Launch of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK)

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16 December 1961 is seen as the date of formation because Umkhonto performed its first acts of violence on this date. Popularly called Dingaans Day and later renamed the Day of the Vow, 16 December commemorated the Battle of Blood River where, in 1838, the Boers had defeated King Dingaan's Zulu impis.

In preparation, night after night they ground chemicals. "It took 20 kilograms of Jack's mixture", recalls Kasrils, "to make four bombs ”¦We neatly wrapped each bomb in Christmas paper and delivered them to different combat units”¦" By 15 December the MK soldiers were ready. They had their instructions from the National High Command to attack government offices and were reminded to avoid loss of life.

On the morning of 16 December, posters appeared in the city streets, announcing the existence of Umkhonto we Sizwe. They read, "The time comes in the life of any people when there remain two choices: to submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We will not submit but will fight back with all means at our disposal in defence of our rights, our people and our freedom."

In a Manifesto released on the same day, Mk declared its armed struggle, and made it clear that “Umkhonto we Sizwe would be at the front line of the peoples’ defence”. As announced in its manifesto, there were a series of “planned attacks” in the form of sabotage in Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.

In Durban Billy Nair, Bruno Mtolo, Eric Mtshali and Curnick Ndlovu carried out some of the acts of sabotage:

“Our first target in Durban was the Durban pass office. Billy, Curnick, Bruno and myself went to plant a bomb there which we made out of aluminium, potassium permanganate and coffee”¦we planted this bomb at the door of the main office of the pass office in Ordinance Road. When we were a few steps away, Bruno said that there was something that we did not put correctly and he ran back to correct that. We then proceeded to another area where a pylon was to be blown up. This pylon was situated at a place called Morningside, in Durban. First we went to prepare the material, placed it at the target, retreated. We then heard a big explosion going off. A big cloud of smoke and flames covered that pylon. It was a new experience to us, and we were very proud. We read about it in the following day in the Natal Mercury. The damage was quite substantial. This operation was more successful than the one in Ordinance Road where a bomb did not explode properly and caused very little damage. Well, we thought it was because we were amateurs but later we suspected that Bruno must have sabotaged it when he went back after we had placed everything correctly” – Eric Mtshali, Joe Modise, Joe Gqabi, Joe Slovo and Andrew Masondo were given the task of sabotaging the Johannesburg area. Joe Modise and his unit were to sabotage the Kliptown area while Masondo and his unit were given the administrative areas of Meadowlands and White City. Each of these units consisted of three members who each had a specific task to perform:

“One was going to place the explosives on the wall, the other was going to set it alight and the third would be keeping watch of our security”.

The key aspect of this particular act was that they used dynamite and it was carried out at night. In Soweto alone there were a couple of acts of sabotage that were completed by each unit:

“For December 16 Comrade Masondo and myself were given tasks in Soweto”¦on our way, half way towards our target we heard a very big explosion. We got worried because the whole operation throughout was coordinated, so as to ensure the security of the comrades particularly in the same locality”¦the following morning news was brought to me that an accident took place. The explosion we heard on our way to Kliptown was at Dube municipal office. The late comrade John was blown up in that accident. He was together with comrade Ramotse who sustained burns on the hands and face”.

Joe Slovo’s target was the Johannesburg Drill Hall which had housed the preparatory examination of the Treason Trial. But when the moment came, he found that the military authorities had decided to have their monthly spring clean. He entered the hall and found 50 black cleaners at work. Looking for somewhere else to plant the bomb, he found an old cupboard, turned the acid bottle upside down (which activated the device) and turned to face a military official who asked if he could help him.

Although Slovo had his story ready, he was aware he had only 15 minutes before the bomb exploded. Fortunately, he had time to get back and turn the bottle upright before it exploded. Later, he recalled, he felt "somewhat redeemed" when he, Jack Hodgson, Rusty Bernstein and others dealt successfully with a manhole on the Johannesburg/Pretoria road which housed the telephone cables between the two cities.

In the Eastern Cape Vuyisile Mini, the first MK combatant to be hanged along side Wilson Khanyiso and Zinakele Mkhaba, carried out the acts of sabotage in Port Elizabeth.

In total, one member MK member was killed by his own bomb and another lost an arm. Though the attacks caused minimal damage, it advertised the start of the campaign.

Last updated : 14-Dec-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 20-Mar-2011