About this site

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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Overview: 40-year Perspective

For much of the last four decades South Africa has in a sense been two countries in one. Whites, generally speaking, lived under a democratic system, while blacks were subject to the dictatorial powers of a massive, coercive, bureaucratic apparatus.

As many people predicted, repression bred violent reaction. Some thirty or more years ago, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned, a sabotage campaign was launched, Mr Nelson Mandela was jailed, and 'armed struggle' was planned from bases in neighbouring states set up by the two banned movements. Internal repression thus had the unexpected consequence that it bred externally-based insurgency. Probably only a few people believed that sabotage, or even the killing of civilians by such things as car bombs, could overthrow the government. These strategies were designed rather to erode the white support base of the state.

By the mid 1970s, however, the 'armed struggle' had effectively come to a halt. Very little was heard of the ANC, which appears to have been as surprised by the outbreak of violence in Soweto on 16th June 1976 as was the government itself, which ignored all warnings about the tension that was building up in the township over its policy of forcing black schoolchildren to study through the medium of Afrikaans, rejected by them as the language of the oppressor. Although the 1976/77 upheavals drew their inspiration from black consciousness, the ANC and the South African Communist Party were the main beneficiaries. When several thousand youngsters fled Soweto and other townships in the second half of 1976 the South African organisation best equipped to receive them outside the country was the ANC. The security police said that the growth in guerrilla activity inside the country in 1977 was the 'natural result' of the mass exodus of blacks from South Africa after June 1976. The police predicted, accurately, that the number of insurgents would increase as the exiles, having received military training from the ANC (and, to a lesser extent, the PAC), returned home to wage the 'armed struggle'.

In the 1980s, armed struggle was broadened into 'people's war'. The campaign gathered momentum in protests against the implementation of the new tricameral constitution in September 1984. One of the earliest disturbances occurred in the black township of Sebokeng in the Vaal Triangle in the first week of September that year, at the same time as the tricameral parliament first met and its chief architect, Mr P W Botha, was elevated from prime minister to state president.

Whereas in 1976 several thousand black youngsters had fled South Africa, this time round much of the militant youth stayed in the country, mainly because, in terms of the Nkomati Accord signed in March 1984, Mozambique agreed to stop sheltering South African insurgents and South Africa agreed to stop attacking Mozambique. Here was another unexpected consequence. Military action by South Africa against neighbouring states undermined externally-based armed struggle and thereby helped to fuel internal resistance.

Yet another unexpected consequence loomed. The people's war, directed in theory against the state, in fact helped to unleash massive violence within black communities. Black people, who were the victims of apartheid itself, became also the victims of the struggle against apartheid. This study tries to show how this happened.

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.