4. The ANC underground between Rivonia and 1976

The accepted view of black, and especially African, politics after the Rivonia Trial, held by historians and other scholars of South African resistance, is conveyed with only limited qualification by Leonard Thompson when he wrote that by the end of 1964 ‘the first phase of violent resistance was over, and for another decade the country was quiescent.’1Another historian commented in similar vein that ‘for at least a decade after 1964 the ANC virtually ceased to exist in South Africa and the prospects for liberation appeared more remote than ever.’2The same perspective is found in a work published late in 2007.3

This chapter contests this characterisation. Using evidence from oral interviews and written sources, a picture of a small but significant and growing underground ANC presence in various parts of the country during these years is revealed. It is in fact this very presence that is an important part of the explanation of the subsequent re-emergence of ANC symbols and organisations supportive of the Congress movement, and in particular why it was that the ANC became the primary beneficiary of the Soweto uprising of 1976–7.

Before marshalling the evidence to contradict the notions of dormancy, quiescence, silence and political vacuum, some general observations need to be made about the literature covering this period.

It is true that the Rivonia arrests were a ‘major breakthrough’ for the police, who now ‘gained the upper hand in the contest’.4As Stephen Davis has written, a ‘titanic leap of faith would have been required in 1963 to believe in the ultimate resurrection of the ANC’.5But it is not true that the reverses suffered after Rivonia meant that the ANC disappeared altogether, as almost all the literature so confidently asserts.

Part of the reason why people came to believe the ANC had been annihilated was the power and reach of the state, which exerted every effort to ensure that people believed the ANC was dead. Not only was newspaper coverage of the ANC in this period minuscule – which may be accounted for in part by restrictive legislation – but what coverage did occur was extremely negative or dismissive in tone, reflecting the bias of the white-owned newspapers. As for the existence of the ANC outside the country, this was not dealt with in the media, except in order to imply squandering of funds or idle feuding. The Wankie campaign of 1967, for example, received little mention except to refer to MK’s failure.

It might have raised spirits among ANC supporters at home to know that MK and ZAPU (the Zimbabwe African People’s Union), then in alliance with the ANC, inflicted heavy losses on the Rhodesians, as was later conceded by Major-General Ron Reid-Daly 6of the Selous Scouts, the Rhodesian commandos deployed against guerrillas.

To the extent that the ANC was building an underground presence within the country, its existence depended on highly secretive and unobtrusive organisational activities. The stakes were very high; the odds were stacked against such efforts. Any publicity would have doomed these attempts. Moreover, in a phase where rebuilding or reconstruction is taking place on a new basis, these efforts usually do not show immediate or visible results for some time. In this sense the conditions of underground operations in general have come – at the level of appearances or visibility – to lend support to the view of the ANC’s absence.

Before operatives could begin to work, having made an often difficultentry into the country if coming from outside, they needed to ‘lie low’and establish that their presence had not been detected. This might mean waiting for some months before even starting with reconnaissance or acquiring material for pamphlets or whatever was required. There were a variety of logistical necessities that were more or less time-consuming, depending on the extent to which a support network was present and had been prepared in advance for the cadre’s entry. In the early years, many MK fighters had to fend for themselves and were not met by an internally prepared underground apparatus or any form of logistical support. Linus Dlamini, who was trained primarily in intelligence, entered South Africa without papers and travelled as a stowaway for 11 days on a ship, not eating for the whole journey from Dar es Salaam to Durban. Amos Lengisi and Matthews Ngcobo, also highly trained, spent a longer time in similar conditions leaving Mombasa and entering Cape Town, also without papers, in 1966.7

Thus, while little armed activity took place immediately following 1964 and only sporadically during the period thereafter, this is of the nature of underground preparatory work, which, whatever its immediate scale, requires patient rebuilding and is by definition beyond the public eye. Furthermore, the absence of underground structures able to support MK adequately is not the same as the absence of an underground at all. In fact, an underground presence could be quite unrelated to military activities or insufficient to give the full level of support required to mount and sustain an MK presence. Alternatively, it may have been largely geared to sending people out to MK rather than having a capacity to sustain MK cadres on their return from training.8

Every revolutionary struggle passes through setbacks or changes in emphasis, as in China when there was a change from a worker-led to peasant-driven revolution. These disruptions do not necessarily mean that nothing is happening in the periods before the results of new factors become evident at an overt level.

Here it will be shown that there was a force being trained for underground activity outside the country which, however high its level of training might have been, was not able to be deployed for much of the period of exile. At the same time, people within the country, from very quiet beginnings, gradually developed a ‘sea’ within which the MK guerrillas could more easily swim as well as independently initiating their own activities – armed and unarmed – that made life difficult for the regime.

A second point is that although the national leadership of the ANC had been arrested in 1964 or gone into exile, the ANC’s support base did not simply disappear too.9 What needs to be recognised is that popular association with the ANC was more than a formal political organisation; it was a cultural link for many people, a connection passed down from many parents to children in a variety of ways, or part of a cultural environment where values were transmitted through various means. Nomboniso Gasa supports this impression from personal experience in the rural Eastern Cape in the 1970s:

Every day, in our families and households, people undermined the state, even as they feared it. Even when there was no mass struggle, there was song and mothers crooned and sang to their children. They whispered the names of Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe, Lilian Ngoyi and Albertina Sisulu in their prayers behind closed doors. Much of this consciousness remained with the supporters of the ‘absent’ liberation movements.10

