- Pre 1900: Colonial conquest and resistance
- 1902-1910: Constructing the Union of South Africa: negotiations and contestations
- 1910-1924: African nationalism and working-class and popular protests
- 1924-1939: State policies and social protest
- 1939-1948: The Second World War and its impact
- 1948-1960: Apartheid and the limits of non-violent resistance
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1960-1994: Armed Struggle and Popular Resistance
1976-1983:- Mass Democratic movements
- The impact of 16 June 1976
- The Eastern Front
- Training in Angola and support for the armed struggle by the Eastern Bloc
- Special Operations Unit
- The Western Front
- State security and military conscription
- Role of the clergy
- White Resistance and the War Resistance Movement
- Role of Women
- Role of Trade Unionism
- The New 1983 Constitution
November 1977, Dr Mamphele Ramphele stands over Steve Biko's open casket in his home before the funeral, attended by 20,000 mourners at King William's Town. Photograph by Drum Photographer © Baileys African History Archive.
The 1976 Soweto riots ushered in an era of increased confrontation between the state and political organisations fighting for liberation. The death of Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, at the hands of the police on 18 August 1977 increased tension in the political landscape in the country. Biko was detained in Port Elizabeth, tortured and in a state of semi-consciousness, taken by road to Pretoria for further interrogation. He later died in custody in Pretoria as a result of his assault by the police.
A new generation of young Blacks were committed to the struggle against apartheid under the slogan 'Liberation before education'. They were actively involved in politicising Black communities.
By the end of the 1970s, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) cadres were being infiltrated into the country in small groups. Thousands of new recruits were being trained in camps in sympathetic African countries and elsewhere in Eastern Bloc countries under the auspices of the ANC. Umkhonto we Sizwe became more visible in its attacks on institutions that represented the Government’s power. This display of military capacity enabled the ANC to reassert itself as the dominant liberation movement within South Africa, whilst challenging the military might of the South African regime at the same time.
By 1980 armed actions were conducted by MK guerrillas embedded in communities and also by MK units based outside the country. This was complemented by the creation of internally based units operating underground as well as those who returned to the country operating in relative isolation from the community. Although limited in number, these actions, conducted by trained operatives, demonstrate the first efforts to establish a core of internal MK cadres.
The events of 16 June 1976 in Soweto, and elsewhere in the country, provide a basis for an understanding of the direction the war against apartheid was to take. The intense emotion and mobilisation that accompanied the burial ceremonies of the victims of June 1976 opened another significant chapter in resistance politics in the country. For this reason, the State gave specific instructions on how the victims should be buried, demanding that the burials should not be political. These are the circumstances with which the burials of Hector Peterson (a victim of June 16 at the hands of the police) and the other victims of State violence took place.
Despite state instruction and intervention, from 1976 onwards, police victims’ funerals became sites for political mobilisation. In the aftermath of June16, increased harassment by the state forced many school children into exile to join MK in neighbouring African countries. For most of the students, joining the armed struggle to fight against an unjust political system became the ultimate goal. Events on the Eastern Front (Mozambique), Angolan Front and the Western Front (Botswana) opened vital avenues for the infiltration of cadres into South Africa.
In 1977 Mozambique became the key launching pad for MK military operations. MK structures in Mozambique provided military training in weapon usage and in guerrilla tactics to its recruits.
"This feature focuses on the extension of state terrorism by the South African Defence Force (SADF) to Mozambique. Several raids targeting areas frequented or used by MK as operational bases resulted in the death of liberation movement fighters and activists in exile."
The Mozambican machinery was also responsible for providing MK cadres in Swaziland with weapons required for operations inside the country as well as for transporting cadres to South Africa. In 1977 the MK Central Operational Headquarters established the Transvaal Urban Machinery (TUM) in Maputo. TUM’s operational zone was primarily the Transvaal, with a focus on the major urban areas.
