The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 11 No 5 - June 2000

(incorporating Museum Review)

The other armies:
A brief historical overview of Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK), 1961-1994

by Rocky Williams

The history of Umkhonto We Sizwe is under-recorded in the annals of our national military history and it is hoped that this article will provide 'pointers' for future research in this area.


South Africa possesses a rich and varied military history that spans many centuries and reflects a variety of themes, cultures, traditions, organisational features, combat experiences, and personal histories. For centuries, a variety of military organisations and military cultures existed within the borders of what is now known as South Africa. Virtually all indigenous African polities possessed armed forces of varying sizes, capabilities and traditions.

The Zulu military tradition in the nineteenth century, for instance, embodied an organisational sophistication and strategic innovation that was to influence many aspects of modern defence organisation and doctrine. Similarly, the Boer commando tradition was to introduce a degree of tactical flexibility hitherto absent in much modern warfare. In the Cape Colony, Pandour regiments (with Khoi-Khoi members) and colonial volunteer regiments co-existed with burgher militias. The Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, for its part, contained within its borders a mixture of Boer commandos, colonial volunteer regiments, and independent African military formations (patticularly those of the Batswana and the Ndebele).

The creation of the Union Defence Forces in 1912 represented the synthesis of no less than eight different military formations, each with its own institutional culture, rank structure, command hierarchy, and uniforms. This heterogeneity was to remain pronounced within the Union Defence Forces until the National Patty victory in 1948. In the years that followed, the highly unpopular Minister of Defence, F C Erasmus, attempted to purge the Union Defence Forces of 'foreign' influences, and introduced a greater degree of ethnic homogeneity into its culture - an exercise which was to exert a profound influence over the political direction and institutional culture of the armed forces during the following four decades.

The creation of Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK) in 1961 witnessed the emergence of new tradition in South Africa's military history. It represented the creation of a modern guerilla army, inseparably part of a broader liberation movement, that had as its mission the pursuit of a guerilla war against the armed forces of the State in support of the political programme of the African National Congress (ANC). Yet, written accounts of this army are, to date, scarce and, unless a sustained attempt is mounted to study MK, much of its tradition, experience and anecdote will also be lost in this process. This is unfortunate, given the fact that South Africa possesses a developed military history tradition that is reflected in innumerable regimental histories, campaign histories, biographies of illustrious military personages, and specific military historical studies. Yet despite its empirical richness, this tradition is characterised by three primary weaknesses. The first is an over-concentration on empirical detail to the detriment of analysis (itself a product of the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon tradition in South African military historiography). The second weakness is related to the first, and is somewhat self-evident, given the asymmetrical power relations that have pertained in South Africa since the beginning of the twentieth century, and relates to the ethnic composition of the historians themselves - most of whom tend to be white English-speaking males. The third is the extent to which the black South African military experience in the twentieth century has largely been ignored - be it the involvement of African, Coloured or Indian South Africans in the First World War, Second World War or so-called 'Border War' or, more recently, the involvement of South Africans of diverse cultural backgrounds in the liberation armies.

With a few notable exceptions, there have, as yet, been few sustained analyses of the history of MK - although abbreviated histories do exist in the political literature of the 1980s and early 1990s.(1) More recently, particularly with the relocation of the ANC's archives to the Mayibuye Centre at the University of the Western Cape, a limited range of more personal accounts of former MK combatants are beginning to emerge.(2) The underdevelopment of historical writing on indigenous African military traditions in general and the history of MK in particular is attributable to a number of historical and practical factors - the lack of a written tradition inherent in any young army, the severe censorship and political restrictions characterising the period during which MK operated as a guerilla army, and the lack of resources required presently to mount a sustained study of MK since its inception.

Indeed, the written histories of southern African twentieth century guerilla armies are, in general, lamentably underdeveloped - a phenomenon that is largely the result of a combination of complex historical, political and resource factors. Histories that do exist are often 'official' versions and, as such, reflect the ideological bias of the ruling party. More frequently those credible historical accounts that do exist either assume the form of personal accounts written by former combatants or selected academic articles that focus on a specific aspect of the guerilla struggle.(3)
It is precisely for the above-mentioned reasons that southern African guerilla armies constitute such a fertile arena of potential research. Such research can be conducted at a number of levels, be they broad historical overviews, campaign histories, regimental (detachment) histories, and personal accounts by former soldiers. Such historical renditions can combine both focussed and 'human interest' accounts of the liberation struggle. What, for instance, were the experiences of the different units in both training and combat, what campaigns were fought both within and without the country (MK personnel participated, in varying degrees, in most of the major guerilla wars in the sub-continent), what personal struggles and travails characterised its operations, what were the institutional peculiarities of MK (rank, traditions, medals and decorations etc), and what was the nature of the military leadership that emerged within the organisation during the years of its existence?

Whilst reasons of space and a lack of consolidated research material prevent a more thorough analysis of MK's military history, this article does attempt to provide a general overview of the major 'moments' in MK's history and possible directions in which future studies of MK could be directed. Such studies, should they emerge, do not necessarily have to be of an historical nature alone, it should be noted. Any military formation constitutes a potentially rich object of study for sociologists, political scientists, psychologists and strategic studies theorists alike.

This article focuses on two major aspects of the history of MK. The first is its history from its inception in 1961 until its integration into the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in 1994. It attempts, very briefly, to provide an indication of some of those political and historical factors that shaped MK's strategic direction and that influenced its institutional culture. The second aspect relates to the more recent history of MK and assesses the extent to which MK has managed to influence the transformation of the SANDF into a defence force more consistent with the ideals espoused by the ANC during the liberation struggle years. In conclusion, the article suggests further areas of study that may contribute to the development of a South African military historical tradition that is more consistent with the plurality and diversity of military traditions evident in the country's long history.

