Umkhonto we Sizwe - Armed Struggle

Sabotage campaigns:

MK Sabotage, Photograph by Drum Photographer @ BAHA

Between 1961 and 1963 MK was responsible for about 134 acts of sabotage. Many of these caused minor damage to the intended targets. Although the damage was minimal, for the people who carried them out, it marked a significant contribution:

“We had no revolvers and AK47s, let alone knowing how to use them. But given all that, we really had the state worried, for in that period, lots and lots of sabotage attacks were launched”

Most of the MK cadres have detailed their experiences of sabotage in the first three years of MK. The significant factor which most of them mention is that most of the cadres had no military training and background, also as soon as people became aware of MK, the interest of joining or becoming an MK soldier grew. These had negative effects on the organisation at some point. For instance while people showed interest to join MK, the organisation did not have mechanisms in place to screen the candidates that joined. As a result in later years this posed a major threat of infiltration. The lack of training resulted in injuries and death. Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim recalls the one big operation, which left the whole of Durban area in darkness:

“We blew up a very big pylon in a place called Montclear outside Durban. Ronnie Kasrils and I had gone to the area weeks earlier to conduct reconnaissance. The place was hilly and sparsely populated…we planted dynamites on two legs of the pylon. This required a lot of work. You had to place dynamite against the object and tape it to stick, get the fuse and put it to charge. Then at the spot, you had to fill the capsule with acid, making sure that the acid does not touch you…as I was working with a friend, the whole Durban area went dark. I then knew our operation had been successful. At this stage I was working for the New Age newspaper. The New Age was the first to publish the story and the photographs”

Organisational Problems

A year after its formation, MK faced serious government infiltration and organisational problems, which began with the arrest of its Chief Commander, Nelson Mandela in 1962. Mandela was arrested at a roadblock outside Howick in Natal in August 1962, after a tip-off by the American Central Intelligence to the South African Police. The arrest of Nelson Mandela in 1962 was followed by the Rivonia trial and subsequent imprisonment of the eight Rivonia trialists. And the later arrest of Bram Fischer, a key figure during the Rivonia trial, who had tried unsuccessfully to regroup the now dislocated underground movement, ensured that MK’s activities within South Africa had been splintered and they were forced to regroup, outside the country.

Apart from the trials, Mk also faced some organisational problems. Howard Barrell in his book MK: The ANC’s Armed Struggle examines in great detail some of the organisational problems:

“Firstly, Mk underestimated the resolve and determination of the relatively sophisticated white supremacist state and its capacity for repression. A particular mistake was to assume that detained MK members would somehow manage to resist interrogation under 90-day detention. In the words of Slovo, MK failed to recognise that ‘the counter-revolution learns from the revolution.

Secondly, whether or not MK’s strategic perspective of sabotage leading to guerrilla warfare was correct, any approach whose implementation so drastically underestimated the enemy was also likely failed…ANC organisation amongst the peasantry was minimal and no slogans had been advanced around which to mobilise this class; and there is little to evidence to suggest the MK leadership had any clear idea on how they might transform a sabotage campaign conducted by a small group of specialist into a more generalised guerrilla war involving people at large.

Thirdly, MK’s thinking underestimated the backing which leading Western powers would continue to give the apartheid state, and overestimated the help it could expert from newly independent African states, especially relevant given to the absence of rear bases in adjacent countries”

However, the ANC/SACP and MK leadership determined to correct the blows of the past 4 years tried to restructure their military thinking and approach in 1965 by moving the armed struggle abroad in terms of preparing and providing the MK cadres with military training:

In 1965, the ANC had about 800 guerrilla trainees, based either at camps in Tanzania [Headquarters in Morogoro] or underground military courses in, among other places, Czechoslovakia, Odessa, in the Soviet Union and China.

Although the taking of struggle abroad had advantages for the leadership there were also disadvantages to the move, especially when it came to the White leaders of the SACP. At that time the African countries were pro Pan-Africanist state. The idea of dealing with Whites did not bode well with them. As a result the ANC and SACP were forced to base their white leadership in overseas countries such as Britain, and indeed the ANC established its UK/Ireland Mission in the mid-1960s.

Despite the difficulty to send troops into South Africa, in 1967 a ZAPU/MK reconnaissance crossed the Zambezi River. About 80 guerrillas crossed the river and they reached the Wankie Reserve where they were separated into two groups. Chris Hani led the group that was going South and the other group commanded by Andres Motsipe went eastwards towards Lupane.

“Two weeks after the two groups parted, the Lupane bound section had their first engagement with Rhodesian security forces. The fire-fight started in the morning and lasted for 10 hours. One cadre, James Mashinini, mortally wounded, insisted on remaining behind to provide covering fire for the retreat of MK and Zapu survivors, but many of them were subsequently captured or killed”.

After this encounter the Rhodesian police informed the South African government about the presence of guerrilla’s who were attempting to reach South Africa. The South African government and a Rhodesian force launched a search for these guerrillas.

“…a week later, the hungry and thirsty group heading south noticed the enemy aerial reconnaissance…"

The presence of these troops made it difficult for the MK group to move and as a result they were forced to move at night. Because of hunger and lack of water, the MK could not stay away from the enemy forever, Chris Hani recalls that the South African and Rhodesian troops became impatient at waiting and began to shout, "…where are the terrorists? This was the time when there was a fusillade of furious fire from us…"

This battle became known as the Wankie Campaign. After this encounter the Chris Hani group retreated towards Botswana, where they were arrested and served jail sentences of between 3 to 5 years.