The first infiltration was by a small unit of MK cadres led by Naledi Tsiki in October 1976. Tsiki’s unit was reinforced by Tokyo Sexwale and Charles Ramusi who had returned from Swaziland. After operating inside South Africa for less than two months, members of the unit, who were working closely with the underground network, were arrested, they included among others, Robert Manci and Joe Gqabi. In total, twelve members belonging to both groups were brought to trial in 1977. The unit operated in Alexandra, Soweto, Hammanskraal (near Pretoria), and the Sekhukhuneland district. Its primary task was to establish trained MK units inside the country focussing on recruitment and training of young people.
The arrest of the members of the MK unit, as well as leading figures in the Joe Gqabi underground network, brought this phase (with its emphasis on the training of new recruits inside the country) of the military struggle to an abrupt end. From 1977 onwards, a new phase was implemented which initially involved infiltration largely from Mozambique and Swaziland (the Eastern Front), the setting up of arms caches and the formation of underground structures inside the country based on cells.
After the arrests Jabu Moleketi and Wandile Dlamini, both from the Soweto generation, were among the first group of cadres to be returned to South Africa after a four-month stay in Mozambique. As they were unknown to the South African authorities, they could return safely to operate underground.
They entered the country in April 1977 and became part of the TUM. Moleketi and Dlamini functioned from April 1977 to 1980 and their activities, to a large extent, contributed towards demystifying the notion that it was 'impossible to survive inside the country for long periods of time.' This was particularly significant given the fact that the first MK unit to enter the country in the second half of the 1970s, commanded by Tokyo Sexwale, had been discovered after a brief period.
The unit’s first mission was undertaken on 16 June 1977, the first anniversary of the Soweto uprising. Its mission was restricted to sabotage and intelligence gathering. On that day, the group sabotaged railway lines in support of calls for a stay away. The unit’s second military operation was carried out on 25 June, but ended on a bad note as a premature explosion led to Moleketi losing an eye. The accident destabilised the unit and they had to go underground for some time, resurfacing to play a more limited role in identifying targets and reconnoitring them. In addition, the unit constantly assessed and passed on information about the internal political situation.
This signalled another significant feature of the post-1976 phase of armed struggle, that is, the use of military action to generate defiance and stimulate the development of a mass movement. The term “armed propaganda” was employed to describe this activity towards the end of the decade. “Armed propaganda” was the stage where armed reactions were meant to popularise the need to adopt armed struggle as part of a general strategy.
The Moleketi-Dlamini unit had to leave the country in 1980 after Wandile Dlamini had been spotted by an askari, a former MK cadre turned policeman and state informer, and also because the security forces had gone on full alert following the discovery of an MK cadre in Chiawelo, Soweto. Linda Jabane (MK name Gordon Dikebu), who subsequently became known as “The Lion of Chiawelo,” was surrounded in his safe house in Soweto by a large police contingent. Refusing to surrender, Jabane fought until he was killed in a grenade blast on 20 November 1980. In the wake of this development, Moleketi and Dlamini retreated to Lesotho, where they remained for a while before flying back to Maputo.
The opening of the Angolan front complemented the efforts at infiltration that were taking place on the Eastern Front. In 1975 both Angola and Mozambique gained their independence providing an added boost to South Africa’s struggle against apartheid.
Angola’s freedom provided the ANC with the opportunity to set up military training camps in that country. By the end of 1976, the ANC had set up its first military camp in the south of Luanda at Gabela in the province of Kwanza Sul. The first group of MK soldiers in Angola was sent to this camp. Military camps included a transit camp in Luanda called Engineering; Nova Katengue in the south (commanded by Julius Mokoena of the Luthuli Detachment); Benguela in the south of Angola and Pango, about 200 km north of Luanda. Other camps that were established were Funda camp; Quibaxe transit camp; the Morris Seabelo Rehabilitation Centre (also known as Quatro or Camp 32) the later was set up in 1979 with Gabriel Mthembu as its first commander.
This upsurge in MK military operations after the Soweto uprising was due to the influx of new recruits and the ability of the ANC to provide military training and weapons to the thousands of young people that joined its military wing after 1976. Cuban forces assisted with the training of cadres in the camps. The major activities of the new recruits inside South Africa were aided by the formation of the Special Operations Unit in the latter part of the 1970s.