Submit or fight?
The formation of Umkhonto We Sizwe, 1961

On the evening of 16 December 1961, a series of explosions rocked all major centres in South Africa. Although little structural damage was caused, the explosives were of a rudimentary nature, and no one was injured or killed, these explosions marked the birth of Umkhonto We Sizwe. The motivation for creating MK was boldly stated in the various MK manifestos distributed at the time:
'The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom...'(4)

The birth of MK occurred against the backdrop of a long-standing political struggle that had been waged, peacefully, by the ANC and its political and trade union allies since the formation of the ANC in 1912. These struggles had assumed different forms at different times - constitutional petitions to the British authorities during the earlier part of the century, mass campaigns and strikes against unjust apartheid laws during the 1940s and the 1950s, and pass-burning campaigns during the early 1960s. Between 1912 and 1961, the emphasis of ANC political activity was on peaceful but vigorous protest. This was largely a product of the nature of the political terrain during this period which allowed limited political scope for African, coloured and Indian political activity within the structures of parliament and which had also not, as yet, instituted the draconian laws against mass protest that was to typify the post-1961 period. It was also the product, partially, of the conservatism of the leadership of the ANC, whose approach to political opposition was strongly influenced by a legalistic and Christocentric focus.

The Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the corresponding declaration of a national State of Emergency by the South African Government, and the banning of both the ANC and the other major black political resistance movement, the Pan African ist Congress (PAC), precipitated a vigorous debate within the ANC as to the viability of peaceflil protest in future. Opinions were divided on the moral and practical viability ofinitiating an armed struggle against the South African State and, for these reasons, the birth of MK was initially not specifically linked to the ANC. (In its founding speeches, it proclaimed itself as a People's Army at the disposal of the South African masses).

Militarily, these operations were characterised by their simplicity. Homemade explosives were used, and much of the expertise was provided by former Second World War veterans who now found themselves within the ranks of MK. (The late Jack Hodgson played a prominent role in this regard). Anticipating coercive measures from the State, MK despatched a number of senior commanders abroad to facilitate the establishment of an external infrastructure and to secure advanced training for MK combatants. Nelson Mandela was to feature prominently in these efforts and was, himself, to receive military training abroad in Algeria and Ethiopia between 1961 and 1962.

The initial phase of armed struggle was characterised by an emphasis on sabotage which was seen, in accordance with prevailing theories of guerilla warfare, as being the first phase of a four phase process (the other three being guerilla warfare, insurrection and revolution).(5) The political rationale for this approach was outlined by Mandela when he stated:(6)
'Sabotage did not involve loss of life, and it offered the best hope for future race relations. Bitterness would be kept to a minimum and if the policy bore fruit, democratic government could become a reality.'
Echoing these sentiments, and illustrating the complete subordination of MK to the political and civil authority of the political leadership of the ANC, the late MK Chief of Staff, Chris Hani, was to state the following:(7)
'At its inception, the High Command decided on selective sabotage as the form armed resistance would take. All efforts were made to avoid the loss of human life. We clearly stated that the aim of the campaign was to bring the government to its senses before it was too late and save our country from going down the path of war which would leave scars very difficult to heal and further polarise South African society.'

Sabotage operations continued for more than a year after the inception of MK. Included amongst the targets were pass offices, power pylons, and police stations. Most MK personnel lacked, at the beginning, specialised training in covert operations and many of these operations were, understandably, characterised by a certain degree of amateurishness. A number of MK saboteurs and would-be saboteurs were captured and imprisoned by the authorities as a result.
The state was initially caught off-guard by the initiation of the Sabotage Campaign and hastily responded to the emerging guerilla struggle at a number of levels. Legislatively, it passed a number of laws aimed at containing and crushing the resistance. The General Law Amendment Act (also known as the Sabotage Act) provided for indefinite detention without trail. The Unlawful Organisations Act provided for the banning of specified organisations as the Minister of Justice deemed fit.(8) The ANC had anticipated these developments and in 1961 despatched Oliver Reginald Tambo (later to become the President of the ANC after Mandela's arrest and imprisonment) to establish a mission in exile with the twofold purpose of mobilising international support for the struggle and securing military training facilities for MK abroad.

The State also attempted to professionalise its intelligence operations in the light of these developments. A Directorate of Military Intelligence was established in 1960 and its officers were sent for advanced training in France, Germany, the UK and the USA.(9) Some were to receive 'on-the-job' training in the conduct and pursuit of counter-insurgency campaigns. For example, General Magnus Malan was attached to the French Army in Algeria for this purpose.(10) Republican Intelligence (civilian intelligence) was formed in 1961 with its primary mission being the containment and crushing of the activities of both MK and the ANC. Specialised training in interrogation and counter-intelligence techniques were also provided to Republican Intelligence via the offices of the countries referred to above.

Several key cultural, political and institutional features characterised the birth of the new guerilla army, many of which were to exert a profound influence on the restructuring of the armed forces and the stabilisation of civil-military relations during the post-1994 period. The first of these features was the fact that the activities of MK were situated solidly within the tradition of subservience to the political and civil authority of the ANC. This was reflected at a number of political and practical levels. MK remained the instrument of the liberation movement and was driven by its political programmes. This relationship would assume a more concrete expression with the formal linking of MK to the ANC at the Lobatse Conference in 1963. Political policy and strategy would determine MK's military strategy and the armed struggle was not an end in itself but would strive to complement the mass political struggle.

Secondly, a strong element of moral restraint characterised MK's initial campaigns. This restraint was the product of the influence of two factors - the strong ethical ideals present within the Congress Alliance(11) and the realisation that the population had to be politically and psychologically prepared to support an armed struggle. The third distinguishing feature of MK was its non-racial ideology as reflected in the multi-racial and multi-ethnic nature of its echelons hierarchy and its rank-and-file membership. Unlike any other armed formation in South African history, MK was representative of South Africa's diverse population in both its institutional make-up and in its culture and traditions.

The Rivonia Trial and the Wankie/Sipolilo campaigns

Barely a year and a half after its formation, MK's High Command within the country was exposed at a farm outside Johannesburg, and virtually its entire command structure was arrested and detained. In a massive trial known as the 'Rivonia Trial', most of those arrested were sentenced to lengthy periods of imprisonment, whilst a few managed to escape. The rapidity with which the State responded to the emergence of MK reflected two pertinent weaknesses within its organisation, both of which had contributed to the arrest of the High Command and the effective neutralisation of MK activities within the country for the next decade. The first was the lack of familiarity of the leadership with the basic tenets of underground work. (Most members were drawn from the tradition of the high profile resistance campaigns of the 1950s). The second, related to the first, was the extent to which MK relied on the experience and leadership of publicly recognised activists, thereby facilitating the identification and monitoring of these senior commanders by the intelligence services of the South African Government.

