore, only take place externally. The longterm escalation of armed activity depended, in the first place, on the return of trainees and a minimum of weaponry.

Ø     In 87 per cent of the land there is no black peasantry and the rural working population is forced to live under conditions of the strictest control on the dispersed white farms. This reduces considerably the social bases which are needed for the survival, growth and manoeuvre of guerrilla and other combat formations in the rural areas.

Ø     No effective rear base was available externally to facilitate the flow of either personnel or logistical material. South Africa was completely surrounded by a barrier of imperialistcontrolled territories hostile to the liberation struggle, which deprived us of a friendly border.

Ø     Our terrain lacks any extensive areas of classical guerrilla terrain.

Ø     Most of the first crop of militants who went for training in the early 60's had been known activists from the legal period. This would make their return for political and military tasks especially problematic.

Ø     The regime was in command of a highly centralised state apparatus, including wellorganised instruments of repression, powerful and highly mobile armed forces and a sophisticated communications network, anchored on a powerful economic base.

Despite these complexities and disadvantages, history left us with no option but to engage in armed action as a necessary part of the political struggle. It was a moment in which (to use Lenin's words) 'untimely inaction would have been worse than untimely action'.

Thus, we had to venture forth even at the expense of risking a degree of disorganisation. We could not refuse to fight. We had to learn how to do so. And, in many respects, we had to learn on the ground, in the hard school of revolutionary practice. In the process, a combination of inexperience, lapses in security and breaches of conspiracy rules, enabled the enemy to deal massive blows against the whole underground. Party heroes were among those who made enormous sacrifices in their courageous attempt to keep the underground going and to carry on with armed activities.Despite these efforts, within a few years of the enemy's Rivonia breakthrough, the underground ceased to exist in any organised form. Leading ANC and Party cadres who were abroad on political and military missions reconstituted themselves as leadership collectives and, over time, took steps to help reestablish the movement's internal presence.

The task of rebuilding the shattered internal structures and rekindling the fire of organised struggle proved to be long and arduous. Undaunted by long spells in the enemy's gaols, many ANC and Party veterans attempted to organise political life, immediately on being released. In addition, in the late 60s, the Party's external leadership organised propaganda units to spread the message of the movement once again. Leaflet bombs, street broadcasts, internal cyclostyled journals, made an appearance at a time when signs of political life were at their lowest. Many of the brave Party activists who pioneered this work were arrested, tortured, imprisoned and murdered.

But in general, for some years after Rivonia, a demoralising silence had descended upon the political arena. There could, however, be no retreat from the decision to combine armed with nonarmed activity; indeed, the massive onslaught on all expressions of black resistance underlined even further the inadequacy of a policy which did not include preparation for armed activity. The hundreds of ANC and Party cadres who had been sent abroad for training were, by 1965, both ready and anxious to go back home to pursue the liberation movement's politicomilitary objectives.

The unending attempts to advance these objectives in the next decade or more met with major difficulties. The preRivonia political base made possible the launching of armed activities. With its destruction such activities could neither be sustained nor raised to a higher level. It was considered that armed activity was essential in order to help recreate the very conditions in which political structures could be developed. At the same time, without such political foundations, armed activity itself could not advance beyond a certain point. We were thus forced to find ways of hitting the enemy at a time of relative weakness in the area of internal political organisation. Armed actions would play a role in helping to create the conditions which would enable us to remedy this weakness.

But in trying to carry this out, there developed a tendency to focus too exclusively on military activities. We did not always pay sufficient attention or devote the necessary resources to political work itself.

We acted as if armed activity would somehow, on its own, spontaneously generate political organisation and mobilisation. And it took some time before attention was given to the balance between these two aspects of our struggle.

These tendencies grew during the many years of relative political lull when armed blows seemed to be the only way of keeping the embers of resistance alive. Even when attention began to be paid to the direct task of building the underground and spreading agitational and educational propaganda, the process was, at times, infected with a lack of coordination between the political and military structures. This undoubtedly held back both the political and military objectives of our struggle.