Then again, people often continued to meet as ANC supporters, though they did little more than exchange views and interpretations,‘spread the word’ and keep up one another’s spirits. Such was the case in the 1970s (and later) in Ntshingeni, a dusty village adjoining St Mark’s mission in Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape.11Many of these people were not ANC members in the technical sense of having ‘signed up’ – but that is of little significance where the conditions for joining were absent. In some cases, individuals without membership cards did everything else that a ‘properly’ recruited member would have undertaken in a formally mandated and constituted underground unit. The notion of underground work needs to include a variety of manifestations, including a great deal of freelance supportive activity, such as spontaneous responses to requests to hide people or provide other forms of assistance.12

The later reappearance of Congress symbols and activity represented both continuity (for the organisation was never entirely absent) and discontinuity, in that it also undoubtedly spread among people and to areas that may not previously have supported the ANC. Failure to note the element of continuity may relate to a tendency among scholars to focus on what is visible in institutional structures, and hence fail to interrogate absence and silence, to dig below the surface, even a surface calm, to see how and where the ‘invisible’ associations and formal and informal organisations and other ANC-supporting networks were located.13

Though it is not easy to reconstruct the emergence of the ANC underground after 1964, there is sufficient evidence to begin to assemble a picture which by its nature lacks the coherence and complex institutional character of conventional politics. This was a presence which sometimes suffered serious losses, often had to change modes of location, sometimes worked in isolation from other individuals who were not known to one another but were doing similar work. This was part of the post-banning disarray where there was not a centralised coordinating authority and where regularised contact with the ANC’s outside mission had not yet been established.

Significantly, many of those involved were women, especially the wives of those in detention, notably Albertina Sisulu, whose role throughout the period of illegality was fundamental to the continued existence of the ‘Congress tradition’ and presence. These women organised safe accommodation for individuals on the run from the police, and storage facilities for propaganda and publicity equipment They managed an elaborate communications system and courier network linking the different units. At the same time they ensured that they knew the conditions of various people in need of assistance after experiencing repression and attended to their welfare. There was also a continued role played for those who remained at large, after the arrest of the second High Command.14

Albertina Sisulu sought out other ANC figures in an effort to rebuild the organisation. Underground work required a balance between apparent low-profile inactivity (for purposes of police attention) and simultaneously undertaking – under the noses of the police– the difficult task of gradually building ‘some semblance of ANC underground machinery.’15John Nkadimeng, a stalwart originating from the militant Communist-initiated Northern Transvaal migrant workers’ organisation known as Sebatakgomo, and later General Secretary of SACTU, was released from prison in 1966 and then placed under restrictions confining him to Orlando. Security police watched former political prisoners especially closely, so Nkadimeng was slow to make contact with Albertina Sisulu although he had established that she was one of the few ANC figures still active. While it was difficult for her to meet with people like Nkadimeng because of his banning orders and her house arrest, they developed ways of working together while resisting suggestions to engage with what they considered risky participants. Their main activity was to facilitate the passage of ANC members who wanted to leave the country for education or military training. Sisulu and Nkadimeng made contact with Martin Ramokgadi (also a former political prisoner) and indirectly with Robert Manci (known as ‘Malume’, meaning ‘uncle’).16Together they developed a formal working committee that managed to operate, albeit with difficulty, in order to link with structures in other provinces. This was a problem because the Johannesburg group was not able to meet formally with each other or even communicate at all because of the character of some of the banning orders.17

From the outset of this period, in the expectation that individuals were required to leave the country and return as trained soldiers, a priority became recruitment for MK. Some people were unhappy about large numbers leaving the country, but the leadership felt that conditions inside necessitated military preparations outside.18Thus, in October 1964, Albertina Sisulu was probably involved in arranging for people from Soweto to leave South Africa for military training and for those returning to instruct others inside the country.19

By late 1964 the earliest groups, who had been sent out at the time of the formation of MK, were beginning to return, five of the groups being sent back separately into the country. They were tasked with training others. They were linked to the second High Command, the group led by Wilton Mkwayi, who had evaded arrest at Rivonia and stood trial in what was known as the ‘second Rivonia Trial’, but they were not directly implicated when Mkwayi and others were charged and continued their work after their arrest. Others were taken out of the country by this group in order to receive training.20

The early phase immediately after Rivonia was thus one of patching together what could be joined, and reconnecting with old comrades who were not too afraid to engage in illegal work, especially drawing on the veterans who remained outside prison or prisoners released after relatively short sentences.

While Albertina Sisulu and Nkadimeng were establishing a cell with reach beyond Soweto, another cell organised by Winnie Mandela (now Madikizela-Mandela) was in operation. Albertina Sisulu and also Lilian Ngoyi were reluctant to link up with Winnie Mandela, whose style of operation was considered risky and likely to attract the attention of police agents.21Nevertheless, many of those involved in the Winnie Mandela unit were well-established ANC figures like Elliot Tshabangu, Samson Ndou, Rita and Lawrence Ndzanga (Lawrence was later killed in police detention) and it also drew in young people like Wally Serote and Snuki Zikalala.22Ndou remarks that underground work never ceased, there was no ‘lull’, just that general meetings were stopped.23The group conducted extensive political education among the younger members on a wide range of aspects of ANC history and Marxism. They were organised on the basis of the M-plan to avoid the arrest of one group implicating and leading to the arrest of another. Ndou and others travelled widely, and he administered an oath based on the MK one to those recruited.24

In the late 1960s, despite heavy repression by the state, underground work continued. From mid-1965 until the end of 1969, some 831 people were convicted under an assortment of laws including the Suppression of Communism Act, the Unlawful Organisations Act, the Terrorism Act (from 1968), and the General Law Amendment Act.25The types of activity for which people were charged included continuing to be a member of the ANC, taking part in organisational activities, holding ANC meetings, contributing to or soliciting funds for the organisation, conspiring to commit sabotage, recruiting for military training, and undergoing military training abroad. The figure of 831 convictions compares with that of 1604 after the ‘waves of mass arrests at the height of political activity in 1963 and 1964’.26Some of the former may have been the same people who had been previously convicted and faced ‘further charges’.27

In this period from the early to the late 1960s, the unit involving Albertina Sisulu and John Nkadimeng was involved in sending people out of the country, distributing ANC and SACP leaflets, recruiting people to carry out tasks, and maintaining underground structures.

