On 16 December, 1961, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) was launched as an armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC).

The formation of the MK

Umkhonto weSizwe ("Spear of the Nation") or 'MK' as it was more commonly known, was launched on the 16th December 1961. On the same day in 1838, the Afrikaners had defeated the Zulus at the Battle of the Blood River and it was perhaps significant that the armed struggle was launched on this particular day, more than one hundred years later. The formation of MK followed a series of events that made it necessary for the national liberation movements in South Africa to move towards a more significant challenge to the white minority government. The African National Congress (ANC), together with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the members of the Congress Alliance, the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People’s Congress and the Congress of the Democrats, had been engaged in peaceful acts of resistance which aimed at forcing the government to eventually recognise the rights of Black people in South Africa. However, the 1950s and the early 1960s, showed the intension by the South African government to further isolate the country’s black people through various laws and severe repressive measures. In addition, in the face of repressive measures by the state, came the need to change tactics in the manner in which the ANC, SACP and the Congress Alliance had been approaching the struggle for freedom and equality.

Changing tactics was not going to be a simple and easy thing for the ANC, because for a long time it had embraced the ‘non-violence’ approach, an approach favored by Chief Albert Luthuli, President of the ANC at that time. Apart from the ‘non-violence’ stance that the ANC embraced, there were other issues that did not support the idea of an armed struggle, for instance at the time when the decision was made to form the MK, the ANC was banned under the Unlawful Organisations Bill of 1960 therefore, if the decision to take up arms became the decision of the ANC as the organisation, that would have put its Congress Alliance in danger of being banned.

Events leading to the decision to take up arms by the ANC

In the 1950s it became clear to some members of the ANC and the SACP that passive resistance and non-violence were not working. A factor that undoubtedly had an influence on the thinking of the ANC and the SACP, and which probably had a bearing on their shift towards political violence in 1961, was the general failure of the ANC directed campaigns of the 1950s to bring about meaningful political changes based on the policy of non-violence and moderation, following the moderate successes of the Defiance Campaign of 1952 and the Western Areas Campaign.

Some sources site that the reason for these ‘moderate’ successes were due to unproductive and unfocused meetings. The ANC also showed a shift in its policies during the Annual National Congress on 26 June 1955 in Kliptown where the Freedom Charter was adopted. The significance of the Freedom Charter, was that the perception of the ANC as an African-only organisation shifted to one that embraces a growing unity amongst all Black peoples. However this multi-racial ideology did lead to a split within the ANC by those members like Robert Sobukwe who espoused the Pan-Africanist view of “Africa for Africans”. He went on to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

The most significant catalyst that led to the taking up of arms was the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960, where the government violently crushed a peaceful anti-pass demonstration organised by the Pan African Congress. This demonstration lead to the deaths of 69 people, with 186 wounded. Also in the Western Cape Township, Langa, 3 people were killed and 27 injured in clashes with police over the burning of passes. The states’ heavy-handed response to the peaceful demonstrations and the subsequent banning of the ANC and SACP the following month, dealt a serious blow to the ANC and its allies.

Therefore, in 1960 after the Sharpeville massacre and the banning of liberation organisations many more ANC and SACP members were convinced. The time had come to rethink the approach towards the struggle and move from ‘passive resistance’ to the ‘armed struggle’.

“Mandela’s” proposal

By the end of 1960, popular resistance seemed to be crushed. The flames of the burning passes had been put out by the bullets of Sharpeville and Langa. The week long stay-away called for the 19 April 1960 failed to raise the spirit of a dejected people. Those liberation leaders who escaped the massive state clampdown slipped out of the country to begin re-organising resistance from abroad. For Mandela, this was the turning point. "If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent struggle," he told a gathering of local and foreign press in a safe house, "we will have to reconsider our tactics. In my mind we are closing a chapter on this question of a non-violent policy."

Various suggestions have been given on who and how the idea and the decision to take up arms came into being. One is that the proposal was first made to the ANC by Mandela in June, but Ben Turok suggests that it was in one private meeting between April and May 1960, which comprised of a handful of SACP activists, Yusuf Dadoo, Jack Hodgson, Joe Matthews, Michael Hermal, Moses Kotane, Ben Turok, and Ruth First. Bram Fischer and Bartholomew Hlapane. At this meeting Michael Hermel presented a proposal of a move towards armed struggle. The proposal, according to Ben Turok, suggested that:

“”¦peaceful methods of struggle were over; that one had to now look at alternatives; and that the alternative was armed struggle - violence. And it set this in the context of Marxist theory and communist theory, and revolutionary practice."

This proposal was later presented to individuals within the ANC, and it therefore pre-dates the 1961 decision of the ANC to begin the armed struggle.

At an ANC Working Committee meeting in June 1961 Mandela presented the proposal for a military wing, initially Moses Kotane disagreed. He argued that: "There is still room for the old methods if we are imaginative and determined enough." Eventually, however, Kotane agreed to the matter being raised with the National Executive.

Later that month the National Executive met in Durban. Like all ANC meetings at the time, the meeting was secret and held at night in order to avoid the police. Mandela anticipated difficulties. There was no doubt that the timing was poor. At the Treason Trial, the ANC had contended that non-violence was an inviolate principle of the movement, not simply a tactic. He knew, furthermore, that Chief Luthuli's commitment to non-violence was deeply moral and feared his opposition. However, Luthuli was ultimately persuaded. "If anyone thinks I am a pacifist", he said, "let him try to take my chickens, and he will know how wrong he is!" Luthuli’s suggestion was that the military movement should be a separate and independent organ, linked and under the overall control of the ANC but fundamentally autonomous. In this way the legality of the unbanned allies would not be jeopardised. The NEC agreed.