Despite unending efforts it was not until the postSoweto (1976) period that it became possible to successfully deploy armed combat groups whose activities have grown from year to year. There were some failures and weaknesses. But the unbroken efforts which the movement was seen to be making to challenge the enemy, even during the darker moments, made an indelible impact on the people.

The prestige of MK grew. It came increasingly to be accepted as the fighting organ of the oppressed who were stimulated by the spirit of 'no surrender' and militant heroism of its cadres. Above all, the potential demonstrated through MK's armed challenge helped, more than any other factor, to overcome the feeling of impotence in the face of a powerful foe which had, for so long, monopolised all the modern instruments of force. Armed actions helped considerably to create the atmosphere for political rejuvenation. The serious crisis facing our ruling class is, in no small measure, due to the impact of a strategy which included organised revolutionary violence. On the other hand it is the popular mass actions, started with the student and worker actions of the late 1 960s and early 1 970s, which helped to lay the basis for the introduction of sustained armed combat actions.

Our Approach to Armed Struggle

What then is our approach to armed struggle in the current phase?

The military strategy of the liberation alliance has to take into account the concrete objective conditions prevailing in South Africa. We referred to a number of difficulties which we had to contend with when we embarked on the course of armed struggle. These difficulties and many others continue to face us: the lack of an extensive area of classical guerrilla terrain; the absence of a black peasantry in most of the countryside; the separation of residential areas between whites and blacks; the lack of friendly borders; the great mobility and firepower of the enemy; an army whose main contingent benefits from the system of colonial oppression; and imperialist support to the South African regime. In addition, over the past two decades, the South African regime, drawing on an advanced capitalist base, has greatly increased its military capacity, refining its counterinsurgency strategies.

However, the people and their vanguard liberation movement possess many strategic advantages for the conduct of armed struggle.

Ø     The oppressed people, the social base upon which the armed struggle depends, enjoy both numerical and moral superiority over the enemy. We are fighting a just war which is uniquely supported by the international community.

Ø     Though it commands huge resources, the colonial regime is situated within the theatre of struggle. While this might make the enemy more recalcitrant, at the same time popular actions directly affect the base from which it operates.

Ø     The sixmillion strong army of black workers occupies a position within the economy which gives it the potential to deal strategic military blows to the entire system. The sophistication and complexity of the economic base and infrastructure of apartheid make them extremely vulnerable to sabotage and other actions.

Ø     The people have a high level of political consciousness as well as a rich tradition of militant struggles in both town and countryside which, from time to time, flare up into partial uprisings. They are led by a vanguard liberation movement armed with rich experience and a grasp of revolutionary theory.

Ø     The increasing reliance of the regime's army and police on recruits from the black community, especially in the bantustans, provides better possibilities for us to undermine the racist state machinery from within.

Ø     Increasing international isolation of apartheid South Africa helps to weaken the economic and social base of the regime.

Given the enemy's military strength, we have to conduct a continuous armed struggle which progressively saps the enemy's strength over a relatively protracted period. But, given the objective difficulties mentioned above, ours cannot be a classical guerrillatype war primarily based on the winning, over time, of more and more liberated territory. Nor are there immediate prospects of inflicting an allround military defeat on the enemy. Our armed struggle has to rely, above all, on the people in active struggle. The working class, in particular, possesses vast possibilities to take the war to the nervecentres of apartheid colonialism. In mass action, the people create the conditions in which the armed struggle can be grounded. It is in these conditions that guerrillas can better survive, operate and work among the people. The popular uprisings have, from time to time, led to the emergence of mass revolutionary bases in numerous townships and villages, a reliable and secure terrain for the operation of combatants.

In many current upheavals the people make heroic efforts to engage the enemy using rudimentary weapons. Street battles and barricades take shape where mass confrontation with the enemy becomes acute. At their initiative, the youth and other sectors set up Self Defence Units and combat groups. This creates the basis for the revolutionary movement to raise mass revolt to higher forms of insurrectionary activity, by popularising the skills of armed combat and giving allround leadership and direction to the popular combat formations. In carrying out this task, particular attention should be paid to the formation and operation of combat groups in the industrial centres and on whiteowned farms.