Through the use of couriers, contact was established and maintained with members in Natal, the Free State and the Western Cape. There were ways in which members of the Johannesburg group could meet twice a month in the centre of the city (drawing on connections with security guards there), contact being coordinated by the Soweto cell, which had links with the leadership in exile and received reports about conditions on Robben Island through newly released prisoners. Another key task continued to be assisting the families of political prisoners, particularly with their fi nancial needs.28

Outside Johannesburg, an important indication of underground activity in the late 1960s emerged in the 1969 Pietermaritzburg trial of ANC cadres who had entered the country after training abroad, including as stowaways on ships. The indictment was based on the guerrilla mission identifying secluded places where military training could be provided once arms and ammunition had been smuggled into the country.29Members of this group, who entered the country in various ways, had travelled to the Transkei, Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Natal, Transvaal and the Free State, and organised in many of these places. In the case of Amos Lengisi, before his arrest he and his team had ‘offered basic military training to a number of recruits.

Each batch of newly trained cadres was expected to set up their own structures so that they could provide support for returning guerrillas.’30

Some of those who were in the Pietermaritzburg trial had taken part in the Wankie campaign; the state joined groups with different origins in the same trial.31

The degree of preparation for the entry of the Dlamini–Lengisi–Ngcobo mission seems to have varied, with little logistical support in some cases (for example no travel documentation), very difficult modes of entry (in the case of Linus Dlamini, Matthews Ngcobo and Amos Lengisi, they travelled for between 11 and 20 days as stowaways, depending on whether it was between Dar es Salaam and Durban or Mombasa and Cape Town, most of the time spent in a wardrobe).32A significant element in the strengthening of the ANC underground was the infusion of former political prisoners who had served relatively short-term sentences or had been among the first batch imprisoned.

Starting in the late 1960s, prisoners released from the Island gradually started to surface in various townships and rural areas, although they were closely watched by the police. In many cases they were given a mandate to join structures or engage in one or other activity upon their release.33This was not peculiar to the ANC, but was also found among PAC returned prisoners like Simon Ramogale in the township of Tembisa in the East Rand in the late 1960s.34

Henry Makgothi explains that when he left the Island in the 1970s he knew exactly what he had to do and whom he had to link up with.35

Murphy Morobe confi rms this for the 1980s, when he was ‘mandated’ to join the trade unions.36A group of ex-political prisoners, based in Soweto and Alexandra, worked under heavy security in the late 1960s and early 1970s – in particular, Makgothi, Gqabi, Ramokgadi, Manci and Nkadimeng, though their times of operation did not always coincide.37

What is interesting about these underground workers is the element of mutual trust, respect and understanding that developed, and continued to develop, among them, first in the 1950s, then in prison, in MK, in the underground, and for some in exile. Some of those in this Johannesburg grouping who have not died of old age or been assassinated are presently working together in a business in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

The reach of this group extended beyond the African townships. On release from prison in the 1970s, Indres Naidoo, one of the first members of the Indian community to be convicted of MK activities (a group referred to by the Security Police as the ‘dynamite coolies’), returned to his family home in Doornfontein. He was contacted by the Johannesburg group and worked in their underground network.38

A number of former political prisoners were also active in establishing an ANC presence in Natal, among them Griffiths Mxenge (later murdered by an apartheid death squad, as was his wife, Victoria) and Mandla Judson Khuzwayo. The role of Jacob Zuma on his release from prison seems to have been crucial in building the ANC in Natal.

In an interview he speaks about the situation on his release, contesting the claim that there had been a ‘lull’ in ANC activity.39Pravin Gordhan, a former ANC underground worker from the mid-1970s, now Commissioner of the South African Revenue Services, speaks of the impact of released political prisoners on the thinking and culture of ANC supporters and as role models for young activists in mid-1970s Natal:

They were bearers of history, bearers of experiences, bearers of anecdotes, bearers of the Congress culture, ‘this is how you do things, this is how you say things, this is how you analyse things’, they were bearers of inspiration, because you could relate to them as heroes, and there were not many heroes at the time, and each of them had a different quality because they each played a different role.40

This quotation captures an important trait constantly heard as the ANC matured and its presence became felt, and especially important for the underground, conveyed by the phrase ‘this is how you do things’: sustainable work required careful planning and patient building of organisational structures.

In turn, Barney Pityana, now Vice-Chancellor of the University of South Africa, a founding member of the Black Consciousness movement at the time, speaks of the exemplary character and conduct of people like Griffiths Mxenge and Joe Gqabi, while Terrence Tryon, then a young official of SASO (the South African Students’ Organisation), the founding BC organisation, speaks of MD Naidoo, also a released political prisoner, teaching him how to operate underground in the early 1970s.41

Gradually the ANC in exile sought to build its ideological hegemony and provide guidance to supporters in the country, an important factor in a period when morale was low and the possibility of recovery of ANC strength seemed unlikely. In the absence of easily available ANC literature and free discussion, it became necessary to try to diffuse general communications about the history and policies of the organisation. Consequently, besides the strengthening and mentorship by former political prisoners, a constant and important factor in the ANC presence within the country was the daily broadcasts from Radio Freedom, repeatedly mentioned by informants as one of the ways they were attracted to the ANC. The lineage of these broadcasts can be traced to the earlier one from an illegal radio station within South Africa, ‘ANC Radio’, made by Walter Sisulu before his arrest and the subsequent Rivonia Trial.42On 26 June 1963 Sisulu broadcast this:

Sons and Daughters of Africa:

I speak to you from somewhere in South Africa.

