South Africa

Politics, South Africa

Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK): How the armed struggle succeeded

Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK): How the armed struggle succeeded

An address delivered at the University of Witwatersrand on November 25, 2016 on the topic of The politics of armed struggle in Southern Africa. By RONNIE KASRILS.

The turn to armed struggle in Southern Africa

The people’s patience is not endless. The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom.

Thus ran the clarion call of the Manifesto of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) clandestinely posted in public places in South Africa as the first bomb blasts heralding its existence exploded at apartheid offices and installations on December 16, 1961.

The birth of MK was a culmination of the violence and brutality of the apartheid system manifested in the 1960 Sharpeville massacre; the outlawing of the ANC and PAC; the closing down of all means of non-violent struggle; the fact that change was seen as impossible unless revolutionary force was utilised. The ANC – and with it the SACP which played a significant role in the establishment of MK (see for example Isu Chiba’s interview in Men of Dynamite cited below) – faced the same question as the other racially and colonially enslaved countries of the region so the resort to arms was not exceptional to South Africa.

The 1960s saw the similar turn to armed struggle in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe – and further afield to Guinea-Bissau and earlier in Kenya and Algeria. Mozambique and Angola’s terrain with vast forests was highly suited to guerrilla warfare; Zimbabwe’s conditions were favourable once the shared borders with Zambia and then Mozambique opened up to its freedom fighters; while Namibia’s inhospitable topography did not deter that country’s insurgents. And neither did South Africa’s lack of forested areas nor lack of friendly borders deter MK – not even in almost thirty years of endeavours. There are other factors, as Amilcar Cabral noted, “Our people are our mountains.”

The resort to arms showed that the liberation movements had a great deal in common, including a common enemy, and consequently cooperated and assisted one another to a great degree in the spirit of fraternal solidarity. They were all able to overcome tremendous odds and achieve the mutual objective of freedom and independence. Much has been written and debated about MK’s contribution over three decades to the liberation of South Africa. And much more will still be written and debated not as an academic game but rather to clarify the lessons and preserve the heritage for today’s and future generations of our people. That is why developing a people’s history is so important.

What is historiography?

Such a study is encompassed in historiography, the “history of the history” (the phrase often used to define its meaning). My view is that historiography stands on three legs and should have a definite purpose or orientation:

One: the listing and categorising of the available literature and sources (categorisation implying more than a bibliographic list);

Two: assessing and critiquing the literature;

Three: illuminating the key themes and debates.

The above three facets of the historiography will assist in clarifying what I believe should be the objectives of scientific historiography: deepening understanding of the subject under review through analysis and debate; highlighting the gaps and limitations of the existing literature; pointing to new areas of research and analysis. This should be in search of the truth to establish better understanding. To do so we must make it patently clear which accounts genuinely serve the cause of the freedom that has been fought for and exposes that which defends injustice.

In historical terms MK historiography is relatively recent; more so when considering the evolving literature and debate around let us say the French Revolution, World War One or China’s Cultural Revolution. We need to bear in mind as well that much information about the liberation struggle from primary, organisational and participatory sources is still secret; documents and reports are unavailable or lost; many participants are yet to tell their stories; not to mention the fallibility of personal attestation and bias, limitations of memory; ideological factors.

As much as a hoped-for objective view of an observer/scholar may be, it is the account of those who actually participated in fighting for freedom, the primary sources, that are invaluable and with the passing of time should not be lost. There is a view among some academics that memoirs should not be treated as primary sources, as they are deficient from a scholarly point of view. The latter is regarded as being more discerning and objective. Yet many autobiographies of South Africa’s struggle history in my view pass muster as scholarly works with the advantage that they are embedded in first-hand experience. As much as there is a growing literature the history of MK is under-recorded and, more particularly, along with the interesting history of Apla, (Azanian People’s Liberation Army) barely exists in the annals of the country’s conventional national military historiography still dominated by the racist SADF and its colonial predecessors.

For these reasons I believe there is a need to work on establishing and listing as full a historiography of the struggle sources available – oral and written, interviews, articles, memoir, biographical, policy statements, speeches, documents, polemics and debates – as a necessary step towards the task of categorising the available literature and distinguishing between those who fought the just war and those who fought to preserve the racist-colonial system. There will be a world of difference between the two. I am also of the view that we need to establish a more thorough periodisation or phases of MK’s history which I will attempt to offer as a guide. These phases, with the relevant policy statements, and hard lessons learnt in the preceding phase, are key to grasping the evolution of the strategy and tactics, and objectives, of the armed struggle. In the limited space available for such a topic I will at least want to deal with the question whether MK achieved its goals. By way of illustration I will briefly list the number of its operations as but one indicator of its activity – albeit a prime reason for its existence. A fuller investigation would look at the economic cost to the country; the casualties on both sides; the amounts of weapons captured; which police records such as those of General HD Stadler in his studies refers to. But such statistics including classification as “terrorist operations” can be deceptive and mechanical. Whatever the setbacks or characterisation by the repressive regime it is the final battle, the outcome of the war, that determines who won.

