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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Self Defence Units (SDU's)

Indeed, during one of our interviews Goldstone said:

There's an assumption that the ANC leadership is in control on the ground and it isn't. That was admitted to one of our Commission hearings by the Deputy Leader of uMkhonto weSizwe who admitted - a lot of publicity was given to it here, I don't know whether it was in the United States, but he admitted without reservation and said 'we don't have control over our MK cadres on the ground.'

I thought that was an important admission. I think it's true, perhaps to a lesser extent, but nevertheless true of Inkatha. Inkatha's probably a more monolithic authoritarian organization but I don't believe that Buthelezi has control over everything that goes on in his organization. Everybody assumes that there is control within each of the three organizations, the Police, Inkatha and the ANC, including all their satellites and affiliated organisations [with regard to how things happen on the ground. But when bad things happen each side blames the leadership as if they were in control and directly involved in fermenting that sort of violence.1

The SDUs evolved out of the demands from communities under siege from violence and the perceived partisanship of the police in maintaining law and order. However, what self defence units that were supposed to protect communities from random or premeditated attack became part of the problem, one admitted by the ANC during the negotiating process, but reluctantly and rather guardedly; admitted more openly when the ANC was securely in power. Thus Johannes Rantete writes:

Although SDUs were established in certain areas, they suffered from important weaknesses. The ANC was unable to arm the people sufficiently and most SDUs had to fend for themselves in defending townships. Furthermore, the proposal that the MK would train these units undermined their impartiality and led to resentment by other political organizations. In practice, only a few MK cadres participated in the setting-up of these structures, which were mainly in the hands of undisciplined local activists. Indeed, despite the euphoria surrounding the SDUs, few were created. They were set up in places such as the Vaal and Phola Park. The reason for this was intensified police harassment and logistical problems around their creation. Even where they were created, these units did not follow the command structure as outlined in the official document. Most crucially, rather than being an asset to the resolution of violence, the SDUs increasingly became an aggravating factor as activists held townships hostage.2

Nor would matters get better. In the last week of July 1993, 60 people were killed in East Rand townships in three days. Townships increasingly became "no-go" areas for the police at night, and dangerous for them to enter during daylight. Army escorts accompany the police on their rounds. But their hold on the townships continued to slip. In some, the ANC fills the power vacuum, but not always.

Between July 1990 and June 1993, an average of 101 people died per month in politically related incidents - a total of 3 653 deaths. In the period July 1993 to April 1994, conflict steadily intensified, so that by election month it was 2.5 times its previous levels.

Moreover, political violence in this period extended to the PWV (Pretoria- Witwatersrand-Vereeniging) region in the Transvaal. The HRC estimates that between July 1990 and June 1993, some 4 756 people were killed in politically related violence in the PWV area. In the period immediately following the announcement of an election date, the death toll in the PWV region rose to four times its previous levels.

The escalation of violence coincided with the establishment of Inkatha as a national political party, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), in July 1990, and its attempts to develop a political base in the Transvaal. The development of self-defence units (SDUs) in largely ANC/UDF strongholds led to an escalation of violence in both provinces.3 In August 1993, the Weekly Mail would report that:

'The revolt of township youths in the Vaal is already uglier that the uprisings of June 1976. Today's youths are armed, their violence anarchic and random, their targets innocent passers-by. A little-publicized state of emergency has been declared in the Vaal area. Streets are barricaded and schooling has stopped Behind the apparently aimless violence lies a desperate cry for help from a generation whose schooling has been intermittent and inadequate and whose futures look bleak.'

And: 'In the 1980s, targets of resistance were clearly defined: killing councillors and other government officials, petrol bombing houses and company vehicles and defying consumer boycotts were legitimate activities, according to anti-apartheid movements intent on rendering the townships ungovernable.' And 'The youths believe in mobs. Being in a mob is safer. The youngest [involved in the fighting] are about 9 years.' And: 'vicious internecine feuds [are] flaring up around the country between renegade members of Umkhonto weSizwe and other anti-apartheid veterans'. And: 'mayhem is compounded by factionalism within the ANC's Vaal region, which has degenerated into internal violence'.4

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.