I have not left the country.

I do not plan to leave.

Later, Wilton Mkwayi made a similar clandestine broadcast, after the Rivonia arrests.43For over twenty years Radio Freedom, described as the ‘Voice of the African National Congress and the People’s Army uMkhonto weSizwe’, was broadcast from outside the country. It started from Lusaka, Zambia, in 1967, and at its height broadcast daily at staggered times and frequencies from five African countries: Angola, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Tanzania and Zambia. It is not possible to gauge the extent of its listenership but, as resistance intensified, tuning in to these broadcasts became a daily ritual or duty for those who considered themselves part of the struggle. Listening to these programmes was illegal and construed as ‘furthering the aims’ of a banned organisation, which could have resulted in a prison sentence. It was thus a form of identification with the ANC in situations where people were already members or were sympathisers but had no opportunity to join. That this was recognised by the regime is illustrated by a 1983 South African commando raid which targeted and destroyed the Radio Freedom Madagascar facility, forcing it off the air for a short period of time.44

The broadcasts inspired defi ance. They always began with a round of shots from AK47 assault rifles and the revolutionary song ‘Hamba kahle Mkhonto weSizwe/Go well, Mkhonto weSizwe’. The sound of gunshots potentially and actually used to attack police and other apartheid targets was inspiring to many people and prompted men and women to seek out the ANC.

But the broadcasts also sought to assign concrete tasks – for the youth, women, workers, civic organisations and others, especially in the 8 January message, delivered on the anniversary of the founding of the ANC. It inspired the creation of organisations amongst unorganised or under-organised sectors and in places that had been neglected. It also helped coordinate the strategies of the ANC internally and externally, ensuring that there was ‘one line of march’ or that members all ‘read from the same prayer book’.

In some ways Radio Freedom was able to achieve these tasks more effectively than many other liberation movement media. In a country characterised by high levels of illiteracy, many people relied on the radio for their information. In addition, commentaries were broadcast in most, if not all, the languages of the country, something not achieved in any other medium.

But engagement in revolutionary struggle entailed continually trying to increase the pressure on the ‘enemy’ through an increasing and preferably ever more imaginative and extensive range of methods.

Radio broadcasts were one means by which the ANC carried its message to South Africans. Another was the sporadic distribution of ANC and SACP propaganda, chiefly pamphlets, much of which were prepared by the SACP in its London office. Initially the material was brought into South Africa by couriers, some of whom were non-South Africans recruited from solidarity movements and the British Communist Party. Once the material had been smuggled in (hidden in the false bottoms of suitcases or wrapped within false covers) it was posted or disseminated among the wider community, though it seems likely that it was also supplied to existing underground units.45

The distribution of leaflets was also sometimes accompanied by other ways of making the ANC presence felt. In 1967 ANC flags and huge banners proclaiming ‘The ANC lives’ appeared on buildings in prominent positions in central Johannesburg and Durban. At the same time as they unfurled through a timing device, they released showers of leaflets down on the streets. Sometimes a pamphlet bomb would be used, a time-delay rocket that on explosion released a payload of pamphlets into the air, usually in a busy concourse. The dramatic effect was often accompanied by a tape-recorded ANC message relayed from a hidden place that would be hard for the police to find. The first such broadcast took place on 26 June 1968 in Johannesburg, and was repeated there as well as in Cape Town, Kimberley and Port Elizabeth during 1969 and 1970. The messages were delivered by Robert Resha, then an ANC leader, and freedom songs were played.46These dramatic activities were hard for the media to ignore, and so the news spread to those who had neither seen the pamphlets nor heard the broadcasts.

Other methods were adopted with the same objectives.47Stickers bearing the name ANC and the slogan ‘Inkululeko ngesikathi sethu/Freedom in our lifetime’ were attached to lampposts, walls and shop fronts, and painted slogans would appear referring to the ANC being at war with the regime.48

Evidence suggests that such propaganda had real impact. The Revd Fumanekile Gqiba describes their impact in Cape Town in 1975 and 1976:

I remember some of them at Mowbray bus stop. They used to refer to them as ‘bucket bombs’, pamphlets that were just blown during the pick-up hour, right in the heart of town, in the main streets. They did a good work, I must say it – they really worked. There was also a heavy publicity on it, press and the like, and blacks again discover, look the ANC’s alive. And the method which was used was really sophisticated – as a result, it was said these are well-trained people. People said, ‘Ah, our boys have come back,’ because we were told that there are some people who went outside to train and they’ll be back one day.49

By the late 1960s and the 1970s, propaganda units began to establish themselves within South Africa, involving greater use of local cadres, mainly recruited while outside the country. As far as can be ascertained, these units dealt almost solely with propaganda distribution, though their reports on the prevailing situation in the country also assisted ANC intelligence and strategists. The units of the 1970s were generally very small in number; recruitment took place on a very limited basis and expansion was discouraged.50Their membership consisted mainly of Communists. These operatives had to avoid attracting attention to themselves by doing anything that would arouse interest in their lives, for example infringement of the Immorality Act, which prohibited sexual relations across the colour line, or contravention of other apartheid laws that might invite police search of one’s possessions and discovery of the unit.51Underground white operatives were usually instructed to have no contact with black people – this created a sense of frustration which activists in the open, nonracial movement of the 1980s would not experience. If, in the earlier period, an underground operative had entered a township or demonstrated any degree of empathy or solidarity, this would have led to their underground activities being immediately endangered if not ended. For the white operative, being underground entailed living an elaborate double life.52

