Umkhonto we Sizwe - Structure, Training and Force Levels (1984 to 1994) - African Defence Review No 18, 1994
Umkhonto we Sizwe -
Structure, Training and Force Levels (1984 to 1994)
Researcher, Institute for Defence Policy
Published in African Defence Review Issue No 18, 1994
In examining the history of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) since its establishment
in 1961, a number of distinct phases are discernible. Originally a small
insurrectionist group, MK expanded dramatically, as angry young men and
women fled South Africa in the wake of the Soweto uprisings in June 1976
and the violence that started in the Vaal Triangle in September 1984.
Following some introductory remarks tracing MK's earlier history since its
inception, this article will focus on MK's more recent past - the years
from 1984 to 1994. Other areas which are examined are those of training,
structures, the changed regional context, Operation Vula, force levels,
etc. The article concludes with some remarks about the future facing
former members of MK at the time of their integration into the South
African National Defence Force.
Since its inception by the African National Congress (ANC) in 1961, MK has
been a political army. MK was established to fight against apartheid, at a
time when all other forms of resistance had either proved ineffectual or
been outlawed. The form of the armed struggle at the time was mainly armed
propaganda, the targets being the sabotage of electricity pylons and other
infrastructure. Such acts signalled the launch of MK on 16 December 1961,
and the organisation's manifesto was made public in an illegal radio
broadcast by Walter Sisulu. The sabotage operations were executed mainly
by cadres who had some prior engineering knowledge and could manufacture
the explosive devices. At the same time, recruits were sent to receive
Shortly after the launch of the armed struggle, MK suffered a serious
setback with the arrests of its leadership at the Liliesleaf farm in
Rivonia, where the headquarters of MK's operations had been set up. The
subsequent trial resulted in life sentences for the entire leadership of
MK, including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. The need to establish MK
as an externally-based army became imperative. This was not without
problems - mainly related to having to establish not only MK, but also the
These factors, as well as the hostility of the then colonial
administrations in neighbouring Rhodesia, Mozambique, Bechuanaland and
Angola, complicated the execution of the armed struggle. As a result,
attempts were made in 1967 to establish an alliance between the military
wing of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), the Zimbabwean
People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and MK. In the absence of an
infiltration route directly from any of the neighbouring countries, MK
wanted to proceed through Rhodesia's Matebeleland and into South Africa.
The Luthuli Detachment, as the MK unit that took part in this campaign
became known, had among its members the late Chris Hani, as well as Joe
Modise, the present Minister of Defence. This objective was never
realised. Despite stiff resistance, ZIPRA and MK suffered many casualties
in the ensuing skirmishes in Wankie and Sipolilo with the Rhodesian/South
African security forces. An added setback was the political lull within
South Africa, which made recruitment for the ANC and MK very difficult.
In an attempt to address the problem of the political lull within South
Africa, as well as the growing discontent within the ranks of the ANC and
MK about the harsh conditions of exile life, the Morogoro Conference was
convened on 25 April 1969. The conference also sought to overcome a number
of shortcomings regarding the execution of the armed struggle, and thereby
to establish a firmer base for future operations, including a strategy of
total mobilisation of the South African people. It was at this conference
that the Revolutionary Council (RC) was established. It emphasised the
need for better politically and militarily trained cadres. To this end, a
machinery (organisation) to deal with internal reconstruction and
propaganda was created, and the bulk of these resources were dedicated to
work in South Africa. Yet the problem of reaching the front areas still
dogged MK. In an attempt to overcome this, communication was esrablished
between external centres and the 'home front'. The RC was also charged
with overall planning, preparation and conduct of operations. It was
composed of senior members of the National Executive Committee of the ANC,
as well as leading members of the SACP, including Yusuf Dadoo, then
Secretary General, Moses Mabhida, who later succeeded Dadoo, and Joe
Slovo. The RC was chaired by the ANC President, which highlighted the
importance that the structure was accorded by the ANC leadership. MK's
actions were to be guided by the political considerations of the ANC,
which were broadly defined annually in the January 8th policy statement.
All armed actions had to fall within the parameters of the policy
Following the establishment of the RC, concerted moves were made to
establish an underground presence within South Africa through propaganda
and the infiltration of legal trade unions. An attempt to infiltrate
cadres by sea, off the Transkei coast, failed when the cadres involved
were arrested and imprisoned. Despite the arrest of the unit in 1971, the
gradual process of building the underground continued, and contributed to
the 1973 Durban strikes. This was the first mass action to occur since the
ANC had been declared illegal in 1960. In the meanwhile the region was
also changing following the coup in Portugal. During the pro-Frelimo
rallies in 1974, black university students demonstrated in support of the
Mozambican liberation movement, and the crisis besieging the colonial
Portuguese regime. Yet all was quiet in the armed struggle, so much so
that when the June 16, 1976 student riots broke out, the ANC and MK were
caught by surprise. They were not ready to exploit the events that
followed, although there were limited acts of sabotage in support of the
uprisings; railway lines were targeted - primarily in support of calls for
stayaways by students.
