uMkhonto we Sizwe (Xhosa pronunciation: [uˈmkʰonto we ˈsizwe], meaning “Spear of the Nation”; abbreviated MK) was the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), co-founded by Nelson Mandela in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre. Its mission was to fight against the South African government.
After warning the South African government in June 1961 of its intent to resist further acts of government-instituted terror if the government did not take steps toward constitutional reform and increase political rights, uMkhonto we Sizwe launched its first attacks against government installations on 16 December 1961. It was subsequently classified as a terrorist organisation by the South African government and the United States, and banned.
For a time it was headquartered in the affluent suburb of Rivonia, in Johannesburg. On 11 July 1963, 19 ANC and uMkhonto we Sizwe leaders, including Arthur Goldreich and Walter Sisulu, were arrested at Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia. The farm was privately owned by Arthur Goldreich and bought with South African Communist Party and ANC funds, as individuals who were not white were unable to own a property in that area under the Group Areas Act. This was followed by the Rivonia Trial, in which ten leaders of the ANC were tried for 221 militant acts designed to “foment violent revolution”. Wilton Mkwayi, chief of uMkhonto we Sizwe at the time, escaped during trial.
uMkhonto we Sizwe was integrated into the South African National Defence Force by 1994.
|UMkhonto we Sizwe|
|Leaders||Nelson Mandela Oliver Tambo Walter Sisulu Govan Mbeki Joe Slovo Lennox Lagu Joe Modise Chris Hani Raymond Mhlaba Moses Mabhida Ronnie Kasrils Isaac Lesiba Maphotho Lambert Moloi Siphiwe Nyanda Keith Mokwape Godfrey Ngwenya|
|Dates of operation||1961–1994|
|Ideology||African nationalism Anti-apartheid|
|Allies||Libya Provisional IRA MPLA ZIPRA|
|Opponents||United States South Africa|
|Battles and wars||Internal resistance to apartheid|
|Designated as a terrorist group by||United States South Africa|
Motivations for formation
According to Nelson Mandela, all of the founding members of the uMkhonto we Sizwe, including himself, were also members of the ANC. In his famous “I Am Prepared to Die” speech, Mandela outlined the motivations which led to the formation of the uMkhonto we Sizwe:
At the beginning of June 1961, after a long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force.
This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle, and to form uMkhonto we Sizwe. We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the government had left us with no other choice. In the Manifesto of uMkhonto published on 16 December 1961, which is exhibit AD, we said:
Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalise and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war. Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or take over the Government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer with violence.
The manifesto referred to by Mandela, adduced by the prosecution at his trial as Exhibit AD, included the statements:
The aim was to act only against hard targets such as power pylons and avoid any injury or loss of life.
In June 1961, Mandela sent a letter to South African newspapers warning the government that a campaign of sabotage would be launched unless the government agreed to call for a national constitutional convention. Beginning on 16 December 1961, the campaign by uMkhonto we Sizwe with Mandela as its leader, was launched, with bomb attacks on government targets and planned for possible guerrilla warfare. The first target of the campaign was an electricity sub-station. uMkhonto we Sizwe undertook other acts of sabotage in the next eighteen months. The government alleged more acts of sabotage had been carried out and at the Rivonia Trial the accused would be charged with 193 acts of sabotage in total. The sabotage included attacks on government posts, machines and power facilities, and crop burning.
In 1962, Mandela went to Algeria, Egypt and Ghana to get international backing for the group. After returning to South Africa, Joe Slovo reportedly complained that they had “sent [Mandela] off to Africa a Communist and he came back an African nationalist”.
In December 1962, Looksmart Ngudle and Denis Goldberg helped to organise a training camp held at Mamre, outside Cape Town, later recognised as the first MK training centre inside South Africa; however it had to be abandoned early due to Security Police interest.
The early 1970s were a low point for the ANC in many ways, including in the military sphere. Attempts to rebuild uMkhonto we Sizwe inside South Africa resulted in many losses, though some members, including Chris Hani, were able to remain undetected for a long period.
The Soweto Uprising of 1976 led to a large exodus of young black men and women. Anxious to strike back at the apartheid regime, they crossed the border to Rhodesia to seek military training. While uMkhonto we Sizwe were able to rebuild an army—one capable of attacking prestigious targets such as the refineries at Sasolburg (with assistance from the Provisional Irish Republican Army)
1983: Church Street bombing
In 1983, the Church Street bomb was detonated in Pretoria near the Air Force headquarters, resulting in 19 deaths and 217 injuries.