I will examine how far MK had progressed by 1990 and whether its objectives had been achieved.

(NB See LITERATURE and SOURCES section at the end)

Periodisation (phases of MK armed struggle and policy foundations)

A thorough periodisation of the phases of armed struggle and attendant policy is invaluable in guiding assessment and research, and understanding the shifts in strategy. This also relates to the reaction of the regime, its resort to repressive legislation, to increased militarisation, to “total war”, to use of “hit squads”, to aggression and invasion into Angola and the Front Line States. It is worth noting Marx’s observation that revolutionary struggle brings on fiercer repression from counter-revolution which compels the revolutionaries to develop greater organisation capacity and tactics.

The ANC Submission to the TRC outlines the phases as follows: Historical context and Resistance to 1960; Repression and Total State Strategy 1960s to 1990.

Within this submission a note on armed operations refers to the stages as: Sabotage campaign; Wankie campaign; 1976 Soweto uprising to 1985 and thereafter; and in essence breaks down as follows:

  1. 1961-69: Establishment of MK Dec 1961 to the Zimbabwe Campaign – Wankie and Sipolilo;
  2. 1969-1979: From the Morogoro Conference to 1976 Youth Uprising and aftermath;
  3. Towards People’s War and People’s Power: The Green Book; political-military co-ordination; increased MK operations; [this would be 1980 onwards – RK];
  4. ANC and Internal Mass Revolt – Role of MDM in 1980s;
  5. Role of SDU’s (Self-Defence Units) post 1990.

I submit the following categorisation as perhaps a more extensive guide to historical research and a way of indicating gaps in the literature:

  1. 1945-1960: Establishing the context – national, regional and international – from non-violence to violent confrontation; guerrilla wars became prevalent in Africa. Asia and Latin America; Note: relevance of the Wars of Resistance to colonial conquest over preceding centuries;
  2. 1961-1963: Establishment of MK; Sabotage Campaign to Rivonia arrests; including the draft Operation Mayibuye document foreseeing the unfolding of guerrilla warfare and the objective of insurrection;
  3. 1964-1967: Attempts at Recovery: Wilton Mkwayi and Bram Fischer’s endeavours; internal structures destroyed; Rear Bases (Tanzania and Zambia) and problems of getting home; initial training in China, Algeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Czechoslovakia, Cuba and the Soviet Union. Training in China, Ethiopia; Egypt fell away as that in Cuba and the Soviet Union and later GDR (East Germany) grew; Yugoslavia provided military training in the late 1980s.
  4. 1967-1968: Zimbabwe campaign involving ZIPRA and MK;
  5. 1969-1975: Morogoro Conference – assessment of problems, failures, challenges and way ahead; particularly the absence of political work inside the country as prerequisite for armed struggle; elaboration of Strategy and Tactics; creation of Revolutionary Council (RC) in Lusaka to direct internal struggle; stepped up propaganda and infiltration; Black Consciousness and student activity; workers strikes in Namibia and South Africa; Portuguese colonialism collapses; liberation Angola and Mozambique, SADF invades Angola and Cuba comes to the rescue.
  6. 1976-1979: Soweto Rebellion turning point; increased MK recruitment; Mozambique and particularly Angola provide bases; revival of MK operations; Swaziland, Lesotho and Botswana springboards; GDR, Cuban, Soviet training; delegation to Vietnam re People’s War; Green Book results – which sets out strategy for advancing struggle and concept of People’s War. Note: Soviet, GDR and Cuban training geared to guerrilla and underground struggle as does MK’s own training programme (Soviet term “MCW” – Military Combat Work) denotes new focus of training in linking armed struggle with mass struggle, creating underground network, infiltration of enemy forces and goal of insurrection;
  7. 1980-1984: New front opens as Zimbabwe becomes independent; establishment Senior Organs under RC; Four Pillars of Struggle stressing primacy of political leadership and mass struggle reinforced by armed actions, underground work and international solidarity; dramatic rise in MK operations from 20 in 1980 to 61 in 1984; Politico-Military Command (PMC) replaces RC (1983) for better co-ordination of political and military tasks; development of underground structures; emergence of UDF, Cosatu, MDM; MK-FAPLA joint operations against Unita in Angola; spies, informers, infiltration and mutiny; 1984 Nkomati Accord – Mozambique setback; Pretoria’s “total onslaught”; regime death squads and raids on Matola, Gaberone, Maseru, Swaziland, Harare and increased repression in SA; these denote the rising fears of the regime and its attempts to destroy MK; overcoming mutiny and Nkomati setback;
  8. 1985-1990: MK operations increase from 104 in 1985 to 249 in 1988; Kabwe Conference 1985 – stepping up the armed struggle; Tambo speech (1985): “Make South Africa ungovernable and apartheid unworkable”; international isolation increases; beginnings of dialogue with business and academics; secret regime talks with Mandela and Thabo Mbeki’s secret external channel; Operation Zikomo which had some success in infiltration of large numbers of MK cadres post-Kabwe to carry out politico-military work; Operation Vula 1988-9o; Battle of Cuito Cuanavale 1987-88, the historic turning point for region; independence for Namibia; Fidel Castro’s statement: Africa’s history will be written as before and after Cuito Cuanavale; MK camps relocate to Uganda; mass upsurge “unbans” ANC; the regime is increasingly losing control within the country;
  9. 1990-1994: De Klerk’s February speech; ANC-SACP reorganise; MK’s cessation of armed struggle; third force and regime violence; SDU’s and MK role; Transitional Executive Council; 1993 MK disbands and integrates with other forces into new SANDF; April 1994 ANC gains power in first democratic elections.