In the years that followed, several thousand youths fled the country and
joined the ranks of MK. To a lesser extent some also joined the Black
Consciousness Movement of Azania (BCMA) and the Pan Africanist Congress.
This was the first major increase in numbers in those organisations but it
tapered off in the late 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s.
The second major wave of recruits to MK joined in the mid-1980s, fuelled
by the Vaal uprisings in September 1984. This signalled what was to come,
when the country was engulfed by mass protests. MK experienced phenomenal
growth. Of these new members, a few went to further their studies, whilst
others worked for the various structures of the African National Congress.
The majority of current MK members joined during this period.
The mass protests mentioned above were triggered by the rent and services
boycott in the Vaal Triangle. It was also a period when the ANC strategy
of a 'people's war', whose primary objective was to involve the entire
populace in the fight against apartheid, got under way. It coincided with
the government's introduction of the Black Local Authorities Act. The
people's war called for the isolation of members of the security forces
(especially those resident within black communities) and officials serving
in local authorities, or any persons perceived to be working for the
government, or 'system' as it was called. The period also saw the rise of
the United Democratic Front (formed a year earlier), whose objective was
to campaign against the new constitution establishing the tricameral
parliament and black local authorities.
MK grew numerically and qualitatively during this time. It was a different
kind of youth who joined the ANC and MK, one who had been baptised by the
struggles of the mass democratic organisations. Their experience of mass
organisations resulted in a higher level of political consciousness than
among their predecessors in 1976 and immediately thereafter. This meant
that the ANC had to secure and expand facilities for training its MK
cadres. Additional training camps in Angola, mainly in the hinterland,
north and east of the country's capital, were opened. Various strategies
were employed to influence events on the ground in South Africa, to make
the presence of the ANC and MK felt, such as co-ordinated sabotage and
armed operations, in tandem with mass protests. In addition, the programme
of propaganda, in the form of leaflets and graffiti in public places, was
intensified. This armed propaganda phase was intended primarily to make MK
more visible and root it amongst the people. MK numbers multiplied within
South Africa. Operations at this stage still concentrated on sabotage, and
included the June 1980 Sasol oil refinery sabotage. Other special
operations carried out included the rocket attack on Voortrekkerhoogte in
August 1981, the Koeberg nuclear power plant sabotage attack in 1982, and
the 20 May 1983 car bomb explosion outside the South African Air Force
headquarters in Church Street, Pretoria. These operations also illustrated
a dramatic change in MK's strategy with a marked shift from symbolic
operations to a much more aggressive approach. This was confirmed by a
policy statement that 'there could no longer be any guarantee that
civilians would not be caught in the crossfire' in the execution of the
The strategy of a 'people'Á¶s war' and 'making the country ungovernable'
was reappraised at the Kabwe Consultative Conference in June 1985. This
conference, following on from the agenda set by the Morogoro Conference
sixteen years earlier (which had also identified problems with the
execution of the armed struggle), pointed to the weaknesses in MK's focus
on urban operations. This criticism resulted in the launching of
operations in the rural areas, which at that stage were isolated and had
not experienced mass protests like those in the urban areas. Following the
conference, from November 1985 onwards, there was a notable increase in
the number of 'rural incidents', with land mines being detonated by
vehicles, whilst others were lifted by security forces. During the period
from November 1985 to 17 December 1985, seven land mines were detonated by
vehicles. The main areas targeted for land mine warfare were in the border
areas of northern Natal and the northern and western Transvaal. The use of
land mines along the border areas made the retreat of MK cadres into
neighbouring countries easier.
The choice of white farms in the rural areas was premised on the fact that
farmers were seen as 'legitimate targets' who supported apartheid and
formed part of the security forces' rural commandos. During the period in
which these operations were under way, there was also a considerable
amount of debate within MK on what exactly constituted a 'legitimate
target' for attack. There was increasing emphasis on a direct military
engagement of the security forces. There was also the formulation of
theoretical positions defining the objective of the armed struggle as
'insurrectionary'. The mobilised masses were defined as a 'political
army', and the armed component as the 'revolutionary army', within which
there was the 'organised advanced detachment', this referring to MK, which
at the time saw itself as the 'nucleus of a future people's army'.
