The ANC’s first armed military operation

The Luthuli Detachment and the Wankie campaign, July - September 1967

A mini-thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of MA in the Department of History, University of the Western Cape, June 2003.


This mini-thesis tells the story of the African National Congress (ANC's) first armed military operation and its Luthuli Detachment. The latter joined forces with the Zimbabwean African People's Union (ZAPU) and crossed the Zambezi River on 31 July 1967 into Rhodesia. Their mission was twofold: the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) would embark on a long march home to South Africa, whilst some MK members would assist ZAPU's military wing, ZPRA to establish a guerrilla base at Lupane in north-east Rhodesia. The planners of the march intended to avoid contact with the Rhodesian security forces. This was not to be. A number of skirmishes between the two opposing forces lasted from 13 August to 4 September 1967. The Rhodesian Prime Minister, Ian Smith invited his South African counterpart John Vorster to send South African security reinforcements to Rhodesia to counter the guerrilla forces.

In the course of the mini-thesis the historical context of the Luthuli Detachment and the ZAPU guerrillas is traced. Why was their story so unique? It was the first time since the 19th century that armed clashes took place between the White rulers and the Black people of the region. The Luthuli Detachment was the first unit of the ANC to undertake an armed military operation and were pioneers in trying to carve a geographical route back into South Africa after the severe repression of the Nationalist Party government in the 1960s.

The long march through the Rhodesian bush and details of the battles, which ensued between the opposing forces, is recorded. The first skirmish took place on 13 August 1967 and was called the Battle of Nyatuwe. The Rhodesian security forces called their action against the guerrillas Operation NICKEL. Their South African counterparts called their action Operation CHINAMAN; whilst the South African Airforce's specific assistance was called Operation SUPERCHARGE.

The media coverage of the Wankie campaign is briefly examined. More importantly, the Luthuli Detachment's place in popular history and memory is discussed with specific reference to the Western Cape and the first two armed Coloured MK soldiers, James April and Basil February. The latter fell during the Wankie campaign.

This mini-thesis uses a range of secondary and primary sources to reconstruct what happened between the ANC-ZAPU forces and the Rhodesian-South African security forces. These include accounts by members of the Luthuli Detachment like Chris Hani, Graham Morodi, Norman Duka and James April. The primary sources include archival documents of the South Africa and Rhodesian security forces.

The trial record of James April is also used.

By the middle of September 1967, some of the guerrillas were killed, some were imprisoned by the Rhodesian or Botswana authorities and some found refuge in Zambia or Swaziland. Only one guerrilla managed to travel to South Africa but was later arrested and become an Askari by working for the South African Security Police. This mini-thesis traces the story of the Luthuli Detachment and their attempted march home to South Africa.

Last updated : 21-Oct-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 03-Apr-2011