Umkhonto we Sizwe

For the 1984 album by Prince Far I, see Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).
uMkhonto we Sizwe
Active 1961–1990
Country South Africa, Angola
Allegiance African National Congress of South Africa
Type Paramilitary
Nickname(s) MK
Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo, Lennox Lagu, Joe Modise, Chris Hani, Raymond Mhlaba, Moses Mabhida, Ronnie Kasrils

uMkhonto we Sizwe (abbreviated as MK, Xhosa for "Spear of the Nation") was the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), co-founded by Nelson Mandela in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre. Its founding represented the conviction in the face of the massacre that the ANC could no longer limit itself to nonviolent protest; its mission was to fight against the South African government.[1] After warning the South African government in June 1961 of its intent to resist further acts of terror if the government did not take steps toward constitutional reform and increase political rights, MK 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.[2]

For a time it was headquartered in the affluent suburb of Rivonia, in Johannesburg. On 11 July 1963, 19 ANC and MK 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 MK at the time, escaped during trial.

MK was integrated into the South African National Defence Force by 1994.

Motivations for formation

According to Nelson Mandela, all of the founding members of the MK, 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 MK:[3]

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:

The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom.
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,[4] included the statements:

Our men are armed and trained freedom fighters not "terrorists". We are fighting for democracy—majority rule—the right of the Africans to rule Africa. We are fighting for a South Africa in which there will be peace and harmony and equal rights for all people. We are not racialists, as the white oppressors are. The African National Congress has a message of freedom for all who live in our country.[5]


Units of ANC exiles had MK camps in the "frontline" states neighbouring South Africa, most prominently Angola where MK was allied to the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola government, and fought alongside Angolan and Cuban troops at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale. MK fighters were also allied with the Zimbabwe African People's Union, with the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), and with the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) in Namibia.

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] The sabotage included attacks on government posts, machines and power facilities, and crop burning.[6]

In 1962 Mandela went to Algeria, Egypt and Ghana to get international backing for the group. After returning to South Africa, Joe Slovo said of Mandela that he was "sent off to Africa a Communist and he came back an African nationalist".[9]

Following the suppression of MK inside South Africa in the late 1960s, the organisation's cadres undertook military actions against the Rhodesian Army (in, it was hoped, a prelude to crossing into South Africa itself). In 1965 MK formally allied itself with the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army and in July 1967 a joint MK/ZIPRA commando crossed into Rhodesia. The mission was a failure at both tactical and strategic levels, though the joint MK/ZIPRA detachment engaged the Rhodesian Army in heavy firefights over the next year and academic sources have suggested that the cadres of the revolutionary armies acquitted themselves well enough for the Rhodesians to ask for South African assistance with the landmine problems the ANC created for farmers.

The early 1970s were a low point for the ANC in many ways, including in the military sphere. Attempts to rebuild MK 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)[10]—the force also suffered from appalling breakdowns of discipline and there were many accusations that many new recruits were being tortured or killed by an excessive physical training regime, such as forcing recruits to run 25 kilometres without resting or lifting weights as heavy as 150 kilograms.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission 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".[11]


Several bombings were committed by MK in South Africa during the years that the organisation was operational, some of the more notable examples were as follows:

Church Street bombing

In 1983, the Church Street bomb was detonated in Pretoria near the South African Air Force Headquarters, resulting in 19 deaths and 217 injuries. During the next 10 years, a series of bombings occurred in South Africa, conducted mainly by MK.

Amanzimtoti bombing

In the 1985 Amanzimtoti bombing on the Natal South Coast, five civilians were killed and 40 were injured when MK 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 subsequently executed.[12]

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". The subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Committee called the bombing a "gross violation of human rights".[13] McBride received amnesty and became a senior police officer.

Johannesburg Magistrate's Court bombing

In 1987, an explosion outside a Johannesburg court killed three people South African Police members and injured a further 15; a court in Newcastle had been attacked in a similar way the previous year, injuring 24. In 1987, a bomb exploded at a military command centre in Johannesburg, killing one person and injuring 68 personnel.

Other bombings

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[14] of bombs at restaurants and fast food outlets, including Wimpy Bars,[15] 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. Several other bombings occurred, with smaller numbers of casualties.

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.[16]

Torture and executions

The TRC found that the use of torture by MK 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.[17]

Notable members

In addition to co-founder Nelson Mandela,[18] notable members include:

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.[19]

See also


  1. "Manifesto of Umkhonto we Sizwe". African National Congress. 16 December 1961. Archived from the original on 17 December 2006. Retrieved 30 December 2006.
  2. "The African National Congress website - Umkhonto we Sizwe". Retrieved 21 January 2015.
  3. "Nelson Mandela`s Statement from the Dock at the Rivonia Trial". Retrieved 21 January 2015.
  4. "State vs Nelson Mandela and 9 Others (Rivonia Trial), Alphabetical Exhibits List". University of the Witwatersrand. Retrieved 11 March 2016.
  5. "Paul Brians". Retrieved 29 April 2013.
  6. 1 2 Douglas O. Linder (2010). The Nelson Mandela (Rivonia) Trial: An Account.
  7. "On This Day: Nelson Mandela Sentenced to Life in Prison". Retrieved 29 April 2013.
  8. "Umkhonto we Sizwe – timeline". Retrieved 29 April 2013.
  9. "South African history: The good guys were often bad - The Economist". The Economist. Retrieved 21 January 2015.
  10. "ORGANIZED RAGE: PIRA helped ANC plan 1980 attack on apartheid South Africa's major oil refinery in Sasolburg.".
  11. "Findings and Recommendations – Holding the ANC Accountable" (PDF). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report. Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 2: 333.
  12. "The Liberation Movements from 1960 to 1990" (PDF). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report. Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 2: 330.
  13. "The Liberation Movements from 1960 to 1990" (PDF). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report. Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 2: 333. The consequence in these cases, such as the magoo's bar and the durban esplanade bombings, were gross violations of human rights in that they resulted in injuries to and the deaths of civilians.
  14. "AFRICAN NATIONAL CONGRESS Appendix Four: List of MK Operations". Retrieved 18 July 2014.
  15. "23 Hurt in South African Blast". New York Times. 24 August 1988. Retrieved 18 July 2014.
  16. "The Liberation Movements from 1960 to 1990" (PDF). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report. Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 2: 333.
  17. "The Liberation Movements from 1960 to 1990" (PDF). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report. Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 2: 366. The commission finds that 'suspected agents' were routinely subjected to severe torture and other forms of severe ill-treatment and that there were cases where such individuals were charged and convicted by tribunals without proper attention to due process being afforded them, sentenced to death and executed...With regard to allegations of torture, the commission finds that, although it was not anc policy to use torture, the security department of the anc routinely used torture to extract information and confessions from those being held in camps, particularly in the period 1979-89.
  18. Statement of Nelson Mandela at Rivonia trial Archived 21 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine.
  19. "The Liberation Movements from 1960 to 1990" (PDF). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report. Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 2: 327.

Further reading

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