In pursuance of the insurrectionary strategy, the focus of all training,
as well as mobilisation, shifted. Within South Africa, mass resistance had
been dampened by the harsh provisions of the national state of emergency
imposed on 12 June 1986, which had resulted in the detention of thousands
of activists. This, however, did not put a halt to armed operations. There
was a steady increase in the number of operations in the 1986-1988 period,
including special operations involving car bombs at the Johannesburg
Magistrate's Court in May 1987, and one outside the Witwatersrand Command
of the SADF in 1987. Operations continued until late into 1989, so that
when the ANC and MK were unbanned in February 1990, many were caught
unprepared for the new situation. Despite MK's continued operations, it
was hamstrung by long lines of command from the 'rear' with the majority
of cadres being stationed outside South Africa - MK was basically an 'army
in exile'. As a result, MK did not take full advantage of the evolving
situation within South Africa, to root itself. The mass protests that
engulfed South Africa were not sufficiently reinforced by the armed
In the thirteen years from 1976 to 1988, virtually all MK's general
training occurred in Angola. The instructors were initially Cuban and
Soviet (from late 1976 to mid 1978), whereafter ANC/MK instructors took
over the training of its cadres. This development also coincided with the
establishment of more training facilities within Angola. The initial camp,
Nova Katenga, situated in the south of Angola, was evacuated after an SADF
air raid. Other camps were started further north of the capital, Luanda.
These were in Quibaxe, as well as at Funda, Fazenda, and later Pango and
Caculama. The latter two training camps were started at the beginning of
the 1980s. As increasing numbers joined MK in the mid-1980s, the Pango
camp served mainly for the preparation of cadres for infiltration. It was
also used for providing crash courses for underground operatives who were
then reinfiltrated into South Africa. The regional negotiations for the
independence of Namibia eventually resulted in the relocation of training
camps from Angola to Uganda and Tanzania in 1988/9.
The general training of MK soldiers, beginning late in 1976, lasted for
six months, and was followed by a specialisation course for another three
to four months. Some specialist courses took much longer, depending on
their nature. Instruction was generally in English, but allowance was made
for instruction in any other language, especially the vernacular, due to
the low educational level of some of the cadres. At times this made it
difficult to impart various military skills fully, but there was a general
grasp of what was required of an MK cadre. As an attempt to resolve the
educational problem, literacy classes were conducted on a daily basis
after the formal training period. The type of training was also influenced
by the nature of MK as an army. Founded as a guerrilla force, its training
was unconventional. It was simply not feasible to challenge the SANDF
conventionally because of its numerical and technological strength. An
important factor in MK's favour was that, whilst not necessarily having
the numbers and advanced military technology possessed by the SADF, it had
the political will to fight apartheid, and was supported by a majority of
the oppressed. This was not the case initially, when the armed struggle
was launched. The entrance requirement therefore was simply to be against
apartheid and to have the courage to take up arms. There was no
educational or other prerequisite. It was a volunteer army, and rejection
of volunteers was only on grounds of health or age.
General training comprised the following subjects:
Firearms: This concentrated on the use of rifles, especially the AK-47
and other rifles that are standard SADF/SAP issue, like the R1 and R4.
Training was also provided in pistol shooting, as well as general
maintenance and care of weapons. Training was given in the use of both
offensive and defensive hand grenades, and also rocket-propelled
Engineering: This was instruction in the use of explosives including
limpet, anti-personnel and land mines. The explosives used were mainly
of Soviet manufacture.
Politics: This focused on the history of the ANC, modern South African
history, international politics and aspects of Marxism-Leninism.
Artillery: Instruction was provided in the use of the Soviet-made 82mm
mortar, the Grad-P or 122mm rocket launchers. Those who went on to
specialise were instructed in other artillery weapons.
Communications: This concentrated on the use of military communications
equipment, as well as other forms of secret communication. It could also
be followed by advanced training.
Military Topography: The subject concentrated on map reading, especially
topographical maps and navigation. Training in drawing sketches of
specific locations was given to enable cadres to sketch targets for
attack or specific locations of dead-letter boxes (DLBs) containing
armaments or leaflets. The acquired skill also assisted in establishing
locations where land mines were planted.
Physical Training: This was combined with training in tactics and dealt
mainly with fitness and the crossing of obstacles on a mock battle
course or strip. It combined all elements of the other subjects in one.
First Aid: This involved the general principles of first aid and how to
administer it in the case of bullet wounds. It also included battlefield
Marching Drill: The subject concentrated on military discipline, salutes
and general obedience to orders. It prepared cadres for parade duties,
which were required for special occasions.
Military Combat Work: This subject focused on intelligence and
counter-intelligence and the theory of revolution, which included the
building of the revolutionary and political army. The purpose of the
course was to teach cadres clandestine techniques and how to build
underground structures. This course was compulsory for those who were to
be deployed in South Africa.