In the rural areas, the growing mood of defiance and opposition, particularly in the bantustans, provides the soil for the creation and operation of rural combat formations. This popular ferment, and the relative weakness of the enemy in some rural areas, also hold out the possibility for the survival and operation of guerrillatype formations. However, even in these areas, armed activity should be closely linked to, and progressively merge with, mass activity.

All the forces engaged in physical confrontation and in armed combat against the enemy constitute the revolutionary army of our people. The core of this army is Umkhonto we Sizwe, operating in both urban and rural areas. This core must draw in the most active contingents of the people, who are ready to take up arms. It is a vital and ongoing task of the liberation alliance to strengthen and engage all layers of the revolutionary army in action. Crucial to the fulfilment of this task is the development of underground structures in all areas and among all sectors of our people.

Relationship Between Military and Other Forms of Political Struggle.

Our approach to the relationship between military and other forms of political struggle is guided by the theory of MarxismLeninism, the experience of other revolutionary struggles and, above all, our own concrete realities. We Communists believe that the struggle must always be given forms appropriate to the concrete political situation. It is this situation which determines whether the revolutionary transformation can be achieved by military or nonmilitary struggle or by a blend of both. A decision to include combat activity as part of the political struggle does not, in itself, imply that the military struggle has become primary or that the route to victory will be only through the barrel of a gun.

Organised combat activity undoubtedly continues to be an essential ingredient of our political strategy for revolutionary transformation. The racist state was founded on violence and survives on violence and terror. It will not be destroyed or give way without an allround revolutionary assault. A combination of growing political upsurge and escalating armed struggle is clearly vital in order to help create conditions in which People's Power can be won. Organised armed activity continues to be one of the most important factors in helping to deepen the regime's crisis.

But, as emphasised by the ANC's Kabwe conference in 1985, without a wellorganised underground linked to mass political revolutionary bases throughout the country, in both rural and urban areas, armed activities cannot grow significantly either in scale or quality. A mass movement organised at both national and local levels, guided by an internal underground political leadership with structures in all the major localities, and at the point of production, is a precondition for the raising of the armed struggle to new heights. This does not imply that armed action against the enemy should be postponed until we have achieved a higher level of organisation.The balance between political and military activities must reflect itself at all levels of our planning and in the way we use our energies and resources. The need for specialised organs of struggle should not be allowed to undermine political leadership of all aspects of the struggle. Organised combat activity must be primarily guided by the needs of the political struggle. It must be designed to weaken the enemy's gnp on the reins of power and to reinforce political mobilisation, organisation and resistance.

Seizure of Power

The situation has within it the potential for a relatively rapid emergence of conditions which make possible seizure of power. We cannot, however, be dogmatic about the exact moment and form of such a breakthrough. Conditions for a revolutionary transition will only emerge through a combination and interplay of objective conditions and subjective factors. In other words, it will depend not only upon what we do but also upon what the enemy does, not only on our strength but upon the enemy's weakness.

At the subjective level the key element is the buildup of nationwide popular ferment, resistance, all levels of organisation and the presence of people's combat formations. At the objective level it is a weakening of the enemy by circumstances such as radical deterioration in the economy, intensified external measures against race rule, massive vacillations and divisions within the ranks of the power bloc, selfwounding enemy initiatives, and so on. When both subjective and objective elements converge, when mass activity is at its height and divisions and vacillations in the ranks of the enemy are at their strongest, the consequent crisis will signal the possibility of a revolutionary transformation.

But the development of a crisis, however deep, will not, in itself lead to an enemy collapse and a people's victory. The seizure of power will only be assured if the revolutionary movement has already effectively prepared the necessary political and organisational forces with the capacity to launch an offensive for the seizure of power at the right moment. This at once poses the question of our approach to insurrection as a likely path to people's power.