In 1978-1979, the ANC conducted a strategic review of the role of the liberation struggle to mobilise popular support. A Special Operations Unit was established in 1979 at the request of Oliver Tambo. Its mandate was to carry out high impact attacks on strategically placed military and economic targets that supported the apartheid regime.
The most significant “special operations” were the attacks on SASOL, the gigantic oil-from-coal plants, on the night of 31 May 1980 to coincide with the government’s Republic Day celebrations. The attacks resulted in damage estimated at R6 million.
Initial reconnaissance for the operation was undertaken during July 1979 and two teams were specially trained in Angola for this purpose. Sipho Matthew Thobela trained in the Soviet Union and Angola commanded the unit that attacked SASOL II in Secunda, Mpumalanga. Thobela's team drove to Swaziland immediately after the attack and returned to Mozambique the next morning. The other team attacked SASOL I and NATREF at Sasolburg and remained in the country for approximately two weeks before returning to Mozambique via Swaziland.
Retaliation to the SASOL attacks was not long in coming. South African security forces attacked an ANC safe house in Manzini, Swaziland. Two days after the attack in Manzini a bomb also exploded outside Chris Hani's house in Lesotho.
The opening up of a third infiltration zone in the west guaranteed further penetration into South Africa by trained guerrillas. Botswana comprised the MK’s “Western Front.” The MK machinery in Botswana began to launch its own operations from early 1978. By the end of that year, Central Operations units had been set up in Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique. To complement MK activities on the Botswana front, the cadres who operated in the rural areas of the Transvaal and Bophuthatswana were given specialised training in survival in rural areas in Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) camps. The main ZIPRA camp, known as “Freedom Camp,” was located about ten miles outside Kabwe, Zambia. Cadres were also sent from Botswana to join the TUM under the command of the Mozambique MK Machinery.
In the late 1970s trials of armed cadres increased. In 1978, for example, political trials in South Africa showed a marked trend away from offences relating to recruiting for the ANC and MK towards prosecutions involving the possession of arms and ammunition. In response to infiltration along the Transvaal and Natal borders with Swaziland, Botswana and Mozambique, South Africa assigned “crack anti-terrorist units,” the Task Force and Counter-Insurgency Units, to operate along these borders. The units used helicopters to rush to areas where suspected guerrillas were sighted and used foot patrols, dogs, spotter planes and roadblocks to pursue retreating guerrillas. In March 1979, the South African Defence Force (SADF) announced that it was going to clear a 10-kilometre strip along 600 kilometres of the country’s borders for the “prevention and suppression of terrorism.”
The South African authorities also began to lean heavily on the Botswana government to curb guerrilla incursions. Since Botswana was no longer a very safe route, Oliver Tambo met with Zimbabwe’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Robert Gabriel Mugabe in 1980. The object of the meeting was to request diplomatic recognition and to seek permission for the ANC to establish an office in the country. At first Mugabe told Tambo that Zimbabwe would not grant military bases to any of the South African liberation movements. The reasons for this refusal are rather obscure. Mugabe probably feared that his country could be a victim of South African air raids similar to the ones that were being conducted against other front line states. At a subsequent meeting between a high-level Zimbabwean government delegation and a seven-member ANC delegation in August, the two parties reached an agreement to extend diplomatic recognition to the ANC and to allow it to open administrative and propaganda offices in Salisbury (now Harare). This widened the area from which MK cadres could launch their forays against the apartheid regime.
Towards the end of the 1970s, the situation changed even more with the coming to power of Prime Minister and later State President P. W. Botha (1978/1984 – 1984/1989). Under Botha, the state security apparatus grew even more. The government began to impose more formal measures of censorship of the press to protect its interests. States of emergency virtually became the order of the day in the wake of MK attacks on the police and other symbols of apartheid. As states of emergency continued throughout the 1980s, the government became increasingly dominated by Botha’s circle of generals and police chiefs. This did not deter MK and military, and onslaughts against the regime continued unabated.