Anti-Aircraft Training: This was only provided for a select few whose
task was the defence of the military camp against aerial bombardment.
With the exception of anti-aircraft training, all these subjects formed
part of the general course. Further advanced, specialist training followed
the general course for those who had performed well in the general
training, or in line with the requirements of the situation.
Other special courses that were provided were pilot training for a select
few and tank or armoured personnel carrier drivers. Such training was
initialy only provided to a small number of cadres. This began to change
in 1986, when the first group went for extensive training in conventional
warfare in the former Soviet Union. The training varied from two to four
years. Whatever prompted the move, this began a gradual preparation of
cadres for a future defence force of which MK saw itself as a nucleus. At
the time the USSR was one of the few countries willing to provide
conventional military training. Although other countries also provided
training, it varied from two months to a year. These countries were the
then German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the former Yugoslavia. Together
with the USSR, they catered for most of MK's training needs, specifically
in specialised areas. Other countries which provided training, albeit for
short periods and of a highly specialised nature, were Bulgaria, Hungary,
Cuba and Algeria. The latter two countries trained Special Forces and
accommodated only small groups at a time. Cuba also provided training in
intelligence and counter-intelligence. Bulgaria and Hungary did not
provide any military training, but rather political and agricultural
training respectively. In addition to Special Forces training, Cuba also
provided political training, similar to that of the Soviet Union, the GDR
and Bulgaria. Academic courses were also provided by these countries to
ANC members for varying periods.
This process continued until the beginning of the 1990s. However, a change
in the political situation of the eastern bloc countries that provided
most of the training, prompted a relocation to other areas. The notable
new host nations were Tanzania, Uganda, India, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Zambia.
The decision to switch to conventional army training was clearly based on
a realisation by the MK leadership that if it was to become the nucleus of
a future defence force in a democratic country, the organisation would
require soldiers with the appropriate conventional military training, who
could form the leadership of such a defence force.
STRUCTURES CHARGED WITH INTERNAL POLITICAL AND MILITARY WORK
The 1983 Maputo Conference
During the period 1986-1988 various changes were made to structures
charged with internal political and military work. These changes coincided
with a process of restructuring organs charged with internal ANC and MK
work, which were under the Revolutionary Council (RC). Until this period
military and political affairs structures inside South Africa had been
separate, with fusion only at the level of the RC at the top. In the
regional command structures in the forward areas, there were separate
sections for planning and operations. MK was politically accountable to
the ANC's National Executive Committee, from which it took directives. The
MK commander also acted as accounting officer. It was, however, the
Politico-Military Council (PMC) which supervised implementation of
decisions of the NEC in so far as the political and armed struggle was
concerned. Within the PMC, however, the Military Headquarters (MHQ) had
immense power regarding control of MK cadres in the field. Pressure to
undertake operations resulted in large numbers of casualties due to
infiltration into South Africa, through lack of proper planning, either
through arrests, injury or even death in encounters with the South African
forces. This occurred especially from the middle of 1987 into 1989. MK's
hardest hit forward area was Swaziland, with the death of three members of
a unit during infiltration into South Africa at the beginning of June
1988. This was not the first of such incidents, particularly in this area.
The result was separate structures, with the right hand not knowing what
the left hand was doing, and little or no joint command and control. To
remedy this situation, a conference of all front commanders and commissars
was held in 1983 in Maputo. The conference recommended joint planning,
command and control regarding all operations and the execution of the
armed struggle. Intelligence functions were also included in the new
approach. From the top level, a restructuring process began which was to
be in line with decisions of this conference. By 1985 the ANC/MK command
and control had undergone significant changes (see figure on the next
The Politico-Military Council (PMC)
The RC was replaced by the Politico-Military Council (PMC), and the
barrier between the political and the military was removed. The new
structure was an attempt at improved co-ordination of political and
The heightened political activity within South Africa required that cadres
focus on the political and military training of their recruits within the
country. They had at the same time to build structures of underground
leadership, drawing on the best recruits from the activist core. This
approach required painstaking work and sought to remedy the problem of
reaching the home front, where the struggle was to be waged, as well as
improving overall communication between external and internal centres. The
structures of the forward areas gained greater operational freedom in
terms of planning, operations, communication and execution of operations.