Assessing MK’s role

In building up our own popular army we aim therefore not only at the overthrow of the fascist regime, we aim also at building up a politically conscious and revolutionary army, conscious of its popular origin, unwavering in its democratic functions and guided by our revolutionary orientation” – OR Tambo

In moving towards enumerating MK’s operations I am by no means stating that MK actions are the sole criteria for measuring whether MK was a success story. However, the fact that under extremely adverse conditions MK was able to recover from setbacks and keep up an offensive against the apartheid regime, and maintain and grow its organisational capacity, for well nigh 30 years, is a testament to its durability and success.

The ANC, SACP and MK never abandoned their mission, kept coming back from what the regime repeatedly announced was the end of the struggle, and this resilience kept the spirit of hope alive among the people. Guerrilla struggle is the weapon of the weak over the strong and its ultimate efficacy can only be judged by the final outcome: has fundamental change been achieved? Was that change achieved by the contribution of MK’s activities? South Africa’s topography, lack of a friendly border, large white population rooted in the country, huge security apparatus, powerful resources backed-up by Western supply and support, speedy communication network and level of development by no means suited classical guerrilla war.

The liberation movement always stressed the relevance of mass struggle, where it would emerge strongest, and as that evolved so the development of the strategy and tactics came to regard MK’s role as secondary to and reinforcing the political struggle – but a vital necessity. While military operations only began to progress beyond armed propaganda in the 1980s the demonstration that the white regime was not invincible, was losing control in the townships and bantustans such as the Transkei, played a paramount role in inspiring the masses and tilting the balance of forces in favour of insurgency. The centuries of white colonial rule and race domination over the black population had to be broken. The formation of MK was instrumental as was the role of the victorious guerrilla struggles in the southern African region which with Soviet and Cuban support ultimately brought the SADF to a halt.

The nature of MK operations and dramatic growth in the 1980s was a key factor in moving from armed propaganda to a point approaching People’s War and the threat of insurrection by the time FW de Klerk threw in the towel in February 1990. By that stage MK’s Operation Secret Safari alone had smuggled 40 tons of weapons into the country and its recruits throughout South Africa and the Front Line States had grown to perhaps 10,000 of which perhaps half were fully trained and many were auxiliaries within the country. (See MK’s Comprehensive Personnel Register below which enumerates s far more than this).

The revolutionary army was growing, there was some arming of the masses, white youth were refusing to serve in the SADF, MK intelligence department (MKIZA) was gaining information from within the enemy forces (e.g. the roles of Rocklyn Williams and Roland Hunter), and elements within the bantustan armies, particularly the Transkei, were being won over – all key elements in the growth of a Revolutionary Army. The legendary Vo Nguyen Giap’s Five Fighting Factors (MK term) as the key to Vietnam’s victory over the French (1954) and then the Americans (1975) being the subject of intensive study in MK ranks. We synthesised these as:

  • A just cause providing moral superiority over the enemy;
  • Correct theory and leadership;
  • A united and determined people;
  • The invincible art of guerrilla warfare; and
  • International solidarity.

These and the theory of a Revolutionary Army were elements of what MK referred to as Military Combat Work (MCW) which combined political and military work. Its development based on Soviet partisan warfare in WW2 was an inestimable threat the regime had to take into account.

The MK numbers meant that when the time came in 1994 to form a new integrated national defence force (the SANDF) there were significant MK cadres to enlist with 12 becoming generals (some were over age such as General Lambert Maloi and not incorporated) and by 1998 General Siphiwe Nyanda became the SANDF commander. A Certified Personnel Register compiled for the inclusion of all previous forces – statutory and non-statutory – into the new SANDF listed 28,888 MK members of which 11,738 elected to join (16% of SANDFs strength); 7,238 demobilised, and the rest had taken jobs elsewhere, could not be traced or failed to report at all. (See Rocklyn Williams’ Brief Historical Overview of MK 1961-1994). It is possible that perhaps 8,000 received comprehensive training over the 30 years of MK’s existence (approximately 2,000 in the Soviet Union – many returning for advanced courses; 800 in the GDR training 80 a year for a decade at Tetrow but also small groups in Berlin; 300 in Cuba; 50 in Yugolslavia; the rest in Angola, and various African states such as Algeria, Egypt, Tanzania, Mozambique, Uganda, Zimbabwe and a few score in China and Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s – note: this is a rough estimation and needs accurate research. I know of one recruit who Joe Modise arranged to be trained with the Paslestinians just prior to expulsion in 1982. Were there more? RK).

