Liberation Struggle in South Africa

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Armed struggle & the advancement of the student and labour movements, 1967-1976

Introduction

MK Sabotage. This photograph was part of a sequence shot by a Rand Daily Mail photographer, two of which were published in the and Daily Mail of 29 September 1962 and captioned: "Twelve hours after saboteurs dynamited an Escom pylon yesterday between Benoni and Bapsfontein, police were still checking at the scene of the explosion. Two explosive charges were placed near the concrete bases of the pylon”. Source: Times Media Collection, Museum Africa.

The period 1967 to 1976 marked the beginning of a new chapter in resistance politics to the National Party (NP) government. The African National Congress’s aim was to train cadres in newly independent African states and friendly socialist countries. The latter part of the 1960s witnessed attempts by the African National Congress (ANC) to establish infiltration routes back to South Africa for its fighters. Their efforts culminated in the Wankie Campaign of 1967. This operation and subsequent ones signalled the beginning of the launching of attacks on the government from outside the country.

By the mid-1960s Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC, was based almost entirely in exile as apartheid policies were further tightened by B. J. Vorster, the Minister of Justice, who employed various repressive laws and state organs to silence opposition. In 1972, the Internal Security Act gave police powers to detain people without trial for a renewable period of ninety days. With these stricter laws, the apartheid regime succeeded in repressing dissent, until in 1973 a series of labour strikes erupted, followed by the youth revolt in 1976.

The Liberation Struggle in Retreat 1967-1976 - Background

During the first half of the 1960s, it was difficult for MK to establish external bases from which to conduct its operations. This problem ­­was overcome with the independence of Zambia (1964), Botswana (1966), Lesotho (1966), Swaziland (1968), Mozambique and Angola (1975). There were co-coordinated efforts to launch guerrilla attacks against South Africa. The Luthuli Detachment (comprising ANC and Zimbabwe African People’s Union/ZAPU) guerrillas, proved to be the leading unit to attempt to enter South Africa.

When the ANC was banned in 1960, Oliver Reginald Tambo, a member of the National Executive Committee (NEC), who became the Acting President after the death of Chief Albert Luthuli, assumed the leadership of the movement abroad. The ANC set up bases in Dar es Salaam for the training of MK recruits. In 1965 the ANC relocated its headquarters to Morogoro, but its main military camp was at Kongwa.

The watershed Morogoro Conference (1969) ushered in a new era in the history of the liberation struggle. It opened up membership of other race groups into the ANC.  It also embarked on establishing more military bases in other African countries apart from Tanzania. The period was characterised by concerted efforts to enter South Africa through neighbouring countries in order to launch guerrilla attacks. Despite some setbacks, the militant format of the liberation struggle in this decade makes it a particularly significant one. The 1970s saw the liberation movement adopting new strategies and tactics to deal with changed circumstances. The leadership of the ANC was sorely tested with Oliver Tambo, as acting president, having to deal with one of the most challenging times in the history of the organisation.

The crucial support provided by the leadership of the South African Communist Party (SACP) in exile and their cooperation in a united front with the ANC was decisive, despite some scepticism about the relationship that existed between the two organisations. The support that was received from Angola, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia, Botswana, the Soviet Union and Cuba also stimulated the growing desire of MK cadres to return to South Africa to fight to establish a new government based on democratic principles, with an entrenched non-racial constitution. However, it was not as easy and there were many obstacles that the ANC and MK encountered. This included factionalism within the camps, infiltration by agents of the apartheid government, limited resources, the great distance from home, amongst many other problems.

One organ of the South African government that was very active was the Bureau of State Security (BOSS), set up under the Public Service Amendment Act of 1969. BOSS was established by John Vorster at the insistence of Hendrik van den Bergh, head of the South African Police Security Branch, who convinced the Prime Minister that the country’s military intelligence was inadequate. In 1972, the State Security Council Act No. 64 which outlined the purpose of BOSS was passed. The Bureau’s main function was to identify any threat to the country as well as to interpret and evaluate national security intelligence information. Its first target, among others, was the Angolan war since it was believed to pose a threat by creating a route for the infiltration of “Soviet Russia” into South Africa. Although, at times, there were differences in opinion among the leaders on the methods of executing the liberation struggle, they agreed that the change of strategy to guerrilla tactics was essential.