Only special projects would henceforth require the 'green light' from
The PMC was given wide powers of overall planning, preparation and
implementation of all activities related to the execution of the struggle
in South Africa. It was chaired by the President of the ANC, whilst most
of its members sat on the National Executive Committee (NEC). It had its
own budget and could determine needs as they arose, including staffing and
personnel in all structures dealing with internal work. It therefore
minimised problems of co-ordination, and made the realisation of
strategies feasible. It represented an integrated approach to political
and military work for the enhancement of ANC and MK structures. Under the
integrated politico-military plan, political command guided all
specialised politico-military work, and the Regional Political Military
Councils (RPMCs) and Area Political Military Councils (APMCs) provided
this integrated leadership. Though better, it also became influenced by
the changing situation in the southern African region, as will be
The President of the ANC was the chairperson of the PMC. The diagram below
illustrates how co-ordination occurred, from the top (Secretariat), down
to the Military Headquarters (MHQ), the Internal Political Committee (IPC)
and NAT (Intelligence, Counter-Intelligence and Security). Each of these
structures had smaller sub-structures and were mostly in Lusaka. The
RPMCs, existed underground in Swaziland, Mozambique, Lesotho, Zimbabwe,
Botswana and London. Certain areas inside the country had APMCs, the
locally-based internal area leadership. Other, more developed areas in the
Western Cape, Border region, Durban, Pretoria and Northern Transvaal, had
RPMCs based internally. These were few and far between, because of the
difficulty of building such structures under conditions of illegality.
The structures charged with internal work were composed as follows:
Internal Political Committee (IPC)
Underground (U/G): dealing with special underground training,
infiltration and mission assignment. This section was headed by Ronnie
Kasrils who, prior to this, was chief of Military Intelligence.
Propaganda (Prop): writing of pamphlets, statements, etc. for internal
distribution. This section worked closely with the Department of
Information and Publicity (DIP), and was headed by Joel Netshitendze,
presently head of communications in President Mandela's office.
Mass Mobilisation (MM): strategies and tactics of mass mobilisation
internally, political briefings and direction. This section was headed
by Steve Tshwete.
Data Processing Group (DPG): processing and action on all reports from
internal units, in conjunction with the relevant unit(s) within the IPC
or higher - the PMC. This section fell under Mass Mobilisation, but
reports were generally utilised by all the other structures within the
IPC, or forwarded for attention to the MHQ.
Military Headquarters (MHQ)
Chief of Staff (CoS): responsible for overall leadership and training
needs of MK. It is a position that was occupied by Joe Slovo, later
Chris Hani, until 1992, when he was succeeded by Siphiwe Nyanda.
Operations (Ops): seeing to the actual planning and execution of
operations. This position was, for some years, occupied by Lambert
Moloi. The operations task also included infiltration of cadres and
material and it works closely with Ordnance.
Ordnance (Ord): chiefly responsible for infiltration of weaponry or any
equipment for utilisation in armed operations. This especially with
regard to bulk supplies of material. The position was occupied by Rashid
Patel since late in 1987. His predecessor, Cassius Maake, was
assassinated in Swaziland in 1987.
Military Intelligence (MI): collection of army intelligence data for use
by MK, joint planning and execution with all other structures mentioned.
Keith Mokwape headed MI until 1990, having succeeded Ronnie Kasrils in
1987/8. He was succeeded by Mojo Motau in 1992.
Communications: equipping the army and units with necessary army
communication equipment. Also performing a signals unit function. This
extended from MHQ to RPMCs, and in certain special instances, internally
as well. It was headed by Jacqueline Molefe.
NAT (Intelligence, Counter-Intelligence and Security)
The overall head of the NAT was Joe Nhlanhla, who succeeded Mzwai Piliso
in 1987. His predecessor was ousted following reports of excesses which
members of the department committed. Within the department, there has
traditionally been a division of the functions of security and
intelligence. It was only in 1988 that a division between intelligence and
counter-intelligence was announced. Jacob Zuma took over the intelligence
function in 1987.
POLITICO-MILITARY COUNCIL (PMC) STRUCTURES
The PMC was composed of the following personnel:
Chairperson - President of the ANC.
Secretary - a member of the National Executive Committee (NEC). This
position was first occupied by Joe Nhlanhla until early 1987, when it
was taken over by Josiah Jele.
Military Headquarters (MHQ): MK Commander and chief of the Army; Chief
of Staff; Deputy Chief of Staff; National Army Commissar; Chief of
Operations; Chief of Communications; Chief of Military Intelligence.
Internal Political Committee (IPC): Overall head of the IPC, the
Underground, Mass Mobilisation and Propaganda sections.
NAT: Chief of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence; Chief of Security.
Secretaries General of the ANC, SACP and SACTU. This was to facilitate
effective joint planning as the three bodies formed an alliance.
Membership of the three organisations overlapped, hence the need for
their presence on the PMC, as cadres sent into the country in certain
instances also did work for the ANC, SACTU or the SACP.
