African National Congress (ANC)

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School children protesting against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at their schools. 1976. © BAHA

Armed Struggle, the revival of armed activity 1970s-1980s

The independence of Mozambique, in particular, gave tremendous momentum to the armed struggle in South Africa. Jacob Zuma recalls that when Angola and Mozambique attained independence in 1975: “the comrades had the idea that an opportunity had come to take the armed struggle, or struggle in totality, some steps forward ... since we had a link with the outside.” Throughout 1975 up to the first half of 1976, many people left South Africa mainly under the auspices of the African National Congress (ANC) to take up military training.

Important stages in the new military strategy can be traced back to the call by the ANC Revolutionary Council (RC) to launch ‘total war’. In March 1975, the RC had given “a general directive to all its units to go into action.” An ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting in December 1975 discussed plans to re-launch Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) operations. The first military operations were carried out towards the end of 1975 and in early 1976. To facilitate military activity, shortly before the 1976 riots in Soweto, the RC had decided to overhaul its military administration, which also served as an operations’ and planning department. Implementation of this decision began in the following months.

At the beginning of 1976 MK began giving young recruits crash courses in Swaziland and sending them back to strengthen the underground structures. However, it was only after the June 1976 uprisings that regular infiltration of MK cadres into South Africa started.

The Soweto Uprising had galvanised thousands of youths to take up arms in the struggle against the National Party (NP) government. Popular anger intensified as the Bantustan programme was stimulating more and more opposition. Internationally, the Soweto events had set back Vorster’s negotiations with African liberation movements. At the same time, the armed struggle in Namibia and Zimbabwe was growing in scope and intensity. However, although it tried to intensify the struggle, the ANC conceded that it had been ill-prepared for the Soweto Uprising.

The Soweto fiasco provoked a major re-think of the organisation’s military tactics. It marked a decisive shift in internal black politics towards mass resistance, with the ANC reverting largely to the tried and tested tactics of the early 1960s - sabotage. Therefore, the period after Soweto saw an increase in sabotage attacks, 112 attacks and explosions were reported between October 1976 and May 1981, and an average of one small bomb exploded each week after November 1977. From 1978 onwards, the ANC embarked on guerrilla warfare in both urban and rural areas, and there was a marked increase in clashes with security forces. The fighters became highly-trained and increasingly resorted to the use of more sophisticated armaments and tactics.

The post-Soweto phase of the armed struggle was initially characterised by small units, armed with explosives and advanced weapons. In this period, the guerrillas’ primary objective was to raise and sustain the level of morale and militancy among the masses.

The 1977-1980 period witnessed the MK engaging in a range of operations which were to dramatically increase at a later stage. Police stations such as Booysens, Soweto and Soekmekaar were attacked. In addition, MK combatants were involved in physical clashes with the police in the rural parts of Derdepoort and Rustenburg. These incidents scared the regime to a point that it embarked on the forced recruitment and training of more white soldiers- in a desperate bid to avert the danger posed by a reinvigorated MK.

Last updated : 11-Dec-2012

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011