The post-Rivonia period saw the ANC concentrating on developing its external infrastructure and securing military facilities for the training of existing and prospective combatants. Initially, training for the infant guerilla army was provided by countries such as Algeria (where Mandela himself had received training during his underground period prior to his arrest), Tanzania, and the former Soviet Union. These training opportunities were to expand considerably in later years with training being provided in virtually all the former socialist countries as well as in a range of African countries.

By 1964 MK-in-exile already constituted hundreds of trained soldiers who were available for deployment within South Africa but the organisation was limited in its ability to do so by a number of problems. The first of these was the smashing of the internal High Command network referred to above. The second was the absence of friendly countries adjacent to South Africa. Unlike the Zimbabwean and Namibian struggles (which occurred within the context of friendly borders with Mozambique, Angola and Zambia respectively) in the mid-1960s, Southern Rhodesia, Bechuanaland, Basutoland, Swaziland and Mozamibique were either occupied by settler regimes or were too dependent on South Africa to challenge its hegemony in the region. The effect of this regional configuration was three fold. Firstly, it was to deny MK easy access to South Africa and complicate and over-extend the organisation's logistical and communications lines - a perennial problem which plagued MK in the 1980s when its military activities within the country increased dramatically. Secondly, it was to retard the development of an internal underground capable of extending the armed struggle and taking it to qualitatively higher levels of development. Thirdly, it was to lead to partial demoralisation within MK ranks as highly motivated recruits were denied the opportunity of being deployed within the country.

In 1965 the ANC formed an alliance with the Zimbabwean African People's Union (ZAPU) and its military wing, the Zimbabwean Independent People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA). This alliance had both political and regional significance, reflecting, as it did, the close ideological links between the ANC and ZAPU. (Both were parties with strong links to the former Soviet Union upon whom they relied for the bulk of their military requirements). The alliance was also strengthened by the close ethnic links which existed between the Ndebele and Zulu-speaking South Africans and their Matabele cousins in Matabeleland (the latter being the product of a diaspora that took place within the Zulu kingdom during the mid-nineteenth century), and the strong urban bases possessed by both parties.

The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and its armed wing, the Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA), were more closely allied to the People's Republic of China, where the bulk of their cadres were trained. Strong links existed between the PAC and the Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU), led by Mugabe, and their two armies, APLA and the Zimbabwean African National Liberation Army respectively. The political focus of both of these parties was more rurally based and both endeavoured to build strong power bases amongst the peasantry - a process that only ZANU was really successful in accomplishing.

During the forthcoming two years, both MK and ZIPRA did extensive reconnaissance within Rhodesia with the intention of launching a massive infiltration of ZIPRA and MK personnel into that country. On 30/31 July 1967, a large joint MK/ZIPRA detachment crossed the Zambezi River into Rhodesia. The intention behind the incursion had been for ZIPRA to establish itself within post-UDI Rhodesia and for the MK contingent, known as the 'Luthuli Detachment', to traverse Rhodesia on its western flank and to infiltrate South Africa across the northern Transvaal borders.(12) The joint force was soon detected by the Rhodesian security forces and a series of pitched battles ensued in the Wankie and Sipolilo areas between 1967 and 1968.

A comprehensive history of these battles still needs to be written but informed accounts indicate that the MK/ZIPRA forces fought well under difficult conditions. Although many were killed, some captured, and those who escaped into Bechuanaland also imprisoned by the Botswana authorities, the ferocity of their resistance was sufficient for Smith to request military assistance from South Africa. Vorster officially despatched contingents of the South African Police to Rhodesia (a phenomenon that persisted until 1972) and, unofficially, authorised the provision of clandestine military assistance to the Smith Government.
Undoubtedly one of the mistakes made by the ZIPRA and MK commanders in the planning of the Wankie campaign was to underestimate the importance of building a local power base amongst the people prior to entering into armed engagements with the enemy. Subjective accounts of armed struggle in which military actions provide the 'trigger' for mass mobilisation and insurrection were critiqued at the ANC's Morogoro Conference in 1969. This conference sought to achieve a higher level of integration between political and military activities, leading to the establishment of the Revolutionary Council, to ensure better training of military personnel within MK, and to establish a more effective political and military presence within South Africa. The Strategy and Tactics document which emerged from this conference reflected these concerns and acknowledged the critical importance of building a mass revolutionary base prior to the launching a people's war.

Although military activities within South Africa were to remain at a low ebb in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, a number of attempts were made to reconsolidate MK's underground structures. Despite the high attrition rate characterising many of these operations, some commanders remained undetected within the country for long periods - the late Chris Hani being a case in point. Externally, the focus of MK activities remained focussed on the training of its personnel. A number of facilities were made available to the young army, including training in Algeria, Egypt, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Of these, the Soviet Union remained the most utilised and provided a range of advanced training opportunities, including intelligence, artillery, infantry, engineering and communications specialisation (and even academy training for selected volunteers).

The military culture that began to emerge in MK in the 1960s and early 1970s reflected a compound of influences and traditions. MK's politico-strategic parameters were informed by the ANC's strategy and political campaigns within the country and the traditions of the people's war which was developing in the Third World. Its military-specific culture reflected an amalgam of Soviet-influenced military practices (drill, instructor and officer training, weapons techniques, etc) and classic guerilla army traditions (minimal rank structure and an emphasis on self-sufficiency, innovation and mission-oriented command once deployed).

1976 and the flood of the student soldiers

A number of factors coalesced during the mid-1970s to provide MK with more favourable operational circumstances than earlier. Firstly, the release of some imprisoned MK commanders between 1975 and 1976 - Joe Gqahi, Andrew Masondo, and Indres Naidoo, amongst others - had served to popularise MK amongst a population increasingly fettered by the extreme censorship laws of the John Vorster Administration and hence ignorant of the liberation movements. Secondly, the independence of Mozamibique and Angola (1974-5) provided MK with access to either training facilities or conduit opportunities through these countries that were considerably closer to home than before. Thirdly, and most importantly, the 1976 uprisings saw thousands of students leaving South Africa to join MK. Known as the 'June 16th Detachment', their numbers and their experiences were to herald a new phase in MK's armed struggle.