MK started off from inside South Africa with a small contingent of cadres as its pathfinders. Approximately 100 operatives at its inception carried out almost 200 sabotage actions (December 1961-July 1963). At the end of that period perhaps some 300 cadres had been involved in operations and possibly up to 1,000 recruits had left the country for military training. However, by 1965 the underground in South Africa was effectively smashed. It was that underground network that was meant to receive the returning cadre and situate them safely in the country. They were from then, however, save for few in number, effectively locked out of the country for many years.

Thus the struggle leadership came to operate from exile. MK never gave up despite tremendous odds; going through ups and downs, from low to high points, until it was able to consolidate and grow from exile bases following the 1974-75 liberation of Angola and Mozambique. One of the stiffest obstacles to surmount was the enormous distance from home and dangers of moving through Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland and into a country infested with apartheid agents and informers, where the underground had been smashed and no safe havens existed. This remained a key problem right through to the late 1980s and took considerable courage, determination and ingenuity to overcome. The two mutinies in Angola and some acts of defiance that occurred over three decades emanated from this problem, as did the idea that applied for a time that guerrilla actions could create the political platform for survival rather than the reverse.(Note: this went along with the incorrect theoretical understanding of Regis Debray’s account of the Cuban revolution, despite being severely criticised by Joe Slovo: Latin America and the Ideas of Regis Debray African Communist No.33 1968).

With the strategy and tactics of armed struggle undergoing major shifts the 1976 Soweto Uprising proved the turning point. Recruits flocked into MK – drawn by the impact it had made and the capacity it had. By 1980 a new approach of People’s War, based in time around the Four Pillars of Struggle and the Revolutionary Army, saw a dramatic upturn in MK operations. Some success in building underground networks, and the mass upsurge in political struggle, partly inspired by armed actions, aided this progression. Our concept of a Revolutionary Army consisted of the highly trained core; auxiliaries among the populous; elements of the enemy forces won over (such as from the bantustans); and intelligence sources within the enemy working for the revolution.

Any assessment of the success of MK needs to take into account the overall impact of its military operations; its growing capacity to strike at the enemy; its ability to inspire the people; better prospects of survival amongst the people; the linking of its actions to the mass upsurge; dealing with agents and informers, the rendering of apartheid unworkable and the country ungovernable. To this needs to be factored in the psychological effect of armed blows on both the government and the white population; and the alarm of Western powers at the growing threat of armed revolution. The consequent pressure, aligned with other factors, on the apartheid regime and business interests, was part of the equation. To appreciate the growing confidence within MK it is necessary to bear in mind as well its battle record in Zimbabwe and presence in ZIPRA forces up to 1980 and Zimbabwe to 1990; and its intensive counterinsurgency actions against Savimbi’s Unita bandits during the 1980s in Angola. Such actions played a significant role in building MK’s combat record and experience. The courage and contempt for death shown by MK cadres from Vuyisile Mini, hanged in 1964, the likes of Basil February and James Masimini who fought to the death in Zimbabwe, Ahmed Timol’s underground role, young lions such as Solomon Mahlangu, the daring commander Barney Molokwane, who led the Sasol and other operations, and Phila Ndwandwe (Portia) defiant unto death, are unforgettable martyrs reflective of MK’s mettle throughout its 30 years existence.

MK Operations (see accompanying graph)

These are military operations carried out by MK combatants of the initial Sabotage Units of 1961 vintage; members of the Luthuli, June 16, Moncada and Madinoge Detachments, and many by internally trained units such as belonging to Special Operations, Political and other MK machineries of the Forward Areas or lone operatives who never trained in the camps or abroad.