Arrests of MK personnel increased and the South African Defence Force (SADF) stepped up the recruitment of White soldiers. By the early 1980s, it was clear that the ANC’s strategy was to spread its forces and strike wherever possible, rather than build up larger strongholds in remote or border areas. In this case, the SADF’s response was what came to be known as ‘area defence.’ Launched at the beginning of January 1982 by General Constand Viljoen, Chief of the SADF, ‘area defence,’ a response to ‘area war,’ became the basic strategic doctrine of the South African armed forces throughout the 1980s; it was mainly applied in rural areas.
For Viljoen, to increase the ‘defensibility of all South Africans,’ previously non-conscripted people in each area were called upon to form ‘a first line of defence’ while the full-time forces formed ‘a reaction force’ to deal with major incidents. In responding to the escalating guerrilla war inside South Africa, the regime ordered that the period of Whites-only national service be increased to two years.
SADF border patrol © South Photographs.
At the same time, MK bases in Angola were targeted in South African Air Force raids. The Nova Katengue base was closed after the South African Air Force bombed it on 14 March 1979. Three MK recruits died and 14 others were wounded during the raid. After the attack, the cadres were evacuated to Pango military camp.
The South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) camps were not spared either. Botha’s years in power were marked by numerous military interventions in the states bordering South Africa and by an extensive military and political campaign to eliminate SWAPO in Namibia. The frequent bombing of SWAPO bases was also accompanied by the bombing of MK military facilities. Within South Africa, vigorous police action and strict enforcement of security legislation resulted in hundreds of detentions (frequently without trial) and bannings. The overall effect of MK operations on the South African population was to make people aware of the activities of the ANC, largely through reports of the numerous political trials that resulted from the capture of cadres.
MK guerrillas deployed in the urban and rural areas concentrated on mobilising the people or stimulating popular participation with the objective of transforming covert hostility into overt mass confrontation. At the height of these activities, the church added its voice to the growing chorus of resistance against apartheid.
The struggle against the South African government included the clergy who used their religious influence to denounce an immoral system of governance in South Africa. The development of Black theology by a group of churchmen from within the heart of the Black Consciousness movement, influenced by Latin American liberation theology, was important in highlighting apartheid.
Liberation theology also affected the stand of the Roman Catholic Church within South Africa, and the increasingly outspoken opposition to apartheid by the South African Catholic Bishops Conference.
The claims by the National Party (NP) that they were running the country along Christian lines provoked a response from those who saw apartheid as a heresy and provided a forum for their protest.
By the 1980s a number of churchmen, including the Anglican Bishop (later Archbishop) Desmond Tutu and the Reverend Dr Allan Boesak (who became President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in 1982) were outspokenly defiant of the government and played a leading role in community politics. They, together with others were influential in the founding of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983. The UDF was a mass based organisation launched to coincide with the government’s introduction of the tricameral legislation in August for the Coloured and Indian communities.
In 1983 the state’s attempts to buy off Coloured and Indian opposition through the establishment of the tricameral parliament opened up a new space for national organisations, the UDF and the National Forum (NF). Of the two movements, the UDF proved to be the most successful.
It was initially formed to boycott the 1983 elections (to be discussed in detail later) on the grounds that the proposals excluded the major Black population. White participation was encouraged if they identified with this national struggle. Many of the political and economic policies of the UDF and its affiliated organisations coincided with the ANC’s political manifesto, the Freedom Charter to engage in ‘the broader national democratic struggle.’ The UDF repeatedly called for the ANC and other political organisations to be unbanned, and refused to negotiate with the South African government in the absence of ‘recognised leaders of the people,’ who were imprisoned or in exile.
Internal resistance, particularly to military conscription and other apartheid-related injustices, was also mounted by a minority of White South Africans.
While the majority of White South African voters supported the apartheid system, a minority opposed it. In parliamentary elections during the 1970s and 1980s between 15% and 20% of Whites voted for the liberal Progressive Party. For many years this Party’s Member of Parliament Helen Suzman, provided the only parliamentary opposition to apartheid. She used her parliamentary privileges to help disenfranchised South Africans in many ways.