Change to armed struggle - The Wankie Campaign (1967-1968)

The Wankie Campaign: The ANC’s First Armed Military Operation, July-September 1967, a thesis by N. van Driel

By 1967, trained MK cadres based at Kongwa, an ANC military base, in central Tanzania were becoming impatient at what they perceived as the ANC leadership’s hesitancy in deploying them back to South Africa to fight. According to Mavuso (Walter) Msimang, a leading member of MK’s High Command, “There was always an expectation that we were not going to stay in these places for very long. Noboby even brought suitcases; it would be these duffle bags ”¦ because the understanding was that the transit in Tanzania would be very, very brief. But we went to this camp at Kongwa – central Tanzania – and it became quite clear that transition was going to take a little longer. People wanted to go home, and they just did not want to sit in Kongwa.”

Trained MK fighters were first deployed in a military campaign in 1967 with Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) units in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) against Rhodesian security forces. The ANC leadership saw Rhodesia as the most suitable infiltration route because of common political, cultural, religious and linguistic ties. As the language spoken in Matabeleland was similar to Zulu and Xhosa, South African guerrillas would be able to communicate with the local population and access help from them while in transit. Furthermore, Venda, a South African language spoken mainly in the far northern province of Limpopo, is similar to Shona which would make communication between Shona-speaking ZAPU cadres and their MK colleagues easier. After carefully considering these advantages, Wankie was chosen as an appropriate infiltration zone.

In early 1967, MK recruits were transferred from their Tanzanian camps to ZAPU’s Joshua Nkomo camp outside Lusaka. These recruits included members of the Women’s Section Bureau (WSB).  The WSB was established in Tanzania in 1965 to create links with all women in exile and those who remained in the country by mobilising material assistance for their welfare.

On 8 August, ANC-ZAPU guerrillas crossed the Zambezi into Rhodesia. According to Norman Duka, a member of the South African-bound detachment, it seems that despite the sophistication of their equipment and their military competence the guerrillas were poorly prepared for their journey. The time it would take them to cross Rhodesia was badly underestimated. As a result, they ran out of food and other provisions early. Their problem was compounded by the use of inaccurate maps. Both Duka’s group and a ZAPU contingent were spotted by game scouts. Fighting between ANC-ZAPU units and the Rhodesian army broke out on 14 August and continued into September, ending with the defeat of the guerrillas.

Thus, the Wankie or Western front campaign (August-September 1967) marked the first series of contacts between a combined Umkhonto we Sizwe/Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (MK/ZIPRA) unit and the joint security forces of Rhodesia and South Africa. This significant effort at infiltration was augmented by attempts to establish bases in Rhodesia ‘to serve MK combatants passing through’ that country, as well as the formation of a joint political and military High command. Oliver Tambo and James Chikerema, the head of ZAPU in exile, were responsible for political direction, while Joe Modise (MK commander), Akim Ndlovu (ZIPRA commander), Archie Sibeko or Zola Zembe (MK chief of operations), and Dumiso Dabengwa (ZAPU chief of intelligence) were in charge of the military.

A second incursion into Rhodesia began at the end of December 1967. This time, a much larger group under ANC command was deployed and managed to survive undetected for nearly three months until its first contact with Rhodesian security forces on 18 March 1968. The joint MK-ZIPRA unit is the one that gave rise to the Sipolilo or Eastern front campaign of December 1967-July 1968. This was the second round of armed confrontation between South African and Rhodesian forces by joint ANC and ZAPU military units in Zimbabwe. According to the Rhodesians, the objective of the joint ANC-ZAPU group was to mobilise and prepare rural people to participate in a ZAPU-led uprising. No shots were supposed to be fired. Nevertheless, fierce fighting took place intermittently between March and June. In this period, about 55 guerrillas were killed and many more were captured. The outcome of this encounter, however, did not discourage a third incursion in July in which a Rhodesian army camp was attacked by MK guerrillas, whom the Rhodesians described as “resourceful and determined” because of their valiant acts. The liberation units fighting in 1968 also confronted South African policemen who had been dispatched to Rhodesia as reinforcements during the first campaign.

Between 1966 and 1974 South Africa, through the South African Defence Force (SADF), (now the South African National Defence Force [SANDF]), provided 'policing services' and military support to neighbouring white colonial governments in then Rhodesia, Mozambique and Angola. The country also engaged in a number of “low intensity” military deployments, incursions and cross-border raids against these and other ‘Front Line States' on a regular basis from 1975.

With respect to Rhodesia, the South African House of Assembly passed the Defence Amendment Bill in March 1973 making it possible for South Africans to be seconded to the Rhodesian forces without loss of seniority or pay. The strategic purpose of the Rhodesian campaigns was taken seriously by the ANC leadership in Morogoro (Tanzania) as doctrines of rural-based guerrilla warfare were not only very influential but also highly regarded. Arguably, a subsidiary motive of the campaign was to remedy the sagging morale created by inactivity and boredom in the camps as well as boosting the ANC’s position with the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU), African Liberation Committee.