An insurrection unlike a coup, is a mass revolutionary upsurge of the people in conditions which hold out the possibility of a seizure of power. It does not lend itself to blueprinting in the same way as a coup does. The call for an insurrection can only be placed on the immediate agenda of struggle if, and when, a specific revolutionary moment has emerged. However, the task of making adequate preparations for a possible insurrectionary 'moment' needs attention even during the phase when it is not yet imminent.

An insurrection is an act of revolutionary force. But, it is not always an armed uprising. An allround civil uprising could lead to an insurrection even when the armed factor is absent or secondary. History has seen successful insurrections of both types. Historical experiences are instructive but cannot provide us with an exact model. At the end of the day we have to find our own way. In what sense then can we talk of an insurrection as a possible path to power?

The crisis facing our ruling class will be aggravated still further by a combination of mass upsurge, in which working class action at the point of production will play a key role, mass defiance, escalating revolutionary combat activity, intensified international pressure, a situation of ungovernability, a deteriorating economy and growing demoralisation, division, vacillation and confusion within the power bloc.

When all these elements converge in a sufficient measure, the immediate possibility of an insurrectionary breakthrough will present itself. Such a situation will, of course, not simply ripen on its own; its fruition depends, in the first place, on the work of the revolutionary movement. But we must also be prepared for a relatively sudden transformation of the situation. In the conditions of deepening crisis, 'events triggered off by the tiniest conflicts, seemingly remote from the real breedingground of revolution', can, overnight, grow into a revolutionary turning point (Lenin). The regime's grip on its reins of power could be swiftly weakened and the stage set for a sustained national uprising leading to an insurrectionary seizure of power.

The subjective forces both political and military must be built up so that when these seeds of revolution begin to germinate, the vanguard will be able to seize the historic moment. In this sense, allround mass action, merging with organised and armed activity, led by a wellorganised underground, and international pressure, are the keys to the buildup for the seizure of power. Seizure of power will be a product of escalating and progressive merging mass political and military struggle with the likelihood of culminating in an insurrection.

The revolutionary movement must place itself in the best position to plan for, and to lead, an insurrection at the right moment. This means, among other things, paying special attention to building factory, urban and rurallybased combat groups, popularising insurrectionary methods among the masses and winning over elements from the enemy's armed forces. The partial uprisings which have become a feature of our mass struggles must also be seen as a school for the accumulation of insurrectionary experience. The organisation of the industrial working class is of major importance; protracted national strikes and other industrial activity at the point of production will be a vital factor in the maturing of the 'revolutionary moment'. Above all, a political vanguard is needed to plan for, and lead, the insurrectionary assault at the crucial stage.

Prospects of a Negotiated Transfer of Power

There is no conflict between this insurrectionary perspective and the possibility of a negotiated transfer of power. There should be no confusion of the strategy needed to help create the conditions for the winning of power with the exact form of the ultimate breakthrough.

Armed struggle cannot be counter posed with dialogue, negotiation and justifiable compromise, as if they were mutually exclusive categories. Liberation struggles have rarely ended with the unconditional surrender of the enemy's military forces. Every such struggle in our continent has had its climax at the negotiating table, occasionally involving compromises judged to be in the interests of revolutionary advance. But whether there is an armed seizure of power or negotiated settlement, what is indisputable to both is the development of the political and military forces of the revolution.

We should be on our guard against the clear objective of our ruling class and their imperialist allies who see negotiation as a way of preempting a revolutionary transformation. The imperialists seek their own kind of transformation which goes beyond the reform limits of the present regime but which will, at the same time frustrate the basic objectives of the struggling masses. And they hope to achieve this by pushing the liberation movement into negotiation before it is strong enough to back its basic demands with sufficient power on the ground.

Whatever prospects may arise in the future for a negotiated transition, they must not be allowed to infect the purpose and content of our present strategic approaches. We are not engaged in a struggle whose objective is merely to generate sufficient pressure to bring the other side to the negotiating table. If, as a result of a generalised crisis and a heightened revolutionary upsurge, the point should ever be reached when the enemy is prepared to talk, the liberation forces will, at that point, have to exercise their judgment, guided by the demands of revolutionary advance. But until then its sights must be clearly set on the perspectives of a seizure of power.