1985: Amanzimtoti bombing
In the 1985 Amanzimtoti bombing on the Natal South Coast, five civilians were killed and 40 were injured when uMkhonto we Sizwe cadre Andrew Sibusiso Zondo detonated an explosive in a rubbish bin at a shopping centre shortly before Christmas. In a submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the ANC stated that Zondo’s act, though “understandable” as a response to a recent South African Defence Force raid in Lesotho, was not in line with ANC policy. Zondo was executed in 1986.
1986: Durban beach-front bombing
In the 1986 Durban beach-front bombing, a bomb was detonated in a bar, killing three civilians and injuring 69. Robert McBride received the death penalty for this bombing, which became known as the “Magoo’s Bar bombing”. McBride received amnesty and became a senior police officer.
1987: Johannesburg bombings
In 1987, an explosion outside a Johannesburg court killed three police officers and injured a further 15; a court in Newcastle had been attacked in a similar way the previous year, injuring 24. Also in 1987, a bomb exploded at a military command centre in Johannesburg, killing one person and injuring 68 personnel.
The armed struggle continued with attacks on a series of soft targets, including a bank in Roodepoort in 1988, in which four civilians were killed and 18 injured. Also in 1988, a bomb outside a magistrate’s court killed three. At the Ellis Park rugby stadium in Johannesburg, a car bomb killed two and injured 37 civilians. A multitude of bombs at restaurants and fast food outlets, including Wimpy Bars, and supermarkets occurred during the late 1980s, killing and wounding many people. Wimpy were specifically targeted because of their perceived rigid enforcements of many apartheid laws, including excluding non-whites from their restaurants.
1985—1987: Landmine campaign
From 1985 to 1987, there also was a campaign to place anti-tank mines on rural roads in what was then the Northern Transvaal. This tactic was abandoned due to the high rate of civilian casualties—especially amongst black labourers. The ANC estimated 30 landmine explosions resulting in 23 deaths, while the government submitted a figure of 57 explosions resulting in 25 deaths.
Judgement by TRC
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that the use of torture by uMkhonto we Sizwe was “routine”, as were executions “without due process” at ANC detention camps. This was particularly true in the period of 1979–1989, although torture was not official ANC policy. It called the Durban bombing a “gross violation of human rights”.
The TRC also noted in its report that although “ANC had, in the course of the conflict, contravened the Geneva Protocols and was responsible for the commission of gross human rights violations…of the three main parties to the [South African] conflict, only the ANC committed itself to observing the tenets of the Geneva Protocols and, in the main, conducting the armed struggle in accordance within the international humanitarian law”.
Foreign military activities
In January 1969, the ANC declared its solidarity with the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and pursued close military relations with that party, then involved in the Angolan War of Independence. Both movements were drawn into a practical and ideological friendship because of their shared links with the Soviet Union through the communist parties of their respective nations. At the First International Conference of Solidarity with the Fighting People of Southern Africa and the Portuguese Colonies, organised by the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation and the World Peace Council, the MPLA and ANC entered into a formal military alliance together with the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), and the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC). This became known as the Khartoum alliance.
The ANC-MPLA alliance assumed new significance in the mid-1970s with Angolan independence. After consolidating power with Cuban support, the MPLA granted MK permission to establish training facilities in Angola. The primary MK base in Angola was located at Novo Catengue, where intakes of up to 500 recruits were trained by Cuban military advisers. Between 1976 and 1979, over 1,000 MK guerrillas were trained at Novo Catengue. In recognition of Cuba’s role in supervising the training programme, the third MK intake to muster out was named the “Moncada Detachment”. There were also a number of smaller MK training camps established throughout Angola, namely at Quibaxe. Aside from Cuba, the Soviet Union also contributed some instructors at the request of Oliver Tambo; between 1976 and 1991, 200 Soviet military personnel served at various MK camps in Angola as training staff.
The ANC and MK presence in Angola re-ignited its alliance with SWAPO and its own armed wing, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN). PLAN and MK frequently shared facilities in Angola and coordinated the transportation of supplies and war materiel.
In 1984 there were a series of mutinies in MK’s Angolan camps which were suppressed by the Mbokodo, the ANC’s internal security service. During this time, the ANC detained and executed a number of MK dissidents suspected of subversion or disloyalty.
MK’s presence in Angola inevitably embroiled it in the Angolan Civil War. In August 1983, an MK battalion was deployed against the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) insurgents near Kibashe. In 1986 three battalions of newly trained MK recruits were deployed to guard FAPLA rear areas during Operation Alpha Centauri. MK also participated in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, fighting against a joint South African and UNITA expeditionary force during Operation Hooper and Operation Packer. At least 100 MK cadres were killed during the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, making that engagement of enormous symbolic importance, as it was the largest single loss of life in MK’s history. Furthermore, MK’s prestige inside South Africa was greatly enhanced by its participation in a conventional battle, and apparent willingness to directly confront a South African military force.