A variety of military training programmes was initiated for MK personnel in newly established MK camps in Angola in the post-1976 period. In addition to basic training (drill, musketry, typography, tactics, political education), a number of shorter, specialised courses were also offered in communications, intelligence, engineering and general 'crash' courses, amongst others. Hundreds ofyoung recruits were also sent abroad for advanced engineering, intelligence and artillery training. The political education component of MK training remained critical to the development of the organisation's corporate identity and no training was complete without the inclusion of political training (as reflected in the importance of the commissar system within MK throughout its existence). By 1977, MK began to infiltrate hundreds of its combatants back into the country.

Despite the swelling of MK's ranks and its heightened ability to consolidate its underground network within the country (particularly in light of the students' extensive links with the community) the focus of MK work for the next few years remained essentially ofa political nature. Recruits were instructed to contribute to the building of the ANC's underground capacity within the country and those who delegated military-specific tasks were instructed to confine their actions to acts of 'armed propaganda'. This meant, in effect, that MK actions sought to complement the various mass action campaigns within the country, and that only symbols of apartheid were to be targeted, i.e. police stations, railway lines, administrative institutions, etc.

The 1977 - 1980 period witnessed MK engaging in a range of operations which were to dramatically increase in the forthcoming years. Police stations (Booysens, Soweto, Soekmekaar) were attacked and MK combatants were involved in physical clashes with the police in the rural areas - Derdepoort and Rustenburg for instance.(14) Arrests of MK personnel increased and the SADF increased its period of whites-only national service to two years. MK bases in Angola were also targeted in South African Air Force raids and the frequent bombing of SWAPO bases was also accompanied by the bombing of MK military facilities. Given the vulnerability of many MK bases in the south of Angola it was decided to relocate most bases to the north of the country, particularly in those provinces accessible to Luanda. The major camps (apart from urban training facilities within Luanda itself) included Malanje, Quibaxe, Pango, Caculama, Funda and Fazenda.

Sasol and after:
Armed propaganda and special operarions

The early 1980s saw MK continuing to focus on armed propaganda and political mobilisation although the nature of MK operations was to become increasingly more sophisticated. In June 1980 an MK Special Operations unit hit the Sasol oil refinery complex, causing damage estimated at R66 million. (South African intelligence personnel believed that they had been inspired by a similar operation by ZIPRA cadres against an oil refinery in Salisbury during 1979).(15) The operation had been well-planned, had been executed by MK Special Operations personnel (known as the Solomon Mahlangu Detachment) and had demonstrated MK's capability to move beyond simpler acts of sabotage.

The year 1981 saw MK operations interfacing with the nationwide anti-Republic Day demonstrations and focussing on the sabotage of specific strategic installations. Targets sabotaged included major ESCOM power plants in the Transvaal, attacks on military bases in the rural areas, the sabotage of certain government buildings, and further attacks on the police. On the 9 August 1981, MK Special Operations personnel launched a dramatic attack on the Voortrekkerhoogte military complex outside Pretoria. Five projectiles were fired from a 122 mm rocket launcher (the first time artillery was used within South Africa by MK units) and a number of targets within the complex were struck, including a near-miss on the fuel depot within the complex. What made the attack particularly audacious was the fact that it was launched from military property on the western perimeters of the base.

A further range of MK actions were witnessed in 1982, including a Special Operations attack on the Koeberg nuclear power plant outside Cape Town. Over a period of twelve hours, a series of explosions rocked the various security areas within the plant. In a further indication of MK's growing sophistication in the sphere of Special Operations, May 1983 saw a car bomb explode outside the HQ of both the South African Air Force and Military Intelligence in Pretoria. Extensive structural damage was caused to both military HQs, a number of military personnel were killed, but, also, a number of civilians were killed in the aftermath of the explosion. Whilst this operation clearly indicated MK's capacity to operate deep within the country's urban areas, it also reflected a shift away from symbolic military actions. As if to prepare people for this tactical shift, the ANC announced that it could not guarantee that civilians would not be injured in 'crossfire':(16)
'We further accepted that some civilians might be caught in the crossfire. Apartheid was definitely at war with our people and we understood that in a situation of war some casualties, though unintended, might be unavoidable. But we remained emphatic that we would not deliberately close on white civilians.'

Criticisms of these operations from the 'left', however, maintained that spectacular military operations of the Voortrekkerhoogte type were no substitute for the task of rooting the military underground in the local population. There were definite reasons for a shift to the special operations-type activities, however, and this was reflected in the fact that Special Operations, initially under the command of the late Joe Slovo, was placed under the direct command of the President of the ANC, Oliver Reginald Tambo, with the Commander of MK, Commander Joe Modise, retaining only nominal oversight over this division.

It was felt that a dedicated Special Operations Division was required for two reasons. The first reason was to provide MK with a proven military capability that would allow it to operate deep within South African territory and provide demonstrable support to the unfolding mass resistance within the country. This was not intended to be a substitute for the building of a robust military capability within the country (a longer term project) but was intended to keep the 'pot boiling' whilst the process of consolidating the internal political and military underground progressed. The second was the fact that a degree of unease existed amongst some senior members of the ANC as to the viability of informing the ANC's National Executive Committee (NEC) of the details of highly sensitive operations. It was felt that the process of securing NEC approval for all major operations could compromise these very operations if such information was either advertently or inadvertently leaked and, it was accordingly argued, a much tighter chain of command and control over such operations was required. Tambo accordingly retained control over Special Operations and basically kept both the ANC's NEC and the commander of MK 'within the loop' to the extent that this did not violate the military principles of surprise and security.

The effects of this strategy were twofold. On the one hand, it resulted in a situation where the Special Operations Division, due to its profile, responsibilities and capabilities, began to assume a much greater responsibility for the conduct of internal military operations than it should have done. On the other, the preferential location of the Special Operations Division under the command of Tambo created a degree of resentment and mistrust amongst MK rank-and-file and strained relations between the division and the army commander, Joe Modise - a phenomenon not unusual within those armed forces, be they irregular or regular, that maintain specialist special operations capabilities.

