Siphiwe Nyanda was the eldest of the six children of Betsy and Henry Nyanda, a traffic inspector and area supervisor of liquor outlets for the Johannesburg municipality.
Nyanda attended Thulasizwe Primary School in Soweto and Orlando West High School where he completed his junior certificate. He matriculated from Orlando High School in 1969.
Nyanda enrolled for a BSc at the University of Zululand in 1970, but was expelled in 1971 for a minor misdemeanor. He tried to pursue his science studies through the University of South Africa, but found this difficult through correspondence and switched to a BA degree. During this time he began working as a reporter on the World newspaper and joined the Union of Black Journalists.
Nyanda's parents were members of the African National Congress (ANC) in the 1950s and he came from a politicised household. This influence, together with his contacts with the South African Students Organisation (Saso) at university cemented his political views.
In 1973, Nyanda tried to link with the ANC and travelled to Botswana to attend the unveiling of the tombstone of Abram Tiro in the hope of meeting with ANC representatives. The following year he went to Mozambique, but again failed to make contact. He ultimately contacted the movement in Swaziland, and began working in its internal underground structures. In late 1975, he and other members of his underground unit were told to leave the country and in early 1976 he went to Maputo. From there, Nyanda moved to Tanzania where he was asked to take charge of a group about to undergo training in East Germany, where he underwent ten months of military and political instruction.
Nyanda returned to South Africa in February 1977 to build up underground infrastructures. He stayed in the country for about a month assessing the situation and making contacts, and then returned to Maputo to report on his proposals for structures and actions to be taken. However, Nyanda's plans were shelved and it was decided that a regional command structure would be established in Maputo and Swaziland which would be aimed at infiltrating personnel and hard-ware into South Africa. Nyanda was appointed political commissar for the ANC's Transvaal Urban Machinery, covering the PWV, Pretoria, the Vaal and East and West Rand regions. A few years later the commander died in a Swazi jail, and Nyanda assumed command. He occasionally entered South Africa, bringing cadres into the country. In 1983, he became uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) Chief of Staff for the Transvaal, following reorganisation at headquarters, and continued operating from Maputo and Swaziland until 1986.
He also served on the military committee based in Maputo which oversaw and co-ordinated the work of the military in the Transvaal and Natal.
The 1984 Nkomati Accord forced the machinery to shift headquarters to Swaziland. In that year, Nyanda undertook additional training in East Germany and from then onwards, until 1987, was based in Swaziland, ANC structures having been expelled from Mozambique.
At the time of the ANC's 1985 Kabwe Conference, Nyanda was called to Lusaka because of the numerous assassination attempts launched by the security police and the Swazi authorities. After the conference he went to the USSR for further training.
In December 1985 he returned to Swaziland, where he remained until the end of 1986 when he was recalled to Zambia for a briefing by the ANC's president, Oliver Tambo, to prepare for a mission into South Africa, code named Operation Vula.
Following the Nkomati Accord, the ANC had experienced difficulty in infiltrating cadres into the country. It had become difficult to establish underground structures with distant lines of communication. Even before the Nkomati Accord, the leadership had been asked to address the issue of leadership and control, the servicing of underground structures and contact with middle-level cadres.
ANC cadres based in Swaziland emphasised the need for leadership inside South Africa. The prospects for a negotiated settlement seemed remote, and it appeared that a protracted struggle was on the cards with the aim of a seizure of power. Problems of leadership on the ground had to be dealt with.
Ultimately, the ANC's national executive committee concluded that senior leadership had to be sent into the country for the day-to-day running of the underground, and Oliver Tambo was given the responsibility for Operation Vula. Nyanda and Mac Maharaj were asked to take up internal leadership positions.
Nyanda wound up his affairs in Swaziland and spent the rest of 1987 in Zambia and Botswana preparing for infiltration. In June 1988, he infiltrated into the country with Maharaj and worked underground until his arrest in July 1990.
He remained underground following the unbanning of the ANC on 2 February 1990. However, in July 1990 he and others were detained in Durban under section 29 of the Internal Security Act and held for six weeks. Initially Nyanda was charged under the Arms and Ammunition Act, but later additional charges were added. In October 1990, he and eight others were charged with terrorism and, alternatively, illegal possession of arms, ammunition and explosives. It was alleged that they had conspired to create a national underground network to recruit, train, arm and lead a 'people's army' to seize power from the government by means of an armed insurrection. The accused were released on bail in November 1990, and the charges dropped in March 1991 after they had received partial immunity with respect to Operation Vula.
Nyanda moved to ANC headquarters in Johannesburg in February 1991 to serve on its organising committee. He subsequently served on its campaign committee until his appointment as acting chief of staff for uMkhonto weSizwe in March 1992.
In July 1991, Nyanda was elected to the ANC's national executive committee at its Durban conference. He also serves on the bilateral committee dealing with paragraph three of the DF Malan Accord and the Pretoria Minute of August 1990 on cessation of the armed struggle. In addition, he is a member of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa support group dealing with transitional arrangements and is on the sub committee of the National Peace Committee dealing with a code of conduct for the South African Defence Force.
Nyanda is married to Sheila (born Mathabe) and they have two children. They live in Soweto.
• Interviewed 12 March 1992, Johannesburg.