The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in South Africa

By | October 19, 2017

The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in South Africa

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Struggle for Liberation in Colonial Times

Since February 1488, when the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias first made contact with a group of Khoikhoi on the Southern Cape coast, indegenous African communities have fought European authority in what is today the Republic of South Africa.

The Khoisan and AmaXhosa fought a number of wars of resistance against white settlers. The AmaXhosa were finally defeated in 1878 after more than 100 years of warfare. The amaZulu, after four decades of struggle against both Boers and the British, were finally defeated at Ulundi in 1879.

In 1906, British and white South African colonial forces had broken the power of all the black communities in South Africa. The Natal Rebellion of 1906 was the last time in 55 years that there would be a major armed insurrection by black people against white domination in South Africa.

Black Resistance 1910 – 1950

The Union of South Africa was formed in 1910. By then it had become clear that the white community was moving in a direction that would totally ignore the rights of black people. In 1911, Pixley ka Isaka Seme called on people to unite in one organisation. On 8th January 1912, the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) was formed. In 1923 its name was changed to the African National Congress (ANC).

Until the 1940s, the ANC strove to achieve its aims through non-violent means such as anti-pass campaign, support for strikes and sending delegations to the British Government. The 1940s saw the rise of young, ambitious and determined members of the ANC. The formation of the Congress Youth League (CYL) would see the ANC change from the cautious organisation it had been in the 1920s and 1930s to the mass movement it was become in the 1950s.

Black Involvement in the First and Second World Wars

Only white South African males were able to enlist legally as combatants in the Union Defence Forces (UDF). During both World Wars, black, coloured and Indian South Africans were able to enlist voluntarily for military service as non-combatants, although two battalions of the Cape Corps did serve in a combatant capacity in East Africa and in Palestine during the First World War.

At the end of the Second World War, black, coloured and Indian soldiers hoped to return to a different South Africa where there would be no discrimination. They expected to find employment, to be able to use the skills they had acquired and to receive further training.

In the end, disappointed and embittered, they went home with a cash payment of a few pounds, some with a bicycle, others with a set of carpenter’s tools and all with a simple khaki suit.


Soldiers of the South African Native Military Corps issued with assegais instead of rifles

Mass Action in the 1950s

After the National Party victory in 1948, the new Government aimed to preserve white power in general and Afrikaner power in particular. New Apartheid laws and stricter application of existing discriminatory legislation resulted. More and more people began to doubt that change would come about through negotiation alone.

In 1949, the ANC introduced the Programme of Action which led to the Defiance Campaign of the 1950s. Both the CYL and black war veterans played an important role in this. The Government responded to the Defiance Campaign by banning its leaders and passing new laws to prevent public disobedience.

The Defiance Campaign brought the ANC into a Congress of the People together with the Coloured People’s Organisation, the South African Indian Congress and the liberal white Congress of Democrats. The Congress of the People called for the people to govern, for land to be shared, for homes, work, security and for free and equal education. These demands were drawn together in the Freedom Charter adopted in 1955.

The Move to Armed Struggle

Government action against the ANC and the Defiance Campaign became more severe. The Suppression of Communism Act banned the Communist Party of South Africa and forced it to take refuge within the ANC as the South African Communist Party. In 1958, the more militant Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) broke away from the ANC, taking as its battle cry “Africa for the Africans”.

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Protest against Apartheid grew. On 21st March 1960, during a planned PAC anti-pass campaign, the South African Police opened fire on a protesting crowd in Sharpeville (in what is today southern Gauteng), killing 69 people and wounding a further 186. This brought about the end of peaceful protest.

The Formation of Umkhonto We Sizwe

In 1960, the South African Government banned both the ANC and the PAC. A State of Emergency was declared and thousands of activists were arrested. In 1961, the ANC formed its military wing which became known as Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) (MK). In eighteen months MK carried out 200 acts of sabotage. State installations were targeted using the expertise of Second World War veterans. MK also sent a number of its members abroad to set up an external infrastructure and to organise advanced training for MK combatants.

The Formation of POQO

Poqo, meaning Pure or Alone was formed as the armed wing of the PAC in 1961. It became the most militant anti-white underground movement of the time. Its aim was to overthrow the South African gouvernment and to replace it with a socialist African state.

The South African Government Hits Back

At first, neither MK nor Poqo could match the State which used even harsher acts of repression. In 1963, the South African Police raided the secret headquarters of MK in Rivonia, Johannesburg, and arrested most if its leadership. At the Rivonia trial, Nelson Mandela and other top leaders of MK were found guilty of attempting to cause a violent revolution. They were sentenced to life emprisonment. After the trial, the local underground structures of the ANC and MK were all but destroyed. Trainees were then sent to camps all around the world.


MK soldiers under training from Russian instructors

Poqo’s leaders were less well known to the security forces. Repression by the state, its own mass terror approach and its virulently anti-white stance led to Poqo losing its appeal. Most of Poqo’s members were captured by the South African Police in 1963. Their arrests followed the interception of letters, calling for a national insurrection, sent from the movement’s headquarters in Lesotho to various cells around South Africa.