In 1968, the MK and Zapu once again joined forces and launched a campaign, which became known as Sipolilo. Once again this campaign was not a success, and this became clear that the attempts to send troops back to South Africa through Zimbabwe and Mozambique was not going to be easy. After these two campaigns in 1969 the ANC/SACP and MK had a tension-mounted conference at Morogoro Tanzania. This conference became known as the Morogoro Conference, it was at this conference that a document called ‘Strategy and Tactics’ was presented and adopted. This document asserted that:

Successful development of armed struggle depended vitally upon political mobilisation.


The period between the 1950 up to the late 1980s was a period marked by a series of trials in South Africa. Around these periods people were arrested, detained, and sentenced to long goal terms. Most ignificant of the trials were the Treason Trial in 1956, the Durban trial and the infamous Rivonia Trial. These trials had a negative impact on MK with the arrests of its leaders, infiltration and the collaboration between the South African Defence Force and the Neighbouring states with the intention of crushing the armed struggle. The infiltration became a major problem Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim recalls some of the incidences during his trial in Durban:

“I joined Umkhonto we Sizwe and became a member of the Natal Regional Command. Our organisation carried out nationwide sabotage attacks on state structures and installations. I was arrested in 1963, detained and tortured and finally tried and sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment. I did not consider myself morally guilty of the acts for which I was convicted, but I at least knew that the testimony of state witnesses was a true reflection of what had actually transpired.

I make this point for the limited purpose of demonstrating that the security police, at that stage, did not fabricate evidence in our trial.

As an oppressed nation, we could never regard our courts as places of justice in the moral sense of the word. We cannot divorce the courts from the apartheid structures for they are a product of an exclusively white racial parliament and are there to enforce laws enacted by this parliament no matter how morally offensive and odious these laws are to the oppressed. Can a basically unjust law be justly applied and can something morally wrong be made kosher just because it passes through a judicial process?

What is, however, shockingly unbelievable about this trial is that of the 3 secret witnesses who testified against me, secret witness XI said two material things that were partially true, i.e. that I was present at a meeting in Biro Triumph and at a meeting called by Mac Maharaj in Swaziland, but the other two witnesses totally fabricated the evidence against me.

Why so much evidence was fabricated by the police is difficult to comprehend. It was probably meant to justify my abduction from Swaziland and the subsequent torture in the police cells. For one thing, even without these fabrications the court would have had no problems in coming to certain conclusions.

I served the whole of my 15 years' imprisonment without a day's remission in Robben Island Prison. For 15 years I was not permitted to see a Muslim religious worker and was not even allowed a copy of the Holy Quran. If the prison authorities intended to break the backbone of political prisoners, it has in reality achieved the exact opposite. I was released from prison in 1979 only to be banned and heavily restricted. I was prevented from entering any work place or seeking employment in a factory or in a place of education. I was under constant police harassment and found it difficult to live a normal life”.

Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim was arrested with Natoo Babenia, Billy Nair and Curnick Ndlovu.

The Treason Trial

In 1953 December at a conference in Queenstown, the ANC implemented a proposal of the Congress of the People, which sought the ‘co-operation of other national organisations working among or with non-white groups…to support the Convention of the People of South Africa’. On 6 July 1954 an invitation from the National Action Council of the Congress of the People was sent out to political parties, religious organisations, government, social organisation and to the Nationalist Party. The invitation consisted of signatures from the ANC Secretary-General Walter Sisulu, Rica Hogson of the Congress of the Democrats, Yusuf Cachalia of the Indian Council and the Congress of the Democrats as well as Stanley Lollan of the South African Coloured Peoples’ Congress. The invitation stated the intentions to:

Canvass the entire country, asking ordinary people everywhere in every walk of life, to say in their own words what they need to make them happy…to hold elections throughout the land, where people of all races and beliefs will freely pick the man of their choosing to voice their own opinions and to vote on behalf at the Congress of the People On 26 June 1955 the Freedom Charter was adopted in Kliptown. The following December, 156 leaders throughout the country were arrested and charged with High Treason for their role in drawing up the freedom Charter. On December 19, 1956, they appeared at the Drill Hall, Johannesburg, where charges against them were read. They were all acquitted in 1960.

The Rivonia Trial

Crowds outside the court at the Rivonia Trial © BAHA

In July 1963, the police raided the MK headquarters in Rivonia at Lilliesleaf farm. Arthur Goldreich and his family were the “legitimate” white owners of the house and but more importantly acted as a cover for MK operations. When the police raided the farm they found a detailed document on Operation Mayibuye.

Also arrested were Rusty Bernstein, Arthur Goldreich, Alex Hipple, James Kantor, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Andrew Mlangeni, Raymond Mhlaba, Walter Sisulu and Motsoaledi. Nelson Mandela, who was already serving a 5-year sentence for leaving the country illegally, became the first accused. Of all the accused, Hipple and Kantor were discharged and Rusty Bernstein was acquitted. Arthur Goldreich, Abdullah Jossat, Mosle Molla and Harold Wolpe escaped from prison and went into exile. Each of the convicted were given life sentences sent to Robben Island.

Before sentencing, Nelson Mandela and each of the accused addressed the court, Mandela himself gave a famous speech, which became known as "I am prepared to Die".