The full PMC met once a month and was tasked with the overall strategic
planning for internal ANC/MK work, and to make an assessment of the state
of the nation. Almost half of the NEC members belonged to the PMC, with
different responsibilities, including meetings with delegations from South
Africa. The PMC was the most important structure of the ANC after the
National Executive Committee (NEC), which had its own National Working
Committee (NWC), charged with implementation of NEC decisions. The PMC
also had an executive committee, the Secretariat. The Secretariat of the
PMC met between full PMC meetings on a weekly basis. It had to see to the
implementation of PMC decisions, through the MHQ, IPC, NAT and the RPMCs
in the regions and the analysis of reports received from inside South
Africa and from the structures in the forward areas. These reports would
then be forwarded to a specific structure (like MHQ/IPC/MI) for attention
and action. In short, the PMC was the executive arm of the NEC in relation
to all matters pertaining to the conduct of the political and military
struggle inside South Africa.
The well-being of cadres in transit, as well as those deployed inside
South Africa, was the responsibility of the sub-structures of the PMC, in
this case the MHQ, IPC and NAT. The Intelligence section had its own lines
of communication and control with its operatives, but there was at times
an overlap of functions, e.g., someone charged with political or military
work, or both, could simultaneously work as an intelligence operative.
Regional Politico-Military Council (RPMC)
The PMC had general knowledge of the number of units on the ground, as
well as their location. This, however, did not necessarily extend to the
specifics of knowing the actual identities of the operatives. In-depth
knowledge of the units was the preserve of the Regional Politico-Military
Council (RPMC) in a particular region. The RPMC's task was to service
specific regions within South Africa, through cadres of MHQ and the IPC,
by utilising RPMC structures in the 'forward areas' of Swaziland, Lesotho,
Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and London. These structures in the forward
areas provided a direct link between the headquarters in Lusaka and the
situation on the ground and also reported directly to the PMC. Given this
situation, the line of command was a long one. It was only in exceptional
circumstances that there was direct communication between a unit in South
Africa and the PMC at the Lusaka headquarters.
The RPMC structures in the forward areas were similar to but smaller in
size than the national headquarters. They represented an attempt at
changing the orientation of the armed struggle, with more emphasis on an
integrated approach to the conduct of military and political struggles, as
well as ensuring better and effective control, command and communication
with units on the ground. The old approach of compartmentalised planning
and execution had proved costly in terms of the lack of exchange of
information about units and individuals on the ground, with the result
that the South African Security Police task of infiltrating these
structures was made easier.
With the adoption of this integrated approach, internal recruitment and
training was intensified, as well as direction being given to the mass
organisations in line with the ANC's strategy of 'people's war' and
insurrection. Emphasis was thus placed on creating organs of people's
power (OPPs) - such as street committees, self-defence units (SDUs) and,
in certain instances, people's courts. The SDUs were based among the
people (in rural and urban areas), and were conceptualised as a
constituent part of the revolutionary army, whose other two key components
were the guerrilla units in the countryside and the combat units in the
urban areas. The role of the SDUs was at first to launch attacks against
security force patrols in the townships. This task was enhanced by
training from MK structures internally, as well as more advanced training
received by some SDU members abroad. Over time, however, and with the
unbanning of organisations, the SDUs represented a dilemma. This temporary
dilemma was answered by the sudden surge of violence in August 1990 on the
East Rand. Problems were later experienced with the SDUs because of loss
of political command and control. There are at present moves to demobilise
and restructure the SDUs - the solution being to return the young members
to school, and to place the remaining members either in the police
reservists, or part of community based policing. Those who would fall into
either category would receive vocational training.
Area Politico-Military Council (APMCs)
Locally-based Area Political Military Councils, or APMCs, were structured
similarly to the RPMCs, but were smaller in size and operated under
completely different conditions to the larger and externally-based PMC
structures. Their main task was providing political and military
leadership at the local level, as well as intelligence-gathering. A
typical APMC would be made up of the Commander (in overall charge of the
unit), Commissar (providing political leadership), and cadres responsible
for propaganda, military training, acquisition of weapons,
intelligence-gathering, logistics (responsible for safe houses and
The sensitivity of work executed by these individuals required high levels
of secrecy, and in this regard, recruits would not be exposed to members
of the APMC but would only be exposed to those dealing with matters
relevant to their purposes. The principle of operation was to work on a
'need to know basis' to avoid infiltration and detection by the Security
Police, National Intelligence or Military Intelligence. The APMC therefore
had the task of ensuring thorough screening of recruits, planning and
execution of operations, communication within the unit and with the RPMC
under the command of which they fell, or in exceptional circumstances even
directly with the PMC. Members of a particular RPMC would at times meet
their operatives in a different forward area.