Propaganda units continued to disseminate material that had been smuggled into the country, including SACP or ANC publications like Sechaba and the African Communist, but they also began to produce material of their own. In many cases the literature was official literature of the ANC or SACP, sent from outside but produced within the country on time-consuming, manually operated duplicators known as ‘roneo machines’. Otherwise, pamphlets without the official imprimatur of either organisation but supportive of the broad lines of the ANC–SACP alliance were written and produced by these units. In this category was the publication Vukani! / Awake!53Then too there was general, anti-apartheid material such as bumper stickers that read ‘Ban apartheid, not people.’ As Pallo Jordan comments, these were slogans ‘anyone could use. It wasn’t seen as ANC and anyone could be saying that. But it was injecting a certain mood into the country.’54

At the same time, ANC propaganda activity was often spontaneously organised by or included people who were not members of the ANC or SACP. In the years after the ANC’s banning there was periodic spray-painting of ANC slogans by informal groups sympathetic to the organisation. The offi cially constituted propaganda units coexisted with freelance activities of people in support of the ANC and SACP, who sometimes devised their own pamphlets or painted slogans on walls.55This tendency towards spontaneous propaganda activity was heightened during and after the Soweto uprising, which was accompanied by ‘a spectacular outpouring of agitational leafl ets’.56

The Johannesburg Star of 16 October 1976 commented: ‘Circulating mainly in Black urban areas and varying widely in quality of writing, production and thinking, their very number sometimes gives the impression that everyone with access to a typewriter and a duplicating machine has rushed to propagate his own views.’

The ANC of the mid-1970s entered a situation where the voice and imagery of the organisation had not been legally available for some fi fteen years and where many individuals were ignorant of its existence and policies. The only visible black politicians were those who collaborated with the government in bantustans, urban ‘Bantu’ councils and similar institutions. Propaganda efforts had the effect of keeping the memory of the ANC alive within the country, maintaining a visibility when it was illegal to be organisationally present.

The ANC was primarily urban-based and that is where it drew most of its MK recruits. Much of what has been described so far took place in the cities and urban centres of the country. But it had made organisational gains in parts of the rural areas at various times. The rural areas included numbers of past and potential supporters; though they were more isolated, dispersed and difficult to access, they were unevenly policed (sometimes with police presence very concerted and sometimes relatively absent) and could conceal ANC activity more easily than people in the towns. In the two examples that follow, one in the then Western Transvaal (now North-West Province) and the other in the Transkei, support for the ANC went hand in hand with opposition to the bantustan structures that the apartheid government sought to impose.

Around the time of the Rivonia Trial the community of Dinokana near Zeerust in the Western Transvaal had just emerged from intense conflict with the government over the Bantu Authorities system, attempts to depose their chief, and later the extension of passes to women, involving an unusual alliance of patriarchs and women.57In cases where hereditary chiefs would not cooperate they were replaced by government nominees. One of those who were uncooperative was Chief Moilwa of Dinokana. When instructed to tell his wife to take out a pass he is alleged to have said, ‘Who the hell is Verwoerd? He is just a minister and there will be other ministers after him. I am not afraid of him, and Dinokana will stand here forever.’58The resistance went further and some of the chiefs decided to throw their weight behind the ANC. They had set up underground structures, which they linked to MK and its recruitment machineries. In a meeting of a village council (lekgotla), the views of the chiefs were discussed and it was decided that each family would provide one of its sons to join MK.59

This was referred to as the ‘decision under the tree’, a tree opposite the current offi ces of the chief’s councillors. As with many physical objects around which significant events and rituals occur or to which ritual signifi cance is attached, this tree has peculiar qualities in that, as I have seen, its branches fall off at the slightest touch. I note that I have seen this happen because a reader of an article where this was mentioned suggested insertion of the word ‘appear’, implying that the phenomenon was an illusion.60This transformation of the scale of Dinokana resistance is illustrative of a frequent political phenomenon whereby local grievances if skilfully managed can be transformed into a willingness to commit to wider national issues, in this case providing human resources for MK.

In another remote area, Ntshingeni, a village adjoining St Mark’s mission in the district of Cofimvaba, attempts were made to keep the ANC alive during the 1970s and 1980s.

In the 1970s ”¦ I used to meet with [a group of three] people ”¦ about ANC. We used to talk generally about the situation in the country, and then we could say this one is ANC and this one is PAC, after the banning of the organisations ”¦ We usually had mgalelo [a type of stokvel, an informal savings scheme, found in South Africa]. We used to meet in the stokvel, and there we made each other aware that they should not be treated the way they were treated by the Matanzima government. We organised people. We tried not to hit [get caught by] Matanzima’s laws. When the organisation was unbanned now, all those people joined the ANC.

Operating in that period required secrecy and that is why they chose to operate in the stokvels. They knew that there were informers present. Their tactics were flexible, and included infiltrating bantustan structures:

There were a lot [of informers]. We used to discuss in front of them and they used to nickname us communist and abanqolobi [terrorists]. All those names ”¦ We joined a women’s organisation in Transkei which was called TUWO, Transkei United Women’s Organisation. In the true sense it was TNIP, Matanzima’s party. So we decided to join it and sensitise the other women that this is not it, not what has been fought for and people were aware that there were campaigns that Mandela should be released. So everywhere our group went in the Transkei, we wanted to hear people talking about Mandela. If they did not talk about Mandela we knew this was not the organisation we were thinking of. It was generally informal, but we discussed that we should defy Matanzima. We used to say one day the ANC will be unbanned, but there were no people to guide us.61

This last statement indicates the dilemma of freelance ANC supporters. They wanted to act in a way that supported the ANC, but not being in touch with leadership or formal structures meant they sometimes had doubts as to whether they were in fact doing what the organisation would have required. They may often have used this freedom in creative ways that the organisation would have admired. Alternatively they could have done things apparently in the name of the ANC that were embarrassing. Logistically the dilemma was impossible to resolve.