The declaration of the partial State of Emergency in 1984 saw an intensification of MK operations within the country - although these operations continued to follow a similar pattern with special operations activities continuing to dominate the scope and type of these operations.(17) This tendency was not without its weaknesses, however, and it was against this complex political and military backdrop that the ANC decided to reassess both its political and military strategies within South Africa.

The Kabwe Conference, held in Zambia in 1985, isolated three sets of problems confronting MK. The first problem was the urban focus of most of the military operations MK had conducted to date. The neglect of the countryside, it was argued, had allowed the State to counter-organise the population in these areas through the manipulation of tribal elders, the institution of homeland administrations, and the creation of SADF tribal battalions in these areas. The second problem that was identified was the belief that MK actions should move increasingly from those of armed propaganda to a position of people's war. This perspective was increasingly reflected in the strategic positions adopted within MK (the development of theoretical positions around the concept of the 'Revolutionary Army', for instance) and MK training (the emphasis on military combat work being a case in point). The third was to redefine that which constituted a legitimate military target. Particular emphasis was placed on the direct military engagement of SADF and SAP personnel and the 'taking of the war' into the white areas. This did not necessarily entail the targeting of the white population as a military target but rather to ensure that strategic installations within the white areas were increasingly targeted and that those white communities who were involved in the SADF's area defence system (such as the rural farming community) were engaged at a military level. Typically, this translated itself into a series of sub-strategies whereby landmines were placed on roads in the border areas of the country, farmers who were known to be active within the SADF commando system were targeted by MK combatants, and military and police personnel and facilities within white suburbs were attacked by MK units.

Despite the declaration of a nationwide State of Emergency in 1985 and the detention of tens of thousands of activists between 1985 and 1987, MK managed to maintain a steady increase in both its rural and urban operations. The strategy of taking the war into the white areas was partially realised as economic and strategic installations in white suburbs were attacked. Special operations activities during this period included the detonation of a car bomb outside the Johannesburg Magistrate's Court (killing four policemen) in May 1987 and attacks on a number of military facilities within the mainly white areas.

The year 1989 also witnessed what was perhaps the most dramatic Special Operations exercise launched in the rural areas. A large group of MK Special Operations personnel launched a sustained mortar attack on the South African Air Force's secret Three Satellite Radar Station at Klippan in the western Transvaal. Although no SADF personnel were killed, a number were injured and considerable structural damage was done to the radar facility itself. what is also significant with regard to MK capabilities in the late 1980s was the development of a relatively sophisticated MK intelligence division (MKIZA). Notwithstanding ongoing intrigues and jealousies between MKIZA and the ANC's civilian intelligence arm, NAT, MKIZA was to provide sophisticated analyses of the order of battle within the SADF, its anticipated operations and analyses of its strategic direction (an ability that was enhanced by its relative success in infiltrating the various levels of the SADF itself).

Notwithstanding the difficulties encountered by MK in organising and prosecuting the armed struggle within South Africa, it was to accumulate considerable combat experience within the frontline states. Apart from MK's experience of having engaged the Rhodesian Army and the South African Police between 1967 and 1968, it was also to participate in some of the major military campaigns in neighbouring countries. MK personnel participated with FRELIMO forces in the liberation of Tete Province in the early 1970s and hundreds fought with ZIPRA forces in Zimbabwe throughout the 1970s (and were even on the verge of being integrated into the new Zimbabwe Defence Force in 1980 before South African Military Intelligence got wind oftheir intentions and prevented their inclusion).

Rallying to the assistance of their MPLA allies, MK opened up a front in 1987 in Angola against UNITA. Known as the 'Northern Front', it saw the extensive deployment of MK personnel against UNITA rebels in the area for more than two years. Responsibilities included patrols, convoys and attacks on UNITA positions. The equipment used also reflected MK's growing sophistication in the field of weaponry and included artillery such as anti-aircraft artillery (ZGUs), 122 mm rocket launchers, and 81 mm and 60 mm mortars. Dozens of MK personnel lost their lives in this conflict, and MK's involvement in the 'Northern Front' was only terminated by the relocation of its military personnel to Uganda and Tanzania in light of agreements reached in the run-up to Namibian independence.

Although the subordination of MK to the political authority and direction of the ANC during this period was never seriously questioned, it is perhaps not unsurprising that MK developed a quasi-militaristic identity that sometimes resulted in differences of opinion between the MK leadership and that of the NEC.(18) This was the twin product of the initial failure of the ANC to effectively integrate MK activities within South Africa into a corresponding political hierarchy and the physical separation of the bulk of MK combatants in the camps in Angola from the non-military rank-and-file in their different locations.

This nascent militarism manifested itself in both benign forms - the predictable and disparaging references to the 'civilians' within the organisation - and, occasionally, more assertive forms. The latter manifested itself in the selective interpretation and implementation of approved ANC strategy and tactics. Examples of this included the preparedness of certain MK leaders to authorise attacks against white civilians regardless of whether these individuals were involved in state security structures or not.

The logic and rationale behind these attacks were essentially twofold. On the one hand, the attacks were justified in terms of the ANC's commitment to 'taking the war into the white areas', although it is clear, in retrospect, that the ANC's political hierarchy never endorsed, at any stage of its existence, these types of operations. On the other hand, the attacks reflected the salient reality that MK operatives, more so than any other component ofthe ANC, were bearing the brunt of State-sponsored operations against their members, of which the Lesotho raids in 1982 and 1986, the Maputo raid in 1980, and the Gaberones raid in 1985 are examples. The resultant frustration that emerged amongst the rank-and-file - accentuated by cumbersome chains of communication between the rear areas and the 'front' - resulted in occasional operations that specifically targeted civilians within South Africa, including amongst others the Amanzimtoti attack, the Ellis Park car bomb and the 'Wimpy Bar' attacks.

To a certain extent the mutinies which occurred in the MK training camps in Angola in 1984 were a product of the problematic relationship between MK and the ANC political hierarchy. Notwithstanding the presence of political commissars within the MK command hierarchy and the camps themselves (whose responsibility was to ensure a seamless continuity between ANC political direction and MK military activities), a breakdown in communication between the far-flung, and often very inaccessible Angolan camps, and the political leadership in Lusaka precipitated the> Although the mutinies were taken seriously and suppressed firmly by units loyal to both the ANC and MK hierarchies, they demonstrated the practical disjuncture that existed between ANC political rhetoric on the one hand (which continually stressed the integration and subordination of military activities to the political direction of the movement) and the practical realities of a liberation movement whose diverse components were physically and, to a certain extent, politically dislocated from one another.