IMPACT OF REGIONAL DYNAMICS ON THE ARMED STRUGGLE AND THE ANC/MK'S
The wave of mass action that swept the country as a result of the
imposition of black local authorities, and the tricameral parliament,
gained momentum as MK also changed and intensified its armed operations
from symbolic to harder security force targets. The May 20th 1983 car bomb
at Air Force Headquarters in Church Street, Pretoria was one such
operation. Other smaller scale operations also increased. This situation
of increasing mass resistance and MK armed attacks simultaneously,
resulted in the South African Government entering into accords with
neighbouring states, especially those thought to allow the infiltration of
In March 1984, South Africa signed the Nkomati Accord with Mozambique.
This was an attempt to curb MK and ANC presence in Mozambique, thereby
cutting off ANC links with its internal operatives. South Africa's
economic muscle was used to strengthen the agreement. As a result of the
Accord senior MK and ANC officials were expelled from Mozambique. The
trade-off for Mozambique was that South Africa would cease its support
for Renamo (MNR) bandits fighting against the Frelimo government.
Another effect of the accord was that MK cadres in transit to South
Africa in Maputo were hastily infiltrated into South Africa without the
necessary prior arrangements. Skirmishes with the Swazi and South
African security forces followed, resulting in some MK members being
arrested and imprisoned by the Swazi authorities. It emerged after these
incidents that Swaziland had secretly also entered into an accord
similar to Mozambique some two years earlier. The provisions were
similar in nature - eliminate the ANC/MK presence. Prior to this the
RPMC structures in Swaziland and Maputo had serviced the eastern
Transvaal, Natal and parts of the PWV.
In Lesotho, Leabua Jonathan's government buckled under pressure from the
South African Government's blockade of that country's borders. A
military coup d'état followed in January 1986, allowing Maj.-Gen. Justin
Lekhanya to take over, much to the chagrin of the ANC and the delight of
the South African Government. This also resulted in deportations of a
number of ANC members and specific MK operatives whose names were
provided by the South African Government. The loss of a sympathetic
Lesotho Government was a serious blow to the ANC and MK. Lesotho
structures had primarily been responsible for servicing the eastern and
western Cape, Transkei and to a limited degree, the PWV.
Similar diplomatic pressure was applied against Botswana to achieve the
same goal. This was coupled with hit squad activities, arrests,
abductions and deportation by the Botswana authorities of ANC/MK
operatives. These activities severely complicated the integrated
approach to planning and execution of operations of the RPMC, which
controlled operations into the PWV, western Transvaal/ Bophuthatswana
and parts of the northern Transvaal. Following the coup in Lesotho this
RPMC had to look after the eastern and western Cape operations.
The Zimbabwe situation was somewhat better compared with that in the
rest of the region. Unlike Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique, Zimbabwe
had, at least on the surface, resisted South African pressure, and
continued to provide a relatively safe haven for ANC and MK activity.
From Zimbabwe, MK cadres could infiltrate the northern Transvaal, PWV
and, in certain cases, parts of the Cape. Infiltration into South Africa
was assisted by the normal flow of traffic from and to South Africa.
This did not, however, stop the activities of the South African security
forces, as evidenced by the bombing of a safe house for MK cadres in
transit in Bulawayo in 1988. Swift reaction from the Zimbabwean
intelligence services, the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), led
to the arrest of some of the South African government spies.
Given these conditions, MK suffered serious limitations to its operations
and infiltration into South Africa. These developments worked against MK's
development inside the country, and slowed down the process of
infiltration of personnel and matériel. The result was also evident with
the sudden increase in the number of casualties MK suffered. Most of the
casualties were cadres who had been hastily infiltrated without the
necessary prior preparation, due to pressure from the governments of
Mozambique and Swaziland to remove from their territories the MK and ANC
These developments soon resulted in the impatience of cadres in transit
for operations inside South Africa, the emasculation of MK, and long lines
of infiltration. Furthermore, the reliance on forward areas that were
remote and which were at times weak in terms of command and control, had a
negative effect on growth within South Africa. The ideal objective was the
building of MK within South Africa. This, and the settlement in Namibia
resulted in Operation Vula (Open).
Operation Vula was a top secret operation which was initiated in 1986. Its
main task was to establish and strengthen the senior and middle level
leadership of the ANC and MK within South Africa. Conceptualised by late
ANC president Oliver Tambo, its aim was to create a national underground
political and military leadership structure inside South Africa. At the
time when Operation Vula was initiated, negotiations over Namibia's
independence were nearing completion. The agreements reached would present
MK with more serious problems in terms of planning and relocating MK even
further from South Africa, thus making the execution of the armed struggle
more difficult. Training was seriously affected. As part of the
negotiation terms for Namibian independence, MK was forced to relocate and
withdraw from Angola, where the vast majority of its training was being
A lot of time, human and material resources went into the Operation Vula
effort. The operation was uncovered in 1990, after the 'untimely'
unbanning of the ANC, but before the commencement of negotiations. It was
'untimely' because it occurred after the painstaking process of planning
but before the plans could be implemented.