But somehow, through talk with trusted associates, news spread of how to connect with the ANC where it was present, and there was at times an MK presence and assisting of MK in other parts of the former Transkei, including activity of a member of Matanzima’s family:

We also knew that there was somebody from Cradock who was a policeman in Lady Frere who used to help the people who were going out on MK, his name was Zolile Tshonti. He helped them to cross. Zolile was related to the Matanzimas, they never suspected that he was doing this. They only heard about this at his funeral. This man used to stay at Lingelihle Township near Cradock.62

The isolation of the rural areas was a severe obstacle to the dissemination of ANC views and activity, but on occasion the apartheid government unwittingly assisted the organisation by banishing troublesome opponents to the bantustans or former political prisoners to the rural areas from which they had originally come.

The influence of people banished under apartheid legislation was important in spreading the message of the ANC, establishing structures and initiating activities.63They helped to mentor potential leaders, inspire new recruits, and sustain the spirit of opposition within the local communities where they settled. A number of examples must suffice here.

A former ANC leader, Dr James Njongwe, was banished to Matatiele in the Transkei. Here he helped set up ANC networks that were linked to his sons, in particular Boy Njongwe. One of those who came into the orbit of Boy Njongwe was Nompumelelo Setsubi.64Nompumelelo Setsubi started to draw close to ANC thinking as a Fort Hare student in the early 1970s, listening to Radio Freedom together with a group of trusted friends. When she became a teacher in Matatiele, Boy Njongwe recruited her to the ANC. The process of induction entailed carefully discussing her understanding of politics, and upon recruitment he took her through a process of thorough political education. She then performed various underground tasks, mainly related to the production of ANC propaganda. While some of this literature was introduced from outside the country, it was often translated into Xhosa and Sotho (Matatiele being near to Lesotho and containing a majority Sotho speaking population). Njongwe encouraged Setsubi to analyse the issues of the day and to write and produce pamphlets with a local content, speaking to questions immediately affecting people in the area.65The level of secrecy and sophistication involved in this network is reflected in Setsubi’s husband also being an underground operative, but the two of them never speaking about it to each other until much later.

A second example comes from Heilbron in the Free State. Here Mongezi Radebe, an activist who grew up in the village, also recalls the influence of people who were banished:

In our township we had a granny called Ma Mokhele who used to tell us a lot about black history. Later I started understanding that she had been a member of the ANC and she had been sent to Heilbron under banishment. So she used to explain a lot of these things: what they were doing in the Women’s League, what ANC was in the initial stages when it became militant, when the young ones like Mandela came into it. She was explaining its historical significance and why we should be proud of it, and why we should take on from where they’ve left. And that’s how we started understanding a lot of things politically.

Radebe also developed politically through reading, including banned literature, which he claimed was not uncommon to find on some farms.66

A third example comes from the Northern Transvaal. A veteran Robben Islander, Peter Nchabaleng, who was later murdered in police custody, organised ANC supporters in Sekhukhuneland. Nchabaleng maintained contact with Ramokgadi, one of the former political prisoners who built the underground together with Albertina Sisulu and others, who brought Tokyo Sexwale, a trained MK soldier and later a prominent politician, with him. During his visit to the area, Sexwale provided political education as well as military training.67

Confirmation of extensive ANC underground networks in the rural towns and villages of the former Transkei – in the period of‘quiescence’– is also provided from a quite different source, a confidential interview with a former Transkeian security policeman. He indicated the continued existence of underground networks after Rivonia, often around former political prisoners or other banished individuals but also established on other bases throughout the post-Rivonia period. He referred particularly to people released from prison and being banished to the area and then leaving the country. There were also others who, the police discovered, had been in exile and were infiltrating after having undergone military training.68

The years in which the ANC attempted to establish its underground presence saw the emergence and growth above ground of the Black Consciousness movement (BCM) in the country, especially among young intellectuals and university students. In time the new movement, given the illegality of a public ANC presence, appeared to challenge the ANC’s hegemony within the anti-apartheid struggle. Although it gradually experienced increased state repression, the BCM was not banned until 1977, and initially at least it enjoyed considerable space to propagate its views. This freedom was allowed partly because the apartheid regime at first perceived the BCM’s emphasis on blackness as a vindication of its policy of ‘separate development’.69

Some BC leaders dismissed the ANC and PAC and regarded themselves as the vanguard of the struggle or were ignorant of the history of the struggle or the continued existence of the ANC. Some of those then involved in BC were very clear that this was a trend that was not shared by the general membership.70Others like Barney Pityana depict this as a later phenomenon, resulting partly from the restrictions placed on many of the original leadership and their positions being taken by less experienced individuals.71

Then, too, many of the young generation of BC activists were contemptuous of the slow efforts at rebuilding ANC structures, in so far as they were aware of them. Lindiwe Sisulu, when attracted to BC, knew of her mother’s activity in the ANC underground:

Lindi meanwhile knew that her mother was politically active but did not think much about what she was doing: ‘I felt that mama, [John] Nkadimeng and company were just concerned with setting up structures. They were not involved in any action. Their lack of activity confi rmed my idea of a dead organisation.’72