The Enemy Armed Forces

It is unlikely that the enemy forces will, within any foreseeable future, come over in large numbers to the side of the people. The possibility of the army playing an autonomous role and attempting to impose an open military dictatorship to counter a revolutionary upheaval cannot be ruled out.

But these are not the only possible or inevitable options. There are a number of other factors which could also have an important bearing on the precise role of the enemy's military at the crucial historic moment in the future. This applies particularly to its black contingents. The black component of the enemy's army and police force and those in the bantustans grows bigger. It is a component which can, at the right moment, be won over to the side of their fellowoppressed countrymen and women. The potential for making such an inroad is increasing.

The SADF is predominantly a conscript army. As a whole they represent the class and social composition of the dominant group. The conflict and its outcome is vitally bound up with their personal class and community connections. The army can hardly fail to reflect all the stresses and contradictions which developed in society as a whole at the crucial moment of confrontation. At such a moment a lack of cohesion and consensus within the army about its responses to the revolutionary upsurge, could delay decisive action and provide more space for a breakthrough. The uncertainties could grow if the black component of the army, including its bantustan contingents, turn towards the people. A significant minority among the white SADF might even be influenced to begin to accept the ultimate inevitability of majority rule and seek an accommodation with the revolutionary forces. Disaffection among the white middle strata, from which the bulk of the officer corps is drawn, is already at a high level. It is among these strata that resistance to the draft has grown impressively during the recent period.

The White Community and Armed Conflict

In touching on these future possibilities, it is necessary to stress that one of the key factors influencing the ultimate responses of the army will be the work of our revolutionary alliance and the way its perspectives are understood by the white group as a whole. The opening declaration of the Freedom Charter that 'South Africa belongs to all its people, black and white' must unconditionally continue to guide what we say and do. It is necessary to intensify efforts to spread this message in the face of an unending enemy campaign of misinformation about our objectives of people's power. This message must also emerge from the nature of our organised combat actions and the targets selected.

This approach is, in no way, inconsistent with decisions to take combat activity more and more into the 'white areas'. This is an imperative for a number of reasons. The overwhelming bulk of the enemy's installations (including military and police bases and assembly points) are situated in these areas and all the key army and police personnel live there. Pressure on these areas will prevent the enemy from concentrating all its forces in the black ghettoes. it will also bring the reality of the conflict more sharply to those who constitute the regime's main political support base. Escalating action in these areas directed against legitimate, noncivilian targets, will serve to eat away at the cohesion of this support base rather than pushing it further into the racist laager.

The Masses are the Key

The insurrectionary potential of our oppressed masses is growing. While the 'exact moment' of the seizure of power depends upon objective as well as subjective factors, there can be no doubt that what the masses do, led by the liberation alliance, influences the objective factors and hastens the arrival of that moment. It is precisely this subjective factor which, in the last five years, has dramatically transformed the objective situation. The unique series of partial uprisings, the dramatic growth of the mass democratic movement, the emergence of giant trade union organisation, escalating armed actions and international mobilisation against the regime, are all interdependent processes which have changed the whole objective framework of struggle.

There is no aspect of the crisis facing the regime whether it be the rapidly deteriorating economic situation or the divisions and vacillations within the power bloc which has not got its primary roots in the soil of people's struggles. It is the allround escalation of these struggles, combined with, and dependent upon, the consolidation and growth of mass and underground organisation, which will lead to the revolutionary breakthrough.

Our working class is the decisive force to bring about the collapse of racism and victory in the national democratic revolution as a stage towards building a socialist South Africa.

As always, we Communists, together with our brothers, sisters and comrades in the liberation alliance, will remain at our posts however long the road to victory. The perspective of a protracted struggle can never be abandoned. But we are also convinced that the situation has within it the seeds of a sudden transformation. We must prepare ourselves, and be ready. Our watch words are unity, organisation and struggle.

For a Democratic Victory and Advance to Socialism! Victory is Certain!

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.