There are no accurate published figures about the exact strength of MK.
Lists submitted to the TEC during negotiations are reported to contain up
to 23 000 names. The question to ask, however, is: who exactly is an MK
soldier? This is a difficult question to answer since there are those who
have been formally trained - generally outside the country - and others
who received training informally - generally inside South Africa. The
latter category would also include some members of the SDUs, which
expanded in the post-1990 period. Both categories have increased
dramatically in size in the last few years, but no more than 10-12 000
members of MK received formal training outside the country's borders.
Both categories regard themselves as soldiers and have acted in such a
manner. They have all been influenced by conditions on the ground, and
reflect the nature of MK as 'an army of the people'. What further
complicates the question is MK's nature as a political army. The question,
therefore, of the precise force levels will probably never be answered.
Since the process of negotiations began, intermingling of MK soldiers, ANC
officials and SDU members has taken place within South Africa.
However, the question of having been 'formally' and 'informally' trained
need not bring into doubt the effectiveness of the training to the
recipients. Some MK missions in the late 1980s were undertaken by elements
that were 'informally' trained but who had the advantage of knowledge and
familiarity of the terrain on which they were operating. This was in
contrast to those trained externally, who would have the disadvantage of
extended absence from the particular area.
MK'S FUTURE ROLE AND DEMOBILISATION
The task to negotiate the creation of the new national defence force was
recently the responsibility of the Sub-Council of Defence (SCD), a
sub-structure of the Transitional Executive Council (TEC). For purposes of
co-ordination, the Joint Military Co-ordinating Council (JMCC) was
established, to oversee all planning, preparation and training of a future
South African National Defence Force. The submission of a certified
personnel register of all members has been a requirement.
Protracted negotiations also recently resulted in the short-lived
formation of the National Peacekeeping Force (NPKF). The NPKF was
essentially a force made up of all defence and police forces of parties
participating in the Transitional Executive Council (TEC), in terms of the
Transitional Executive Council Act, 1993. It has now been disbanded, with
members returning to their original organisations.
MK members have formed an active component in the planning of both the now
disbanded NPKF and the newly-created national defence force. Several
thousand MK soldiers will form part of an integrated national defence
force. This process will be different to the NPKF's formation, which was
hurried and also included policing agencies. The process of gathering MK
soldiers at Assembly Points has already begun. Two locations have been
identified - Wallmansthal and Hoedspruit. The latter is in the eastern
Transvaal and will take a smaller number of MK soldiers, whilst
Wallmansthal will absorb the biggest number of them, at least 8 000. At
this stage, it has been decided that the De Brug base, used by the NPKF
recently, will also be utilised as an Assembly Point for MK soldiers who
were in the disbanded NPKF. This means that even the contingent that was
at Koeberg would join those at De Brug - a total of about 1 200.
In the Assembly Points, preparation for integration of MK into a newly
constituted national defence force will occur. At the same time, it will
also be a sorting of those who want to have a career in the army and
actually qualify. Here 'qualification' needs to be understood as a
candidate's being in good health, and within the required age limit to be
part of the national defence force. This means that there will be
voluntary demobilisation of those who no longer want to be part of the
army. Thereafter, once integration of all armed formations has occurred,
there will be rationalisation that will take place over a three year
period. This process needs to be carried out with caution and will have
its own problems, chief of which could be unemployed demobilised soldiers.
Even those who will be retrenched over a five year period after
integration will face a problem similar to that confronting those who were
demobilised. To address this problem, plans are under way for the
formation of a Service Brigade, whose main task would be a transition to
final exit from the army. The Service Brigade would teach vocational and
life skills to those who require these. During the period this occurs,
there would be some form of remuneration for a fixed period until eventual
exit from the defence force into civilian life.
THE FINAL TASK
The current process of planning for integration of all the armed
formations, including the Homeland and Self-Governing territories, needs
to take into consideration what the needs of a democratic state will be.
With no perceived threat from any of the neighbouring states, the future
size of the National Army will become crucial, especially in light of
other needs of a society emerging from high levels of unemployment and
poor education. The new army will (and should) have as its primary role,
the defence of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, as well as the
country's national sovereignty. The expertise that will be brought by MK
from training in different countries in conventional warfare should be
seen as a contribution to a future national defence force.
The processes outlined cover a period marking the end of MK as a guerrilla
army after 33 years of existence. The ideal for which MK was established
have been achieved. It brings to a close a chapter in South Africa's
history of white minority domination and long resistance to it, initially
through peaceful, non-violent means, but later by revolutionary violence.
This is MK's role which will stand in history. It is this achievement
which places the role of MK in its true perspective.
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