Nkosazana Dlamini (now Dlamini-Zuma), when joining the ANC from the BC camp around the time of the Soweto uprising, still thought of the ANC as moving too slowly:

When I say we wanted to meet the ANC, we wanted to join the ANC, it does not mean that we didn’t have any reservations – we did think they were a bit slow. Even after having spoken to them and appreciating the problems they were facing, we still felt that. But we felt that to make them fast we had to actually help them: join the ANC and try and put our enthusiasm into the ANC.73

On its side, some figures in the ANC were critical of the rise of Black Consciousness. It was considered short-sighted and based narrowly on‘race’. Instead of concentrating on ensuring its survival in the long term by building solid organisational capacity, the BCM in this view relied on consciousness-raising and the power of ideology: ‘all talk and no action’.

At the same time, there were figures in both camps who saw the two trends operating without competition and rivalry. A founder and leading figure of the BCM, Barney Pityana, who came from an ANC family background, kept in regular contact with ANC figures and never saw the BCM as supplanting the ANC. Other evidence exists from the 1970s that the ANC presence was recognised by BC adherents and that ANC literature was read widely in these circles.74Papi Mokoena, a SASO activist expelled from Fort Hare University in 1973, recalls:

I think contact with the ANC was growing. More people from outside were coming into the country, books were coming from outside. There was a dearth of material at that time: published material of the ANC was particularly valuable and one treasured it as if it was gold. We even had a ‘mobile library’ – books which moved from hand to hand amongst selected people. You see, we knew the ANC was underground, but the problem was finding the underground members of the ANC.

At that time more and more of them were coming out of prison and coming to see us, SASO, to see who we were. We used to listen to Radio Freedom every day when there was broadcast. We were not anti ANC’s political ideas at that time – never – because we felt that it is a liberation movement, we are a students’ movement and these are the people we need, we want to have the material they are giving us. That is why SASO became so receptive to ANC ideas later on. The situation was constantly developing; we were meeting hard practice which could not be fitted onto those ideas which we had developed in college.75

The more farsighted and less sectarian ANC figures appreciated that BC had injected something new and positive into the South African political scene, opening spaces that had been closed, helping to reassert black dignity and pride, and producing a spirit of resistance and unity between all sections of the black population. Whatever reservations may have been felt, these did not detract from the positive factors. This was the position of Walter Sisulu when visited by his son Lungi, who shared the feeling in sections of the ANC underground that there was a danger that the BCM might try to position itself as a replacement of the ANC. This anxiety was further fuelled by the attitude in some BC circles that the ANC was a conservative and apathetic organisation whose nonracial politics were inimical to the liberation of black people.

Walter Sisulu, however, explained, ‘We in the ANC did not regard the emergence of the Black Consciousness movement as hostile. We regarded it as part and parcel of the struggle and we welcomed it as a progressive idea.’76

A similar willingness to engage with the BCM guided most of the Robben Islanders and ex-Robben Islanders.77Outside prison, people like Jacob Zuma, Joe Gqabi, Albertina Sisulu and others entered into relationships with BC people that were neither disrespectful nor patronising, although they did feel that BC had serious limitations.

Barney Pityana speaks warmly of the response received from Winnie Mandela who, he said, never made any attempt to draw BC people into ANC structures.78

The engagement of ANC underground members with BC was obviously meant to win BC supporters over to the ANC. To what extent this also entailed appreciation of the importance of the BCM is not clear. But the generally respectful relationship was probably an important factor in the gradual winning over of many BC people before and after 1976.79Much of this happened through individual mentoring, as the example of Joe Gqabi reveals. Gqabi, a leading ANC figure, later assassinated in Zimbabwe, was released from prison in the early 1970s and played an important role in influencing BC activities in the Transvaal as well as building the ANC underground. Nat Serache, then a journalist on the Rand Daily Mail, offers an insight into Gqabi’s role. On going to interview him for the newspaper, Serache says Gqabi turned the interview into ‘political education’ and introduced him to the ANC.

From that day onwards ‘I worked with him very secretly.’ Serache was then involved in BC structures, though these were loosely defined at the time. Although he was ready to abandon these and concentrate on the ANC, Gqabi encouraged him to remain within BC and to influence its direction. In fact Gqabi was indirectly to influence some developments during the 1976 uprising.80At a meeting attended by Serache with BC comrades it was decided to ‘go and close down all the shebeens [formerly illicit liquor outlets and favoured social haunts of many Africans in South Africa] in Soweto because they were distracting people from taking part in the struggle.’ Serache reported this to Gqabi:

He said, ‘Ja, it is true liquor is destroying our people, but I wonder whether if we go and close the shebeens the way you are preparing to do we would not be driving both the patrons and the shebeen owners to the side of the enemy? Because what will happen if the police see this as the opportunity to come and defend the shebeen owners? Are we not going to become the enemy?’ he asked, and this immediately opened my eyes. He said: ‘Obviously we need these people, they are our people. We want to involve them in the struggle but is this the right way of doing things because once the police come and protect them we become the enemy and the police become their friends?’

Serache returned to his BC comrades and presented Gqabi’s arguments as his own, and they accepted his view that the proposal was counterproductive. Serache says Gqabi did not have any direct contact with BC people but continued to advise indirectly.81He also pursued a process of continued political and security training with Serache.