Non-violent resistance to apartheid came from the Black Sash, an organisation of White women formed in 1955 to oppose the removal of Coloured voters from the Cape Province voters’ roll. Covert resistance was also given by banned organisations such as the South African Communist Party (SACP) lead by Dr Yusuf Dadoo in London. Joe Slovo, a lawyer and a leading SACP member was also Chief of Staff of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. Many White political activists were imprisoned for their political activities.
Whites also played a significant role in opposing apartheid during the 1980s through the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the End Conscription Campaign (ECC).
Cultural opposition to apartheid came from internationally acclaimed writers like Breyten Breytenbach, André Brink and Alan Paton (who founded the South African Liberal Party) and clerics such as Beyers Naudé.
Members of the African Resistance Movement (ARM) were responsible for setting off bombs at power stations and most notably the Park Station bombing. The membership of this group was virtually all drawn from marginalised White intellectual circles. John Harris, an ARM member was the first and only White person to be hanged for sabotage for a bomb that he placed at Park Station in 1964.
A considerably larger group of Whites came together in London to form the Committee on South African War Resistance (COSAWR) in 1978. Many had been activists in the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), the White, mainly English-speaking, student movement which opposed apartheid, but operated in relative isolation from Black opposition groups.
When the COSAWR was formed, one of its first acts was to found Resister, a magazine designed to give voice to the war resistance movement.
In South Africa the provisions of the Defence Act no. 13 of 1912 made it an offence to encourage resistance to military call-ups. The Act also placed restrictions on the reporting of a wide range of military affairs. Newspapers could not, for example, disclose to the South African public at the time that the South African Defence Force (SADF) had invaded Angola in 1975. Other forms of censorship further restrained internal opposition organisations from developing a critique of militarisation. Coverage of the activities of the police was also restricted, as were details of key strategic industries and the armaments industry.
Resister, which began as a pamphlet-style publication opposing conscription and the imprisonment of conscientious objectors in South Africa, developed into a specialist, authoritative journal on militarisation. It appeared without interruption every two months – and later quarterly – for an 11 year period. The magazine was written by war resisters, exiles and supporters of the fight against oppression.
The content of Resister changed over time to reflect other debates and events. Initially, the magazine functioned as a news-sheet on the internal war resistance movement, imprisoned objectors and conditions in detention barracks. However, with the ascendancy of the former Minister of Defence P. W. Botha to the office of Prime Minister in 1978, the adoption of his ‘Total Strategy’ and the eclipse of civilian government by the military, a need arose for a forum to analyse what was happening and why. Resister took on this challenge. After 1980 the journal became increasingly analytical in style, although it still provided first-hand and anecdotal accounts of the experiences of war resisters, and continued to cover and give coherence to the different strands of the internal war resistance movement.
Resister had a marked impact on the Western anti-apartheid movement, where it was regarded as an unrivalled source of information on militarisation and was used substantially in anti-apartheid campaigns. Copies of Resister were also circulated among the ANC membership, particularly those in the camps in East Africa and Angola. It was an important source of information about militarisation and on the tactics of the war resistance movement. The magazine provided tangible evidence to the mostly Black members of MK of the involvement of young Whites in the anti-apartheid struggle.
While COSAWR was always autonomous and only a few of its members formally joined the ANC, the organisations were close and White anti-conscription and underground ANC activists, such as Raymond Suttner, Jeremy Cronin, Barbara Hogan and Marion Sparg went to jail. COSAWR’s foremost achievement was that it helped to shape the most visible strand of White opposition to apartheid – war resistance – and drew it into the ANC alliance and the non-racial tradition of opposition politics. It created the political framework in which the internal groups opposed conscription, notably the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) which was formed in 1984, came to operate.
While it was in the ANC’s interests to have COSAWR under its wing rather than operating independently, COSAWR also influenced the ANC’s thinking on war resistance and persuaded the movement to include and address the constituency of war resisters in the country. The ANC took this task seriously and after 1980 it consistently addressed the issue of war resistance, calling on young Whites to refuse military service, indicating that there was a place for them in the ranks of the movement. The ANC also played a crucial role in gaining international recognition for war resistance as a legitimate aspect of the struggle and establishing the right of exiled resisters to be recognised as refugees.