Morale crisis in Angola
Following the Soweto Uprising large numbers of young South Africans fled the country and joined the ANC and MK, seeking the opportunity to fight back at the apartheid state. Initially the experience in Angolan training camps was positive but over time frustration that the numbers being sent back to South Africa was low and that conditions in the camps were often poor grew. After MK cadres were asked by Oliver Tambo to join the Angolan war against Unita and found that the Angolans were often poorly trained and indisciplined frustration turned to mutiny, and in some cases open military conflict inside the training camps themselves. In one case mutineers killed ANC members and after the mutiny was suppressed seven mutineers were executed (with further executions only halted after the personal intervention of Tambo)
During the Rhodesian Bush War, MK was closely allied with the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), the armed wing of ZAPU. MK became interested in using ZIPRA’s infiltration routes to smuggle supplies to its fighters in South Africa, and organised a joint expedition with the latter in August 1967. A combined MK-ZIPRA force was largely eliminated by the Rhodesian Security Forces during Operation Nickel, and the survivors driven back across the border into Botswana and Zambia.
Concerning MK’s alliance with ZIPRA, Oliver Tambo stated, “We have had close political relations with ZAPU, and these developed into relations at the military level, until we were in a position to fight together. This close alliance is the first of its kind one can recall in the liberation movement. In no previous instance has there actually been fighting by freedom fighters drawn from different territories.”
In popular culture
- In 1984, musician Prince Far I’s album Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) was released (posthumously) in an act of solidarity with the uMkhonto we Sizwe.
- In 1987, a benefit hardcore compilation album Viva uMkhonto we Sizwe! was released on the Dutch label Konkurrel. It featured Scream, Challenger Crew, Morzelpronk, Social Unrest, The Ex, Depraved, Victims Family, B.G.K., Rhythm Pigs, Everything Falls Apart, Kafka Prosess, S.C.A.*, and 76% Uncertain.
- Zimbabwean-born African-American author and filmmaker M.K. Asante, Jr. embraced the initials M. K. after uMkhonto we Sizwe.
- Dave Matthews Band song “#36” is dedicated to Chris Hani, the assassinated chief of staff of the uMkhonto we Sizwe and the leader of the South African Communist Party, and includes the refrain, “Hani, Hani, won’t you dance with me?”
In addition to co-founder Nelson Mandela, notable members include:
- Tatamkhulu Afrika
- Dumiso Dabengwa
- Anton Fransch
- Tom Sebina
- Joe Gqabi
- Denis Goldberg
- Harry Gwala
- Chris Hani
- Ronnie Kasrils
- Moses Kotane
- Tryphina Mboxela Jokweni
- Lennox Lagu
- Lambert Moloi
- Jerry Masisi
- Moses Mabhida
- Mac Maharaj
- Vejaynand Ramlakan
- Solomon Mahlangu
- Govan Mbeki
- Thabo Mbeki
- Robert McBride
- Raymond Mhlaba
- Wilton Mkwayi
- Joe Modise
- Thandi Modise
- Alex Moumbaris
- Mavuso Msimang
- Benedict A Ncube
- Benny Ncube
- Dipak Patel
- Phila Portia Ndwandwe
- Mzala Nxumalo
- Siphiwe Nyanda
- Solly Shoke
- Godfrey Ngwenya
- Walter Sisulu
- Thabiso Mokhosi
- Lindile Yam
- Vusumuzi Masondo
- Joe Slovo
- Marion Sparg
- Oliver Tambo
- Tony Yengeni
- Andrew Zondo
- Fabian Msimang
- Refiloe Johannes Mudimu
- Samuel Hlongwane
- Davidson Masuku
- Aubrey Sedibe
- Duma Mdutyana
- Rudzani Maphwanya
- Sipho Binda
- Lawrence Mbatha
- Teddy N’capayi
- Wilson Nqose
- Jacob Zuma
- Isaac Lesiba Maphotho
- Jeremey Vearey (Police Major General)
- Andre Lincoln (Police Major General)
- Bradley Hawk Steyn
- Neil de Beer
Number of deaths
South African police statistics indicate that, in the period 1976 to 1986, approximately 130 people were killed by guerrillas. Of these, about thirty were members of various security forces and one hundred were civilians. Of the civilians, 40 were white and 60 black. In turn, around 11+ ANC members were killed in cross-border raids by the SADF.