  • 1961-1963: 170 operations were listed in the Rivonia indictment alone. In March 1966, the police chief, Lieutenant-General JM Keevy, stated that there had been 409 acts of sabotage in South Africa since 16 December 1961 but these include Poqo, the African Resistance Movement (ARM) as well as MK which would have been responsible for the bulk of those.
  • 1967-8: Zimbabwe campaign – at least four major battles and other skirmishes.
  • 1969-76: this period was a low point of operations but propaganda distribution carried the message that the liberation movement was alive; some underground units were established; infiltration of small numbers took place; an aborted sea landing in 1972 reflected the drive to get cadres back home. Numerous trials, including that of Winnie Mandela and others, were avidly transmitted the message of no surrender.
  • 1977-1979: the favourable conditions arising from the Soweto Uprising of 1976 saw the resumption of MK actions to 20 per year, including sophisticated operations such as rocket attacks on police stations such as Booysens, Moroko, Soekmekaar, physical clashes with the police in the rural areas such as at Derdepoort; the capture of Solomon Mahlangu’s unit in downtown Johannesburg was a setback but aroused the populous.
  • 1980-85: operations in the 1980s amounted to more than 1,000 and pointed to a dramatic rise in MKs capacity. The year 1980 opened with the Silverton siege in Pretoria again with a failure as the three guerrillas were killed – however the black population was greatly inspired by their daring; soon thereafter the country was rocked by the Sasol oil refinery attack of June 1980, led by the redoubtable Barney Molokoene; the August 1981 rocket attack on the Voortrekkerhoogte military base outside Pretoria; the May 1983 car bombing of the South African Air Force headquarters in Pretoria; the bombing of Eskom power plants in the Transvaal; the attack on the Koeberg nuclear plant near Cape Town were operations of growing sophistication which shook the regime.
  • 1986-89: following the Kabwe Conference of the ANC in June 1985 MK attacks were stepped up and by 1988 peaked at 249 that year; Operation Zikomo saw an unprecedented infiltration into the country; car bombing of police outside the Johannesburg and Roodepoort magistrates courts, the audacious launching of a driverless automatic car laden with explosives at the Johannesburg Drill Hall in July 1987; repeated bombings in Durban and environs including Robert McBride’s dramatic rescue from hospital of his wounded commander, Gordon Webster, under police guard in Pietermaritzburg; the laying of landmines within the border areas; the establishment of guerrilla bases in Ingwavuma, Zululand; a mortar attack on the SADF radar post at Klippan in the Western Transvaal in 1989; attacks on the police and military in the Eastern Cape; bomb attacks and sieges in Cape Town; the establishment of a political-military leadership in the country (Operation Vula) and so on. (Reference: South African Military History Journal Vol 11 No 5 – June 2000: A brief historical overview of Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK), 1961-1994 by Rocky Williams)

Statistics 1980-89 from University of Maryland Global Terrorism Database. This coincides with MK Intelligence calculations for same period which refers to bona fide MK operations and does not include the incalculable spontaneous acts of violence emerging from mass defiance. Barrell cites 281 acts in 1988 and in excess of 200 in 1989).

Had the cessation of MK actions in August 1990 not come about as a result of negotiations it is evident that such operations would have increased even more so. In the new favourable conditions of mass upsurge on a scale never before seen in South Africa the strategic objective of basing MK forces within the country, with the massive amount of weaponry that had been smuggled in, and the linking with the increasingly militant populous, rising working-class organisation and consciousness, would have seen significant advance towards the insurrectionary possibilities foreseen in such documents as ANCs Strategy & Tactics, Green Book, the SACP Path to Power, and Operation Vula (see Maharaj & O’Malley’s Shades of Difference).

In his paper (cited below) MK combatant Patrick Mangashe argues that the ANC`s armed struggle was halted in mid-stride (by the negotiation process), and can thus not be regarded as having run its full course. He further states that the advent of the UDF brought with it new impetus to the armed struggle by creating conditions that had not existed since 1961.

One is left to speculate on the extent to which the balance of forces was shifting in favour of mass insurrection. What might the outcome have been, given the growth of MK’s capacity and the rising insurrectionist mood of the masses, had negotiations not halted the process in its tracks? This certainly merits further examination, more particularly in the light of the way a Faustian Pact of compromise between elites resulted, bartering political power for the economic status quo, (albeit providing considerable opportunities for the development of a black business class) led to the pork barrel politics, systemic crises and degenerative rot of today’s South Africa in the hands of a Jacob Zuma? (See the Introduction to 4th edition my Armed & Dangerous, Jacana Media 2013). I am not saying that we should not have gone in for a negotiated settlement when the opportunity arose and which prevented civil war. Rather I raise for consideration that arguably we could have won far more demands at the negotiating table; controlling the riches at all costs mentality of corporate capital and inhibiting the emergent rent-seeking crony capitalists of the Zuma era.

Did we not allow a gap to develop between the political elite and the masses; between the ANC and the former UDF and organised labour, the former ingloriously dissolved by its top leadership (so many of whom have gone into business) while the latter, Cosatu, was at the apex of its strength? One is left to imagine the leverage those forces and an active MK with the masses on the rise could have given to the negotiation arm at the table! True, our adversaries had much powder in their guns but did we not have the strategic initiative? Were the masses not ready for sacrifice and revolt? Would the release of that energy not have provided a working class hegemony and assertion of discipline and control over the corruption and crony capitalism. Or perhaps it was us in the leadership who had lost the will and the belief in the masses? Those who might contend that the Western Powers would have subjected us to vigorous arm-twisting and threat of sanctions need also to consider the support we enjoyed from international solidarity and with regard to the USA the backing of African-Americans. I am not contending that we should have gone for insurrection or bust. The negotiated opportunity was a prospect we could not have ignored. The question posed is about how much more we might have gained had we not reined in the MDM, the trade unions and MK. The SACP and Cosatu were up in arms against the non-negotiable introduction of Gear at the expense of the RDP and lost that battle only to ultimately suffer from a Zuma leadership that could not be managed by the left.