For some time after 1968, the ANC was involved with internal wrangles over strategy and tactics. In convening a “Third Consultative Conference” (the first was in Pietermaritzburg and the second in Lobatsi) in Morogoro, the ANC’s leadership conceded that there were reasonable grounds for discontent within MK and far-reaching reforms had to be adopted in order to redirect the war effort. However, the Morogoro reforms of 1969 did not signal an end to the ANC’s internal troubles.

The new decade,1970, began inauspiciously with the collapse of ZAPU as an effective fighting force because of feuding which led to the emergence of a third Zimbabwean guerrilla group, i.e. the Front for the Liberation of Zimbabwe (FROLIZI). Between 1970 and 1975, MK made efforts to reconsolidate its underground structures. Around this time, Chris Hani, among others, returned to South Africa to help organise local structures.

Internal resistance in South Africa

Internal opposition, in many ways, complemented external resistance. Between 1970 and 1975, the ANC attempted to infiltrate South Africa in various ways.  In 1971, one of the veterans of the first Rhodesian campaign, James April, was arrested in Durban. He had received some training in London from the Revolutionary Council’s strategist, Joe Slovo, and the explosives expert of the first MK campaign, Jack Hodgson. The following year, Egyptian born Alexander Moumbaris and an Irishman, Sean Hosey, were arrested and accused of being ANC couriers involved in a scheme to land Russian-trained guerrillas on the Transkei coast to organise the local peasants into a formidable military force. In 1975 Breyten Breytenbach, a famous Afrikaner poet, returned from exile in Paris disguised as a priest, and on behalf of Okhela (an anti-communist faction within the “white” ANC), toured the country to make contact with potential sympathisers. Okhela’s mainly white membership was clustered in Paris and Amsterdam. These cases naturally attracted much publicity and were indications that ANC activists had succeeded in re-establishing a rudimentary organisational network in the country. For example, in August 1971, pamphlet bombs were exploded simultaneously in public transport terminals in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth and Amandla-Matha, an ANC newsletter, began to circulate inside the country the following year.

Black Consciousness and the Student movement

Steve Biko

Alongside these infiltration activities, new youth and Black Consciousness (BC) groups developed in South Africa in the late 1960s. These young men and women were informed by the experiences of African liberation struggles, especially in Mozambique, Angola, and Zimbabwe, and by black theology and the Black Power movement in the United States.

In South Africa, the leading figure in the Black Consciousness (BC) movement was Stephen Bantu Biko, who was the main force behind the growth of the Black Consciousness Movement with Indians, Coloureds and Africans as members. The movement stressed the need for psychological liberation, black pride and non-violent opposition to apartheid. The emergence of black student groups, inspired by black consciousness, was a new and powerful development in the 1970s.In the post-Sharpeville 1960s, the liberal National Union of South African Students (NUSAS)\ was one of the few remaining vehicles for multiracial political activity. Its following was concentrated in the four English-medium universities of Witwatersrand, Cape Town, Durban and Rhodes (Grahamstown), the first three of which accepted black students after 1959, only with ministerial permission. The efforts of students’ representative councils at the segregated universities of Turfloop, Ngoye and Fort Hare to affiliate to NUSAS was one of the main issues over which African students clashed with the university authorities between 1960 and 1967. By 1967, many black students were disenchanted with NUSAS’s leadership. First, white student leaders had become less politically outspoken and more concerned with the preservation of academic freedoms which most black students did not in any case enjoy. Secondly, the number of African students on the segregated campuses had quadrupled since 1960. NUSAS’s predominantly white leadership was unable to reflect their particular concerns. Even if they had been sensitive to the needs of this constituency, their organisation was in any case prohibited from operating on African campuses in 1967. Finally, there were ideological stimuli, which helped to distance black students from whites, especially the advent of the American-derived Black Theology. Black Theology predominated in the University Christian Movement, which from its inception in 1967 had gained a significant following on the segregated campuses.

An incident in 1967 served to underline for black NUSAS members the futility of participation in white liberal institutions. At NUSAS’s annual conference at Rhodes, the university authorities insisted that African delegates should use segregated social facilities. The following year, black students involved both in NUSAS and in the University Christian Movement began to discuss the establishment of an all-black movement.

Consequently, the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) held its inaugural conference at Turfloop in July 1969. From its inception, SASO perceived its task as that of ‘conscientising’ black communities. Its leaders, argued that the inferiority complexes engendered by oppression and paternalism had to be overcome. They also agreed to sever any links between black leadership groups and predominantly white liberal institutions. In 1972, SASO’s leaders, together with personalities drawn from several African religious and educational bodies, established the Black People’s Convention (BPC). The BPC’s proclaimed objectives included liberation from psychological and physical oppression and the implementation of “Black Communalism” through economic cooperatives, literacy campaigns, health projects, cultural activity and a general workers’ union, the Black Allied Workers’ Union (BAWU).