After the establishment of the Black People’s Convention (BPC) in 1972, a number of women such as Baleka Kgositsile, Winnie Mandela and Mamphela Ramphele were active in both the Black Consciousness and the African National Congress (ANC) underground movements. In December 1975 a group of politically active women headed by Fatima Meer and Winnie Mandela, established the Black Women’s Federation (BWF) at a conference in Durban. The conference was attended by more than 200 women, representing 41 organisations from all over South Africa.
The BWF’s main objectives were, inter alia, to establish contact and unity and practical co-operation among Black women and Black women’s organisations. In short, it was established to co-ordinate the activities of Black women and consolidate their organisations. This came in the wake of a decision by the organisation’s membership to avoid collaboration with White women’s organisations such as the Black Sash. However, the BWF president, Winnie Mandela, was subsequently banned for among other things, her role in the 1976 Soweto uprisings.
Young women and girls of school-going age made a significant contribution to liberation during the 1976 riots. School girls were shot at and killed by the police in the crackdown by the government. This drove many of them into exile. In the aftermath of the Soweto riots, women such as Winnie Mandela, among others, were instrumental in establishing the Black Parents’ Association (BPA).
The 1970s witnessed Black workers challenging exploitative working conditions leading to an increase in Black participation in trade union activity. Confronted with a growing labour crisis, in 1977 BJ Vorster legalised trade unions. Between 1979 and 1982, as a result of the legalisation of Black trade unions the number of unionised Black workers doubled. Women also sought to address problems of being underpaid and exploited through participation in trade unions and other organisations. Thus, by late 1979 the focus of political work had turned to student organisations, civic organisations, women’s organisations, cultural organisations and the trade union movement.
Women were integrated into many aspects of the struggle occupying positions of leadership in political organisations and trade unions where they played prominent roles. The period after 1977 was characterised by increased participation by women in industrial action and other forms of protest. In the factories, women in conjunction with their male counterparts demanded better working and living conditions. The political costs of establishing the apartheid system became more evident in the 1970s, as mass strikes and popular struggles began to occur. Women’s resistance to exorbitant rents and other services became commonplace in the townships.
There were various other women’s groupings both national and regional that were actively engaged in the struggle against apartheid. For example, the Black Sash was a national organisation whereas the Natal Organisation of Women functioned with the then Natal region. All the major political organisations also had women’s’ organisations engaging in various forms of struggle.
After the 1976 Soweto uprisings there emerged an even stronger impetus for internal opposition social movements to organise against apartheid. In the townships, civic movements confronted the structures set up by government to govern life in urban areas. White businesses were boycotted.
Internal opposition complemented the role of the ANC in exile. The organisation found itself swamped with young men and women seeking to join its ranks especially after the 1976 uprisings. By the end of the decade South Africa’s White rulers faced more organised popular resistance than ever before. This was compounded by the fact that the ANC in exile had, during the 1970s and 1980s, established itself as a government in exile, with a sophisticated international support network. A strong international lobby was established which supported the boycott of South African produce and the imposition of an arms embargo and economic sanctions. The 1983 amendments to the existing constitution were also resisted. Government intransigence and repression of legitimate demands of the oppressed people were to make South Africa a pariah state in the international order. From the 1970s onwards, international pressure (economic, political and diplomatic) was exerted on the apartheid government to abandon all forms of repression.
1985, Mineworkers at Supreme Court. Photograph by Karen Sandison © The Star
The 1973 Durban strikes aroused Black workers across the nation and demonstrated the power of collective action and that a militant spirit still existed within the rank and file. The 1973 Durban strikes in particular heralded a new phase in the organisation of an independent trade union movement. The struggle for freedom was reinforced by the emergence and development of the trade union movement in the country. Worker strikes were suppressed through labour laws, pass laws (introduced in 1923 and repealed in 1986) and through security legislation. The ‘Masters and Servants Laws’ made it a crime for any African to ‘desert’ his White employer. A clause of the Riotous Assemblies Act, no. 17, 1956 - repealed in part by Internal Security Act No 74 of 1982 - also forbade strikes. It prohibited any outside gathering that the Minister of Justice perceived as a threat to public peace. The Industrial Conciliation Act of 1924 omitted all Africans from its definition of ‘employee.’