But back to MKs growing capacity: even a critic such as Howard Barrell has evaluated MK’s role as follows: “MK’s main achievement over the three decades to 1990… helped to stimulate a combative political spirit among the ANC’s support base and to further militant popular campaigning. MK cadres dared to struggle, and set an example to millions. In this respect, MK played a vital role in bringing South Africa to the verge of a negotiated end to white minority political domination.” (MK: ANC’s armed struggle page 71).

What of the outcome? One indication of what has been lost relates to the fate of Mk veterans. The ANC and its Military Veterans’ Association (MKMVA) has to date failed to project to the South African people the outstanding achievements of MK and its operatives to the people of South Africa; a strange case of the victors failing to comprehensively write the history of the struggle and popularise the armed struggle. Now and then on anniversary dates such as the execution of Solomon Mahlangu some martyrs are glorified and medals haphazardly awarded to veterans without adequate certification.

Unlike the Chinese, Vietnamese, Cubans, Mozambicans for example, MK does not feature in school history curricula, no official films have been produced, and no military record is established. There is little contestation from government or ruling party concerning the many attempts to undermine MK’s notable achievements. Today’s youth – the born-frees – know little about MK’s role and the sacrifice of its cadres. This must be rectified or MK’s legacy will be lost. One other point among many about the integrity and profile of the MKMVA that must be sorted out is the age of its members, many whom appear to be extremely young. If an MK member was 18 years old in 1993 at the time it wound up then she/he would be 41 years old in 2016. It is high time that research is conducted into the MKMVA; its leadership; its structures and membership; its role which has come in for serious questioning as a private army of a particular political culture. What is quite bizarre is how its leadership stems from the intake of 1992 and how the mgwenya (1960s veterans) and 1976 intake have been left out in the cold.


As a militarily powerful state, recognised by both sides in the Cold War as globally strategic, overseeing a highly successful and relatively advanced (and thus complex) economy, radical change in apartheid South Africa was always going to require a combination of revolutionary forms of pressure to bring about the overthrow of the system.

Thus it required not only the development of a militant trade union movement; a revolutionary political movement; global public opposition to apartheid; but also activities that could trigger, within the capitalist global powers, sufficient uncertainty about the sustainability of white rule to force South Africa’s domestic and international business partners to insist on change. MK’s activities clearly contributed to the latter, and to the growth of at least the beginnings of an insurrectionary phase in SA that further contributed to Western alarm. That concern existed even though the prospect of a “red revolution” receded with the fall of the USSR.

While it might be argued that international pressure was an important factor in ending apartheid, that pressure did not come about because the West disapproved of apartheid, it came about because it was alarmed. And it was alarmed because the prospect of insurrection and an armed seizure of power (backed by a general strike and national insurrection) had, by the late 1980s, become objectively alarming.

The fact that MK’s armed struggle did not climax in an armed insurrection does not negate its success. A leaflet issued at that historic time when MK emerged on 16 December, 1961 declared:

We hope – even at this late hour – that our first actions will awaken everyone to a realisation of the disastrous situation to which the Nationalist [party] policy is leading. We hope that we will bring the Government and its supporters to their senses before it is too late, so that both the Government and its policies can be changed before matters reach the desperate stage of civil war. We believe our actions to be a blow against the Nationalist [government] preparations for civil war and military rule.”

Armed struggle was always one of several pillars forming part of the ANC struggle to end apartheid; the combination achieved the replacement of apartheid with democracy. MK’s founding manifesto set out its objectives as: “the overthrow of the Nationalist government, the abolition of white supremacy and the winning of liberty, democracy and full national rights and equality for all the people of this country”.

QED: MK succeeded in achieving those objectives. DM

Photo: Former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils attends the launch of the ‘Sidikiwe Vukani! Vote No’ campaign at Wits University in Johannesburg, Tuesday, 15 April 2014. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA


Literature and sources

As stated there is a growing list of literature of all kinds and what I provide hereunder is a skeletal form of just some of the titles by way of demonstrating the range.