The 1973 Labour Strikes

Another dimension to resistance against oppression at the work place, in the post-Sharpeville quiescence, ended with labour unrest in Durban in the first months of 1973. The early 1970s saw a rise with 5 000 workers participating in six strikes.

The 1973 Labour Strikes

In the first three months of 1973, 160 strikes involving 61 000 workers in the manufacturing sector took place. Discontent was high among Durban’s factory workers, whose lack of union rights was made worse by the combined effect of high inflation and a shortage of manufacturing jobs. As one group of workers won wage increases, others would walk out on strike. Stoppages soon spread to factories on the Rand and the Eastern Cape. Unable to stop the strikes or replace trained workers in high demand, companies accepted strikers’ demands in order to restart production.

Their scale, spontaneous character and degree of success made these strikes unique in South Africa’s labour history. As a result of the successful strikes of 1973, independent labour unions emerged, which further politicised industrial workplaces and forced the government to extend some labour rights to workers (e.g. the right to strike), thus conceding the central importance of Black workers to apartheid capitalism.

Soweto Uprising

June 16 uprisings and the youth struggle in the 20th Century

Over-reaction on the part of the South African Police (SAP) to a street procession of secondary school students, in Soweto, provided the initial spark which developed into widespread national insurrection. The students were marching to Orlando stadium to protest against the insistence by the educational authorities that mathematics and social sciences be taught in Afrikaans as stipulated under the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974. The demonstration had been preceded by strikes and attacks on police and teachers at several junior secondary schools. On 13 June 1976, at a meeting of the South African Students’ Movement (SASM) convened at Naledi High School, the Soweto Students’ Representative Council (SSRC) was formed, composed of SASM delegates, two from each Soweto secondary school. It was this body, under the chairmanship of Tebello Motopayane that planned the fateful demonstration which took place on 16 June. On that day 15 000 children converged on Orlando West Junior Secondary School, only to be confronted by a hastily summoned and aggressive police detachment which, when tear gas had failed to disperse the students, fired a barrage of bullets into the crowd, killing two and injuring many more. The two students killed were 12-year old Hector Pieterson and Hastings Ndlovu, aged 15.

Soweto uprising of 1976. Marching children, in a mood common to school kids the world over, happy that they were not in class, good naturedly protesting against the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction at their schools. They marched from Naledi Township, at the south western end of Soweto, collecting others on their route to Orlando East, the north eastern end of the vast complex, where the police set dogs on them and opened fire. Photograph by Mike Mzileni. Source: Baileys African History Archive.

The publication of the image of the fatally injured Pieterson made him an international icon of the uprising. The official death toll in Soweto on the day was 23, including the two children.   

After this incident, the schoolchildren retreated and fanned out into the township. By midday rioting had broken out in several parts of Soweto where cars were stoned and barricades erected. Arson attacks took place on administration buildings and beer halls, and two white men were killed. The rioting continued into the evening and increased in intensity when police wielding batons descended on homecoming commuters outside railway stations. During the next few days the revolt spread to student groups throughout the country, but the pattern of attacks on police patrols and symbolically significant buildings was established in Soweto. Following the riots, schools were closed by the then Minister of Bantu Education on the 18th, and by the beginning of July Soweto was uneasily quiet. In the interval, before the formal re-opening of schools on 26 June, the Afrikaans medium ruling was dropped by the authorities.

In the aftermath of this ruling, the first ANC leaflets in response to the riots appeared, calling on pupils to broaden the concerns and the constituency of the revolt. An older generation of community leaders formed the Black Parents’ Association (BPA). The BPA played an auxiliary role in arranging medical and legal services as well as funerals for victims of police brutality. By mid-August, all its members were in detention.

The revolt entered its second phase when the SSRC mounted the first of several stay-aways in Soweto on 4 August. Two more effective stay-aways were organised by the SSRC in the same township, one in the week beginning on 23 August and another between 13 and 15 September. Similarly, there were many more stay-aways in Johannesburg and Cape Town, but they attracted violent police response. The second stay-away included a section of the migrant worker population of Mzimhlope Hostel in Soweto.

Many student leaders were arrested and subsequently tried. Thousands were detained or prosecuted for public order and security offences and were sentenced to long goal terms. Members of the SSRC were charged with sedition. Following the June 16 uprising there was a huge exodus of young men and women into Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and other African countries for military training.

Last updated : 24-Mar-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 21-Mar-2011

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