From political-military councils to Operation Vula:
The strengthening of the MK Underground

The period prior to the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 found MK undergoing a profound re-examination of its roles, missions and capabilities. This reassessment had been a long time in the making and had been reflected, in varying degrees, in the Morogoro Conference, the Kabwe Conference and the restructuring of the ANC in 1983. The following observation by Ronnie Kasrils in the late 1980s reflects this strategic thrust behind this re-evaluation:(19)
'It is certainly true that the blows MK has delivered to the enemy, and the heroic sacrifices of our combatants, have played a vital role in inspiring our people and popularising the ANC. Yet, despite the tremendous upsurge of mass resistance over the past three years, we were not able to take full advantage of the favourable conditions that materialised. We were unable to deploy sufficient forces at home; our cadres still found big problems in basing themselves amongst our people; our underground failed to grow sufficiently... the incredible mass resistance and strikes were consequently not sufficiently reinforced by armed struggle.'

Acknowledging that MK's major weakness remained the fact that it was primarily an army-in-exile, Kasrils outlined the necessity of building the 'Revolutionary Army' - a concept that reflected the influence of Leninist teachings on underground work, Soviet experiences of establishing clandestine units and classic guerilla theories. The building of the revolutionary army involved three components. The first component consisted of organised advanced detachments which constituted the core of the revolutionary army. These detachments consisted ofguerilla units in the countryside, underground combat units in the urban areas, and self-defence units based amongst the people. The latter were to become a reality, and a problem, within South Africa, particularly as political violence engulfed the country during the post-1990 period. The second component was the revolutionary armed people - those advanced sectors of the population who, trained and armed, would fall under the command and control of the organised advanced detachments. The third component consisted of those units or individuals within the enemy's armed forces - whether soldiers or police - who had consciously sided with the revolutionary army. The entire process of creating the revolutionary army was known as 'Military Combat Work' - where 'military' referred to work within the enemy's armed forces and 'combat' to the creation of the guerilla units in their entirety.

The creation of the revolutionary army was only partially realised. The politics of transition pre-empted the emergence of those conditions that would have allowed its fuller realisation. There were, however, areas where aspects of this strategy were realised and these deserve individual mention. The first was undoubtedly Operation Vula - an operation that was a product of the attempts by the ANC leadership to remedy the organisational weaknesses that had been identified at successive ANC national conferences and strategy sessions. The ANC had undergone a wide-ranging organisational restructuring process since 1983 which had profound implications for both the organisation and the activities ofMK.
Most significantly, this restructuring took the form of a reorganisation of the ANC and MK's external and internal structures. Prior to 1983, ANC political structures and MK military structures operated separately and co-ordination of political and military activities, to the extent that it occurred, took place at a strategic level (the level of the Revolutionary Council) and not at an operational or tactical level (in the rear areas such as Angola, the forward areas such as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Lesotho and Mozambique and the underground structures within South Africa). Although MK structures strove to harmonise their activities with those of the emerging mass resistance within South Africa, that was often not achieved and MK units frequently engaged in military actions separate from and uncoordinated with that of the broader political struggle.(20)

Attempts were made at rectifying this situation, the most notable being the convening of a meeting of all regional front commanders and commissars in Maputo in 1983, and by 1986 the ANC political-military hierarchy had been substantially altered in organisational format and strategic direction. Most significant had been the replacement of the Revolutionary Council by the Political Military Council (PMC) which controlled and integrated the activities of the Internal Political Committee (responsible for the coordination of ANC political activities within South Africa), Military Headquarters (responsible for the coordination of operations, ordinance, intelligence and communications) and NAT (responsible for the co-ordination of civilian intelligence, counter-intelligence and security).

Political-military structures were replicated downwards to the level of external Regional Political Military Councils (Swaziland, Mozambique, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Botswana and London), internal Regional PMCs (eg, Western Cape, Border region, and Northern Transvaal), Area PMCs (eg, Durban and Pretoria, etc), and even local PMCs in some towns and villages. Some of these PMC structures worked exceedingly effectively whilst others, such as Swaziland and Botswana, were to suffer from a degree of infiltration from the South African government's intelligence agencies or, in the case of the Zimbabwe PMC during the late 1980s, from often strained relations between the political and military components.

It was against this background that Operation Vula was initiated in 1986. This operation involved the deployment of senior and middle-ranking MK personnel in exile back to South Africa to create and develop the internal underground structures within the country. Vula, until its untimely exposure in 1990, was to prove a successful example of how the internal underground could be strengthened and consolidated. It managed to infiltrate large quantities of weapons into the country and to maintain an effective intelligence network which infiltrated, at various levels, both the Special Branch and the National Intelligence Service. Its communication system was also considerably more effective than the cumbersome channels of the past, using, as it did, sophisticated computer links between South Africa and London.

The ANC's and MK's strategies of working within the enemy's armed forces admitted to varying levels of success. The ousting of the Stella Sigcau Administration in the Transkei homeland in 1987 by disaffected Transkei Defence Force (TDF) officers and the expulsion of a clique of former Rhodesian officers who dominated the TDF ushered in an intriguing period in the history of the eastern Cape. A young and charismatic officer, General Bantu Holomisa, assumed the reigns of power within the homeland and, almost immediately, allowed prominent political prisoners to return from exile, unbanned the ANC and the PAC, and allowed MK personnel free transit and domicile within the territory.

Between 1987 and 1994, the Transkei was to become, in effect, a 'liberated' area governed by a defacto alliance between the Holomisa Administration and a well-established ANC/MK presence within the region. MK personnel worked closely with TDF personnel, joint training was done both within the Transkei and on courses conducted outside South Africa, and senior MK personnel in exile made use of the territory for the planning of their underground work within the rest of South Africa.
Dissatisfaction within sectors of the other homeland defence forces resulted in two coups d'etat by both the Ciskei and Venda defence forces against their respective administrations and an abortive coup by the Bophutha tswana Defence Force against the Mangope Administration. Although neither of the successful coups favoured the building of an ANC or MK underground within their territories, it was clear that a degree of sympathy for MK existed within elements of the officer corps of the homeland defence forces.