Another example of a personal dynamic in the relationship between ANC and BC is provided by the Sisulu family:

Despite Albertina [Sisulu]’s concerns about the BCM, she was supportive of [her daughter] Lindi’s involvement. Lindi appreciated the fact that her mother did not patronise her during their political discussions: ‘She did not say her way was better. She took all the time to discuss and explain. She had more time for me than ever before. In a way I was her conduit for what was happening out there. She was not hostile to Black Consciousness, but she was aware of its limitations and she associated it with the radicalism of the youth.’82

Albertina Sisulu later played a similar, albeit more active, role in the political transformation of the thinking of her son Zwelakhe, then a leading journalist:

I had to educate Zwelakhe back from BC. He had been influenced by his journalist friends.83I had to sit him down at the kitchen table and teach him about history and about his family. [I explained that] not every white is responsible for repression, but just a few. Whites were born here and have a right to be here; many have no other place to go ”¦ I sent him home with some books ”¦ and when he came back, he said,‘Mom, you were right.’84

The relationship between the two organisations was thus much more fluid and coextensive than is generally allowed. Not only did many BC people simultaneously interact with the ANC, admire the ANC or belong to ANC structures underground, but the very direction of the BCM was itself open to debate and discussion within the movement.

Masterpiece Gumede, who joined SASO at the University of Zululand in 1972, recalls that ‘in terms of rhetoric, I think we were close to the PAC, but the people we wanted to be with were people like Mandela and Luthuli and ANC people’.85Ralph Mgijima indicates widespread overlap between the ANC underground and BC in the student community on the University of Natal (black) campus, which enjoyed a relatively liberal environment.86Consequently, it was easier in such a situation to blur differences between the legal BC and the illegal ANC. But this overlap appears, from interviews already cited, to have extended well beyond this institution.

One of the weaknesses of scholarship in many areas of the humanities is that it tends to work with dichotomies, so that one is forced to choose between binary opposites. It is either this or it is that. That is not how the real world works, but in a dichotomous spirit there has been a tendency to assume a consistent and universally antagonistic, oppositional or competitive relationship between ANC and BC, and that individuals must have chosen one or the other.

While this chapter provides a mere glimpse into the connections and interactions, it does indicate that relationships varied and were extremely complex and can in no sense be reduced to an oppositional, or obviously irreversible, tendency towards BC absorption within the ANC. The BCM was an autonomous movement and some of its distinct influences remain within the ANC today. At the same time, the ANC had sufficient depth, derived from its decades of experience, generally to be able to listen and learn and interact in a manner that drew BC closer and made the relationship more constructive and cooperative over the years that followed.

The blanket description of black politics after Rivonia as one of ‘silence’ and ‘absence’ has held sway in the literature till now. It may often have been silent for reasons of security in the initial establishment of illegal underground units, but absence is a quite different matter. Two historiographical consequences have flowed from this. One has led to the unproblematised explanation of the 1976 Soweto uprising as simply being directed by BC forces, with the ANC entirely absent.87This chapter has not sought to argue that the ANC initiated that uprising but to show that the ANC was ‘there’ and at times played some role in its unfolding and direction. It also played a substantial part when activists (including those not aligned to the ANC) were in danger and sought to escape into exile.88It was there in its own right, but also as a presence within the BC movement.

The prevailing notion of ‘absence’ has also left unexplained the reemergence of Congress symbols and organisations in the late 1970s and 1980s. Why did Congress organisations, and not BC, derive this benefit? This cannot be explained without understanding the presence of the ANC throughout the post-Rivonia period and the character of its organisational input as one of the key factors leading to later ‘Congress hegemony. The reason why the ANC had a better chance of survival than BC was its emphasis on building structures.

This inability to understand what was really happening on the ground, or rather underground, derives from the ANC being more than an organisation for many people. Even after banning, it remained a cultural presence in many houses, drawn on in conversations and as a reference point. Sometimes it was used to warn young people of what might happen if they followed Mandela’s route.89Even this negative allusion was an indication of the presence of the ANC in people’s consciousness.90But this cultural character, this tradition of allegiance, was also a reservoir of support for the organisation. People continued to regard themselves as ANC where they had been that before, though obviously many did waver. Thousands of people who had been members had not been jailed or exiled. The thousands who had never joined but supported the organisation may sometimes have been cowed by the might of the apartheid state.91But the ‘Congress consciousness’ did not simply disappear, even if people may have been cautious and wary, and carefully sounded others out before indicating their sympathies.

Repression did lead some people into collaboration or to join alternative organisations, though this was not always unambiguous, with apparent collaborators actually assisting underground operatives in some cases.92It may also have signalled, in many cases, a change of convictions and loyalties. But repression does not guarantee a shift in convictions or removal of the potential to act on these. The capacity to oppress and repress does not provide any ‘home’ in itself, nor guarantee that people shift their loyalty to the government or structures it sets up.

The underground organisation was the vehicle for drawing these sympathies into organised form, on a basis that made some contribution towards the development of the 1976 uprising, and in fact it was in dialogue with BC organisations from their earliest days. The underground was also the organised force that provided access to an enduring political home with the capacity to channel those who wanted to leave BC into a movement that had an organisationally sustainable basis. This relates both to the ANC underground and to the capacity which it displayed to absorb the large numbers of youth that crossed the borders. Because of disarray and division, expulsions and counterexpulsions, among other factors, the PAC proved relatively disabled.

It is a paradox that the undoubted body of support that PAC enjoyed at its inception and through continued responses to the Africanist message never managed to be turned into a wide-scale and sustained organisational presence.

In the end it was the slow and patient reinsertion of the ANC into the country, taking advantage of the loyalty and sympathy of veteran members, that ensured that when the time came, the ANC would emerge as the pre-eminent anti-apartheid force in the process leading to establishing a democratic order.

• A chapter from Raymond Suttner: The ANC underground in South Africa