The remaining members outside South Africa initiated programmes of military instruction.. By 1968 around 200 of these trainees had become known as the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA).

Activities in the Late 1960s and 1970s

Trained MK and APLA cadres found it difficult to return to the country because of the friendly white-controlled states surrounding South Africa of the time. Several failed attempts to return were made in 1967 and 1968. The 1969 ANC Conference in Morogoro in Tanzania called for an armed struggle linked to both a mass political movement in South Africa and a campaign for international support.

In the 1970s the situation in South Africa changed as the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique became independent states. This was followed by the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980. International condemnation of Apartheid increased and South Africa faced sanctions at every level.

A faction within the South African Gouvernment, led by Prime Minister B.J. Vorster, favoured a compromise with black leaders and a non-aggressive policy towards neighbouring states. However, a second faction, led by P.W. Botha who became Prime Minister in 1978, supported a more aggressive strategy aimed at ending resistance and destabilising other southern African countries.

The South African Defence Force (SADF), firstly, initiated a low intensity war against “hostile” governments in the region and, secondly, moved into the black townships to help the South African Police to cope with increasing local unrest.

1976 And the Intensification of the Armed Struggle

As the Apartheid system strengthened its control over all aspects of people’s lives, resistance to it grew. On 16th June 1976, students in Soweto began rioting against Bantu Education and the introduction of Afrikaans as a language of learning in schools. The uprisings spread to other townships around the country. Thousands of students left South Africa to join the ranks of MK and APLA. Young and vibrant, they revitalised the liberation struggle. In MK they became known as theĀ June 16 Detachment.

Many young recruits received military training in newly established camps in Angola. Some were also sent overseas for advanced training in engineering, intelligence and artillery. By 1977 MK Cadres, trained in guerilla tactics, were secretly re-entering South Africa. They were soon engaged in operations against the State.

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APLA soldiers on parade at Bogamoyo Base Camp, Tanzania

In May 1978, a new liberation movement, the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), was formed in reaction to the banning of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa. In April 1989, AZAPO formed its own military wing, the Azanian National Liberation Army (AZANLA). However, as AZAPO was not officialy recognised by either the United Nations (UN) or the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), AZANLA never received the same level of support as that enjoyed by the other liberation forces.

Operations in the 1980s

In June 1980, the SASOL complex in the Orange Free State was bombed by MK (estimated damage -R66 millions). In 1981, MK operations targeted specific strategic installations nationwide anti-Republic Day demonstrations were being held. On 9th August 1981, MK fired five projectiles from a 122mm rocket launcher at the Voortrekkerhoogte Miliary Base. In 1982, a series of explosions rocked Koeberg Nuclear Power Station in the Western Cape. In May 1983, a car bomb exploded outside the Headquarters of the South African Air Force in Pretoria. A number of military personnel and civilians were killed. This action indicated a shift away from symbolic military action.

In 1985, the ANC Conference at Kabwe in Zambia sought the intensity action against strategic installations in “white” areas in South Arica. White farmers involved in the Commando system would also be engaged militarily. In 1986, Operation Vula brought senior and middle-ranking MK members in exile back to South Africa. It also saw large quantities of weapons being smuggled into the country.

In May 1987, a car bomb exploded outside the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court, killing four policemen.. In 1989, a sustained mortar attack was launched on the South African Air Force’s 3 Satellite Radar Station at Klippan in the Western Transvaal (now the North West Province). No one was killed but a number were injured and the radar facility was badly damaged.

APLA insurgents, active from 1986, concentrated their efforts on attacking policemen and soldiers in the townships around Johannesburg. By 1988, APLA operations had extended to smaller towns in the rural areas and, by the end of the 1980s, had come to play an important part in the armed struggle.

Throughout the decade, the Government moved to counter the liberation forces. A State of Emergency was declared in 1985 and thousands of activists were detained. The SADF also launched attacks against liberation movement bases in Angola, Mozambique, Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho.

The Unbanning of the ANC, Suspension of the Armed Struggle and Integration into the SA National Defence Force

In February 1990, the South African Government unbanned the ANC and the PAC. This led to a cease-fire between MK and the South African Security Forces. In August 1990, MK announced that armed actions were to be suspended for the first time in 29 years.

The PAC chose to continue the armed struggle. APLA operations intensified with a great number of attacks directed at farms. Other civilian targets included hotels in Fort Beaufort and East London in the Eastern Cape, bar and the St James Church in Cape Town. These armed actions were, eventually, suspended in January 1994.

In 1993, the Joint Military Co-ordinating Council was formed. Its task was the integration of the SADF, MK, APLA and the defence forces of the Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei.

On 27th April 1994, with Nelson Mandela as the first elected President of a democratic South Africa, the new South African National Defence Force came into being.

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