Trade unionists did not openly profess to be political organisations but their activities, in many ways, revealed that they were following a political agenda. In the 1970s Black workers rapidly joined the emerging unions. Despite Black unemployment of 25 to 30%, and the worst economic slump in South Africa since the Great Depression, unions flourished and their members were ready to strike. In 1979, the Western Cape was hit by a wave of strikes involving stevedores, meat and cold-storage workers, construction workers, textile mill hands, fishermen and engineering workers. In 1979 and 1980, strikes broke out at auto factories in the Eastern Cape. In 1982, an average of a thousand Black workers a day went on strike and this trend continued afterwards. Industrial action was undertaken against the background of low wages and discriminatory labour practices reminiscent of the apartheid era. In an effort to allay escalating opposition to the regime, in 1983, Botha introduced a new constitution and declared apartheid outmoded.
Through the new 1983 constitution, Botha structured a single multi-racial parliament with three chambers, one each for Whites, Indians and Coloureds. He appointed the first non-Whites to the cabinet and as ambassadors. Blacks became officers in the army and in the police. A host of discriminatory legislation was dismantled, related to freedom of movement, inter-racial marriage, labour unions, business opportunities, hotels, entertainment and sports.
However, within 12 months, everything came apart in a storm of inter-community violence, foreign disinvestment, sanctions and a White political backlash. Conservative Whites accused Botha of endangering their right to self-determination, while Coloureds, Indians and liberal Whites accused him of not carrying out his promises. Blacks such as Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Chief Minister of Kwazulu, felt bitter about being left out altogether. A violent revolution seemed imminent. As a result, Botha declared a State of Emergency and the state cracked down on dissent.
Clearly, the new constitution was not well received by the liberation movement and internal extra-parliamentary organisations. It was viewed by its opponents as an attempt only to modernise, and thereby entrench, the pillars of White domination. For people seeking full Black enfranchisement and democracy this could only be achieved through the overthrow of the South African constitution itself. They argued that these aims could not be achieved by the mere amendment of racist legislation. Thus, opposition to the new constitution was growing and at the same time international sanctions against South Africa were tightened during Botha’s reign affecting his regime.
By the late 1970s, the ANC’s ranks had swollen rapidly, and its central task was to deploy cadres against the government in a credible revolutionary offensive. Over the period 1976 to 1983, the ANC’s External Mission (and in particular its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe), was the destination for waves of Black militants leaving South Africa. The mass influx into its External Mission in the 1970s gave the ANC important political potential, that is, the capacity to embark on a campaign of “armed propaganda” inside South Africa. It had lacked this capacity since the early 1960s, after which its central concern had been the rebuilding of its own decimated structures. The new offensive was designed, to prove to the ANC’s domestic constituency that armed struggle was “feasible” under South African conditions. In short, it was a campaign to legitimise the “revolutionary option.” Armed attacks on South Africa’s SASOL oil-from-coal plants in June 1980 and the country’s only nuclear power station (Koeberg Nuclear Power Station) in December 1982 were among several high-profile guerrilla attacks, intended to reinvigorate the combative spirit which had characterised the 1976 revolt.
By 1983, the ANC stood on the verge of a potential breakthrough. Its external mission and internal underground structures were in broad agreement that what was needed was the construction of a united political front of opposition to apartheid. By 1983, this loose grouping agreed that a single national alliance could be built. The result was the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in August 1983. A parallel (and sometimes antagonistic) development was the launch of the National Forum, a smaller and still loose alliance of mainly Black exclusivist organisations.
A combination of events which included the stepped up sabotage activities of MK, the role of the church, trade unionism, mass community rolling action, White resistance and sanctions culminated in this period (1976-1983) registering some of the most impressive results in the struggle against an unorthodox system of government. At the end of 1983, it was clear that the apartheid regime could only delay the process of liberation but could not completely halt it.