(a) MK participants/activists

Struggle memoirs and autobiographies

Partly about MK: in the lives of Mandela, Sisulu, Govan Mbeki (including The Peasants’ Revolt), Kathrada, Goldberg, Rusty Bernstein; Joel Joffe’s The State vs Nelson Mandela, Ben Turok, Michael Dingake, Rica Hodgson, Mac Maharaj with Padraig O’Malley Shades of Difference provides exceptional insights and robust critique; Indris Naidoo’s Island in Chains, Barry Gilder’s Song’s and SecretsLondon Recruits edited by Ken Keable (clandestine internationalist support smuggling of literature and weapons); Aziz Pahad’s Insurgent Diplomat with insight into the secret talks on negotiations) etc.

MK memoirs and biographies

Books: James Ngculu’s The Honour to Serve (one of the best insider accounts of MK life, camps, training and a balanced view of the mutinies in Angola); Nathoo Babenia’s Saboteur (1961-3 sabotage campaign), Stanley Munong If We Must Die, Wonga Bottoman The Making of an MK Cadre; Fanele Mbali, In Transit; Connie Bram’s Vula (although for a full understanding Mac Maharaj’s O’Malley interviews are required); Raymond Suttner The ANC Underground; Timol A Quest for Justice Imtiaz Cajee’s outstanding research; Dynamite Men (Kathrada Foundation publication) which uniquely provides insight into SACP sabotage units prior to the establishment of MK; Tim Jenkin Escape from Pretoria; Ronnie Kasrils Armed and Dangerous and The Unlikely Secret Agent; Luli Callinicos’ Oliver Tambo Beyond the Engeli Mountains; Anthony Sampson’s Mandela; Bandiet and Stones against the Mirror by Hugh Lewin on the African Resistance Movement.

Journals: African Communist and Umsebenzi – SACP journals (the latter’s relaunch in the late 1980s coincides with the major escalation of mass struggle into a genuine semi-insurrectionary phase and its coverage of SDUs in the early 1990s); the ANC’s Sechaba journal; policy statements, analysis; commemorative anniversaries; Dawn MK’s Angola monthly camp journal and notably its Special 25th Anniversary 1986 edition with personal accounts covering Sabotage Campaign; Zimbabwe episodes; Aventura project – attempted landing by sea; Operation Ingwavuma – 1980s guerrilla base in northern Zululand; Thinker; November and December 2013 personal accounts of sabotage campaign; Tambo and the camps; Special Operations; weapons transport and infiltration; Journal of South African Studies for example articles by Arianna Lissoni, Luli Callinicos, Ben Magubane, Janet Cherry et al. South African Historical Journal – Special Issue: The ANC at 100. See especially Callinicos’ Oliver Tambo and the Dilemma of the Camp Mutinies in Angola in the Eighties, with a pertinent assessment of that controversial topic.

MK policy statements/analysis

MK Manifesto; Operation Mayibuye (draft); Rivonia Trial; SACP/ANC literature and statements; Morogoro Strategy & Tactics 1969; Green Book 1979; Make SA Ungovernable – Make apartheid unworkable Tambo’s 1985 Speech; Joe Slovo’s No Middle Road; the 1989 Harare Declaration; the SACP 1989 programme Path to Power; For the Sake of our Lives 1991 guidelines on forming self-defence units (SDUs); ANC Submission to TRC Aug 1996 and 12 May 1997 with notes on MK operations. The above are crucial documents which follow the genesis of the theory of the armed struggle, correction of strategic errors, emphasis on creating a political and underground base for armed actions, and the progression from sabotage and armed propaganda through to the concepts of people’s war and insurrection. The Harare Declaration points to the culmination of a possible peaceful negotiation of the conflict. In this respect the message of the MK Manifesto to the white community in 1961, hoping that civil war can be avoided, needs to be noted regarding the outcome arrived at by the final negotiations which adheres to that logic.

Oral interviews

SADET Oral History Project; Wolfie Kodesh recorded interviews and struggle archives (Mayibuye Centre) etc.

Academic accounts

Thula Simpson’s Umkhonto We Sizwe (this recent and massive tome identifies extraordinary number of incidents involving MK); Howard Barrell’s MK: The ANC’s Armed Struggle (Penguin), which is pro-MK in contrast to his subsequent very critical doctoral thesis, Conscripts of their Age – ANC operational strategy, 1976-1989; Julie Frederikse The Unbreakable Thread; Janet Cherry’s Umkhonto We Sizwe, a Jacana pocket history; Hugh Macmillan’s Chris Hani and Jack Simons in the same pocket series; and his excellent ANC The Lusaka Years; Janet Smith and B. Tromp Hani – A Life Too Short ; Ben Turok The ANC and the Turn to Armed Struggle; Joe Slovo: Latin America and the Ideas of Regis Debray African Communist No.33 1968); Vladimir Shubin ANC a view from Moscow and The Hot Cold War; Piero Gleijeses Conflicting Missions and Visions of Freedom (latter two authors brilliant works on international and regional situation, Soviet and Cuban roles); Filatova and Davidson The Hidden Thread – Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era; Soviet soldiers accounts in the Road to Cuito Cuanavale; the late MK combatant and scholar, Rocklyn Williams’ Brief Historical Overview of MK 1961-1994 is an invaluable source (Ref: South African Military History Journal Vol 11 No 5 – June 2000); The Thirty Years War for Southern African Liberation: A History soon to be published by John S. Sau; Patrick Mangashe’s paper to the Wits Conference: The armed struggle, the underground and mass mobilisation in South Africa’s Border region, 1986-1990, through the experience of MK Cadre emanates from Operation Zikomo (referred to above) and attests to the development of politico-military insurrection and what was possible by the late 1980s through the eyes of a combatant.