The unbanning of the ANC and MK in February 1990 led to a de facto cease-fire between MK and the security forces. This was formally ratified in August 1990 when MK announced that armed actions were to be suspended for the first time in 29 years. The suspension of the armed struggle took most of the MK members by surprise, as little preparation had been done amongst MK cadres for this reality. Intensive political work amongst MK structures, however, ameliorated the effects of this initial confusion. As a result of the decision to suspend the armed struggle, MK activities were to assume a qualitatively different hue as peace-time preparations were made for MK's eventual integration into a future national defence force.

Recognising the inevitability of integration, the MK's Military Headquarters (now located at Shell House in Johannesburg), despatched thousands of MK personnel abroad for conventional command and staff training. This training was provided at a number of different locations. The first was the training of new recruits in the new MK camps in Uganda and Tanzania (relocated from Angola since the independence of Namibia). The second was the attendance by MK personnel at both junior and senior staff courses in such countries as Zimbabwe, Uganda, Ghana, India, Nigeria and even the United Kingdom. The third was the training of MK personnel within the country - either in aspects of conventional and counter-insurgency warfare by the TDF or, at a more rudimentary level, the training of Self Defence Units by MK personnel active within the country. The advantage of most of this training was its institutional and cultural compatibility with what appeared, at the time, to be the likely 'model' of a future defence force - a British-styled defence force akin to those existing in other Commonwealth countries (a belief that has been confirmed by the past six years of the integration process). But from 1993 onwards, MK was to enter into possibly the most crucial stage of its history - its integration into the new South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

The integration process begins

Despite the fact that South Africa's negotiated settlement had been under discussion since early 1990, it was not until November 1993 that the armed forces of the two major political actors, the South African government and the African National Congress (ANC), became involved in direct and structured negotiations. The reasons for the 'lag' between the pace of the political and the military talks were, for both the ANC and the South African government, largely identical. Firstly, both parties saw the retention of their armed forces as a form of a 'security fallback' - a psychological and symbolic asset necessary to appease their often sceptical constituents. Secondly, the retention oftheir respective armed capabilities was seen, in very pragmatic terms, as a physical guarantee which could be utilised should the negotiation process falter.

The establishment of the Transitional Executive Council in late 1993 with its seven sub-councils - three of which had a broad security mandate in the form ofthe sub- councils on Defence, Intelligence and Law and Order - made the question of whether an integration process would take place an inevitability. The role of the Sub-Council on Defence was essentialy political-strategic by nature. It was primarily responsible for maintaining oversight over the armed forces during the pre-election phase and for initiating the planning required to create a new, integrated, national defence force.

The planning and staff responsibility for the management of the pre-integration planning process was delegated to a body known as the Joint Military Co-ordinating Council (JMCC), which fell under the authority of the Sub-Council on Defence. Although the JMCC did not possess the attributes of a formal command structure, it was to become responsible for the management of a strategic planning process whereby detailed plans for the creation of the new defence force were laid. The JMCC had two chair persons who took the chair in rotation - the Chief of the SADF, General George Meiring, and the MK Chief of Staff, Siphiwe Nyanda.

To facilitate the planning process, the JMCC established a range of working groups depending on either the functional area being addressed (personnel, intelligence, operations, logistics, finances and non-cardinal issues) or the arm of service under consideration (Army, Air Force, Navy or Medical Service). Representatives on these committees were drawn from both the statutory forces (the SADF and the TVBC armies) and from the non-statutory forces (MK and, at a later date during 1994, APLA). In reality, however, it was both the SADF and MK who either co-chaired these committees and/or dominated their proceedings.(21)
The JMCC process was probably most significant for the fact that it formally bought hitherto warring armies together for the first time and began creating the basis for a common institutional culture and camaraderie within the organisation. It also provided a manageable and goal- oriented planning framework for the new SANDF - an advantage enjoyed by no other civilian government department at the time.

MK and the creation of a new national defence force

During the JMCC process, a Certified Personnel Register had been compiled. This was the list upon which all potential members of the SANDF were placed prior to integration. On paper, this consisted of 90 000 SADF members and 11 039 TVBC army members (the statutory forces), and 28 888 MK and 6 000 APLA members (the non-statutory forces). At the end of the day, however, only 11 738 former MK personnel and 4 901 APLA personnel were to remain within the SANDF (representing some 16 % and 7 % of the total strength of the organisation respectively).
The discrepancy between these force levels and those of the Certified Personnel Register was the result of the demobilisation of older MK members during the post-integration period (some 7238 MK and APLA members as of 1998), the failure of many MK members to report for attestation within the new national defence force (many having obtained better jobs in both the public and the private sectors), and the difficulties encountered in tracing many of the members listed on the Certified Personnel Register.

During 1994, nine non-SADF generals (three lieutenant-generals and six major-generals) were appointed to a number of General Staff positions with the SANDF. Hundreds of senior MK officers were ranked by the organisation in preparation for their appearance before Placement Boards. The ranks of former guerilla commanders were determined by MK and APLA on the basis of six inter-related criteria: command experience, operational experience, seniority, educational qualifications, military training and military qualifications, and length of service within the organisation.
The Placement Boards mirrored those that had been used by the Zimbabwean and Namibian governments during the integration of their national armies during 1980 and 1989 respectively. The boards were usually chaired by either an MK or SADF officer and were overseen by a British representative from a British Military Assistance Training Team (BMATT). The presence of the latter ensured that the presence of a neutral arbitrator was maintained during the ranking and placement process. Although some disagreement did occur over the financial ranking and placing of former MK officers, the process was, by and large, unproblematic.