The following night, the Joint Executive met in Durban including representatives from the Indian Congress, the Coloured People's Congress, the South African Congress of Trade Unions and the Congress of Democrats. Chief Luthuli opened the meeting by saying that even though the ANC had endorsed the decision on violence, "it is a matter of such gravity, I would like my colleagues here tonight to consider the issue afresh”.

For Mandela, this was a sign that the chief was not one hundred percent convinced by his proposal. However, when the session opened at 8pm, Mandela presented his arguments once again. Maulvi Cachalia pleaded with the ANC not to take up arms, arguing that the state would slaughter the whole liberation movement. "Non-violence has not failed us, we have failed non-violence", pleaded JN Singh.

"We argued the entire night", recalled Mandela, but then suddenly MD Naidoo, a member of the South African Indian Congress, said to his Indian colleagues: "Ah, you are afraid of going to jail, that is all!" By dawn, Mandela had his authority.

Nelson Mandela of the ANC and Joe Slovo of the SACP were mandated to form the new military organisation and its high command, separate from the ANC. The policy of the ANC would still be that of non-violence. They were authorised to join with whomever they wanted or needed to create this organisation and they would not be under the direct control of the mother organisation (ANC).

“At the time when MK was formed a decision was taken that it should be an independent organisation. There is however, no certainty as to the precise terms in which the decision was formulated. This enabled the ANC and any of its leaders to deny any involvement in armed activity, while allowing those organising MK to do so in the ANC’s name”.

The name of the new organisation would be Umkhonto weSizwe, Zulu and Xhosa for the Spear of the Nation. Its short name would be the MK. The MK’s aim was to "hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom".

Planning for the first phase

The first phase of armed action was to be the December 1961 sabotage campaign against government installations. Instructions were issued to avoid attacks that would lead to injury or loss of life.

Joe Slovo wrote: "No one believed that the tactic of sabotage could, on its own, lead to the collapse of the racist state. It would be the first phase of 'controlled violence' designed to serve a number of purposes. It would be a graphic pointer to the need for carefully planned action rather than spontaneous or terrorist acts of retaliation which were already in evidence ”¦ And it would demonstrate that the responsibility for the slide towards bloody civil war lay squarely with the regime".

In the six or so months between making the decision to form the organisation (June) and the first acts of sabotage (December), the MK high command set up regional commands in the main centres. The people chosen to be part of these commands were chosen either because they had the necessary technical or military skills or because they were members of the Congress Alliance organisations.

Curnick Dlovu led the Natal region. Looksmart Ngudle (who died in security police detention in 1963) and Fred Carneson were leaders in the Western Cape. Washington Bongco (who was hanged for MK activities in August 1963) was Border regional commander. Vuyisile Mini (who was executed in 1964) was one of the key figures in the Eastern Cape command. Jack Hogson, Ahmed Kathrada, Arthur Goldreich and Dennis Goldberg were in Johannesburg.

Ronnie Kasrils recalls his recruitment to the newly formed MK: "During July 1961, MP Naicker took me for a walk along the [Durban] beach front ”¦ 'I have been asked to approach you,' he said, above the roar of the surf smashing against the rocks, ' to sound you out. Are you willing to get involved?'

"Theory apart" wrote Slovo, "this venture into a new era of struggle found us ill-equipped at many levels. Among the lot of us we did not have a single pistol. No one we knew had ever engaged in urban sabotage with home made explosives ”¦"

It was Jack Hodgson, appointed to the Johannesburg military command of MK, who showed them the ropes. A veteran of the Abyssinian campaign and a 'desert rat' during the early stages of the North African war, Jack Hodgson taught the cadres the rudiments.  

"Sacks of permanganate of potash were brought", wrote Slovo, "and we spent days with pestles and mortars grinding this substance to a fine powder".

Kasrils continues: "He (Hodgson) placed a chemical mixture with icing sugar into a spoon and carefully added a drop of acid with an eye dropper. The powder burst into flame and we were as impressed as pupils in a science class. The problem, of course, was how to achieve the result without directly applying the acid. For that one required a timing device." "With a huge grin he produced a condom". First he placed a teaspoon of the chemical mixture into the condom. Next he produced a small, gelatine capsule ”¦ Opening the capsule, he added a few drops of acid, carefully put the cap back on the capsule and dropped it into the condom. He told us that it normally took up to 50 minutes for the acid to eat through the capsule ”¦”


Niemann, M. (1993). 'Diamonds are State's Best Friend: Botswana's Foreign Policy in Southern Africa'.|Africa Today, vol 40. No 1.Magubane, B. (1983). 'Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland: South Africa's Hostages in Revolt'. (Eds)|Callaghy, T. M. South Africa in Southern Africa: The Intensifying Vortex of Violence, Praeger: New York.|Urnov, A. (1982). South Africa against Africa, Progress: Moscow.|O'Meara, P. and Carter, G. M. (1982). 'Interchapter--Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland: The Common Background and Links'. (Eds)|O'Meara, P. and Carter, G.M. Southern Africa: The Continuing Crisis (second edition), Indiana University Press: Bloomington.|ANC official website (history and documents section). anc.org.za|African National Congress (undated). The History of Umkhonto weSizwe, timeline. anc.org.za (accessed 12 December 2003).

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