Jacob Dlamini’s Askari is an objective insight into those who turn traitor; and Jacques Pauw’s Heart of the Whore is an account of the regime’s hit squads; Total Onslaught by De Wet Potgieter – apartheid’s dirty tricks exposed; Secrets and Lies by Burger & Gould which deals with Wouter Basson and the CBW programme; James Saunders Apartheid’s Friends is an impressive account of the history of the Security Services.

Historical record

From Protest to Challenge to Victory; six volumes Carris, Carter, Gerhardt, Glaser; The Road to Democracy; SADET; TRC complete record; Archives: Mayibuye Centre UWC; Wits; Fort Hare; O’Malley interviews (; Committee on South African War Resistance (Cosawr) and End Conscription Campaign.


Secret Safari directed by David Brown: weapons smuggling.

Vula Communications: role of Tim Jenkins.

(b) Hostile/critical.


Bruno Mtolo’s Road to the Left (a traitor’s account of 1961-3 sabotage campaign); Terry Bell and Ahmeen Kajee’s Fordsburg Fighter – a deserter’s account 1961-67. But note Dlamini’s Askari which is not hostile and provides a more balanced account of defectors than the previous two books.

A problem of some of those dealing with defectors, traitors and mutiny is that they virtually exclusively extrapolate from the individual to the general and thus in their unbalanced generalisations throw out the baby with the bathwater. Revolution and armed struggle is a rough terrain and the protagonists are no saints but for every defector there is the story of countless heroes rising above the privations and at times abusive treatment in continuing with their sacred mission.


Stephen Ellis Comrades Against Apartheid and External Mission, Paul Trewelha Inside Quatro and other writings suffer from the former’s intense anti-communism and the latter’s emotional antagonism to the liberation movement, in both cases approaching conspiracy theory; Ellis’s well-researched Genesis of the ANC’s Armed Struggle 1946-1961, Journal of South African Studies, June 2011 is considerably better; Anthea Jeffries People’s War is an outright defence of the Inkatha Freedom Party and an effort at attributing the blame for violence on the ANC’s “terror” war; Allister Sparks who typifies liberal viewpoints such as Jeffries that MK and ANC in exile are responsible for all the ills from which the country is presently suffering. It is worth noting the man’s background as probably the most antagonistic of editors towards the ANC in the South African media 1960-1989 (other than Tertius Myburgh), and his abrupt about-turn when it became politically expedient to get into Mandela’s good books in 1990. Most of his journalistic work retains an aftertaste of his initial antagonism when he referred to MK combatants as “terrorists”.

SADF and police literature

Magnus Malan and Jannie Geldenhuys memoirs; Helmoed Heitman War in Angola; Leopold Scholtz SADF Border War 1966-89; Jan Breytenbach 32 Battalion and Eden’s Exiles among others writing on Angola; Reid-Daly’s Selous Scouts on Zimbabwe; Peter Stiff Warfare by Other Means; Apartheid’s Contras by William Minter.

Apart from Breytenbach who admits the SADF failed to achieve its objective at Cuito Cuanavale and lost in Angola, this literature, including his writing, sees the communists behind the “terrorism” in the region and as would be expected extols the brilliance of the SADF.

Foremost of SAPS literature about the “revolutionary onslaught” is that by General HD Stadler The Other Side of the Story, General JV van der Merwe and others Die Glorie Jare van die SA Polisiemag, Hennie Heyman’s book on General Mike Geldenhuys, A Jansen on Eugene de Kok, J Pittaway Koevoet – The Men Speak; and the very interesting electronic magazine Nongqai edited by Hennie Heymans chronicling SAPS history; Inside Boss by Gordon Winter; Neil Barnard Secret Revolution and Marius Spaarwater Spook’s Progress; Eugene de Kock A long night’s Damage. Barnard claims the “armed onslaught was in many respects an abject failure. Where did the ANC set up a military base on South African territory, or even just a camp, as prescribed by the theory of revolutionary warfare? In fact, they were not even safe in neighbouring states.” Well, we by no means claim to have adhered to the classical prescriptions of revolutionary warfare without developing our own concepts in theory and practice as has been demonstrated. The ultimate point is not how safe were we in the neighbouring states (apartheid forces certainly failed to root us out) but how safe was the apartheid system?


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