By late 1998, MK could claim a reasonable representation within the new national defence force, especially in light of the fact that only 12 000 of the originally anticipated 28 000 members remained within the organisation. The uniformed component of the SANDF consisted of 39 077 former SADF personnel (53%), 11 727 former MK personnel (16%), 9 580 new SANDF personnel (13%), 6 453 TVBC personnel (9 %), and 4 901 APLA personnel (7 %). The civilian component of the SANDF, for its part, consisted of 17 976 former SADF (91%), 11 MK personnel (0,06%), 790 TVBC personnel (4%), and one APLA member (0,01%).
Of the total of 41 generals within the SANDF (as at 1 April 1998), seven were former MK and APLA generals. Of the 4 493 senior officers (holding the ranks of major to brigadier-general), 548 were former MK and APLA officers. Of the 6 046 junior officers (second lieutenants to captains), 998 were former MK and APLA officers. Of the 62 625 non-commissioned officers and other ranks, some 15 076 were MK and APLA personnel.(22)

Even though the MK (as with the other integrating forces) ceased to exist on 27 April 1994 (the date on which the SANDF came into formal existence), the traditions upon which MK were based continue to exist, most notably in the veterans' organisations and in the political traditions of the ANC. A key challenge for the continuation of MK traditions in future will be twofold. The first will be the extent to which these traditions and history are recorded in the form of written biographies, campaign histories and historical surveys. More academic studies can also be initiated, particularly those studies which will focus on the political relationship between the ANC and MK and the extent to which that relationship changed during the post-1994 period. The second will be the extent to which MK history and traditions are internalised within the institutional culture of the SANDF, given the fact that the present traditions of the SANDF are overwhelmingly based on the traditions and cultures of the former SADF.(23) It is important, furthermore, to ensure that all the marginalised discourses within South Africa's military historical tradition are also bought to the fore in future. This includes the history of APLA and under-recorded indigenous African military traditions.(24) Unless this occurs, the development of a truly indigenous South African military tradition will be severely hampered in future.


1. See, for example, H Barrell, MK(Penguin, 1991).
2. R Kasrils, Armed and dangerous (Heinemann, South Africa, 1996).
3. An important contribution to the history of MK has been 'The Spear of the Nation - The recent history of Umkhonto We Sizwe' published in J Cilliers and M Reichart (eds), About Turn (Institute for Defence Policy, Midrand, 1995).
4. Umkhonto We Sizwe 30th Anniversary Souvenir Magazine (Shell House, Bree Street, Johannesburg, 1991).
5. T Karis and C Carter (eds), From protest to challenge: A documentary history of African politics in South Africa 1882-1964, Volume III (Hoover Institution Press), p 667.
6. Karis and Carter (eds), From protest to challenge, p 667.
7. C Hani, 'ANC and Armed Struggle', paper delivered at ANC/IDASA seminar The future of the Security and Defence in South Africa, Lusaka, 24-27 May 1990.
8. E Roux, Time longer than rope, (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1964), p 425.
9. Lt S Le Grange, 'Die geskiedenis van die Hoof van Staf Inligting' ('The history of the Chief of Staff Intelligence'), Militaria, 12(2), 1982.
10. D and J de Villiers, PW (Tafelberg, Cape Town, 1983).
11. The Congress Alliance referred to here describes the different political groupings which came together during the 1950s to mount the Defiance Campaign against unjust Apartheid legislation. Under the umbrella of the ANC they included the Congress of Democrats (white activists), the Coloured People's Organisation and the Natal Indian Congress.
12. Named after the former leader of the African National Congress, Chief Albert Luthuli, who died in mysterious circumstances in KwaZulu-Natal during the 1960s.
13. Many of these combatants are still alive with a number of them presently occupying senior positions within the new South Aftican National Defence Force. They are affectionately known within MK as the 'mgwenyas' (the crocodiles) and are generally regarded as the founding members of the organisation.
14. Many of these operations have, to date, not been chronicled and still exist, largely, within the oral traditions of MK. Unless timeously recorded, these experiences run the risk of either being forgotten (particularly with the deaths of many older combatants in later years) or mythologised.
15. Author's own experience in the former South African Defence Force between 1978 and 1980.
16. C Hani, 'ANC and the Armed Struggle', p 3.
17. It has been maintained by former senior commanders within the Special Operations Division that special operations activities in the post-1984 period accounted for almost 50% of the military activities - conducted by MK within the country. These statistics are hard to verify but they do indicate the extent to which Special Operations was active within South Africa during the 1980s.
18. 'Militarism' is a contested term which does not admit to easy delineation. Jacklyn Cock, in J Cock and L Nathan, War and society: The militarization of South Africa (David Phillip, 1989, Cape Town, South Africa), argues that three different interpretations can be applied to the concept: understanding militarism within the context of the military as a social institution; militarism as an ideology; and militarism as a social process. This article maintains that whilst armed forces cannot be said to possess an ideology (unless they are in government), it can be said that, in accordance with the second definition of militarism above, they do possess a definite corporate identity that sets them apart from the political and civil institutions with which they interact. For an overview of these arguments, see Morris Janowitz's book, The Military in the political development of new nations (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1964). In the case of MK, this nascent militaristic identity manifested itself in a partial mistrust of the shenanigans of the political process and a belief that MK possessed both the understanding and the capacity to pursue certain courses of action that were consistent with the liberation agenda and that did not necessarily have to be approved by the political hierarchy (the operations referred to in the text being cases in point).
19. R Kasrils, 'Politics and the Armed Struggle', unpublished paper, Lusaka, February 1988.
20. For an excellent overview of these problems and the measures introduced to rectify them, see Tsepe Motumi, op cit, pp 91-6.
21. A wide range of documents reflect this process, although most are not yet available in the public domain. The author was integrally involved in three of the JMCC workgroups - the Army Workgroup, the Military Intelligence Workgroup and the Ministry of Defence Workgroup.
22. Defence in a democracy, South African White Paper and South African Defence Review (1 Military Printing Regiment, Pretoria, 1998), pp78-81.
23. The bulk of the SANDF's traditions continue to be enshrined in the country's Part Time Force units - many of which can trace their origins back to the late 18th and 19th centuries. Most of these traditions, however, are overwhelmingly 'white' in origin and reflect the histories of white South Africans in such wars as the Boer War, the First World War and, more recently, the South West African and Angolan campaigns.
24. APLA possesses an interesting history which is largely unchronicled. An informative introduction in this regard is Tom Lodge's article 'Soldiers of the Storm : A Profile of the Azanian People's Liberation Army' in Cilliers and Reichart (eds), About Turn.

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