We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Who's doing the fighting?

African National Congress

The African National Congress is the oldest and strongest of South Africa's liberation movements. It has, according to South Africa's Brigadier Zeitsman, some 4,000 youths in guerilla training camps in Angola, Tanzania and Zambia. It regularly infiltrates these guerillas into South Africa. In February, 1980, the National Defence Force put Northern Natal under military control, alleging greatly increased ANC activity.

The ANC, like the other liberation movements in South Africa, only turned to violence after trying every other available road. For forty years following its inception in 1912 it petitioned for legal equality between whites and Africans. When apartheid was made law in the late 40s, the ANC led a passive resistance campaign against it, modelled on Gandhi's movement in India. The Government met this with harsh laws and police violence. The final straw came with the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, when police fired on a peaceful demonstration, killing 69 people. The government declared a state of emergency, arrested thousands, and banned the ANC and PAC. The nationalist movements concluded that passive resistance was ineffectual. The ANC went underground, and formed a military wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe - literally 'spear of the nation'.

The strength of the ANC within South Africa today remains a matter for speculation. Since 1961, ANC leaders have been banned and imprisoned. ANC President Nelson Mandela and key leaders Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki are serving life imprisonment on Robben Island for treason. Lilian Ngoyi, head of the ANC Women's Movement in the 1950's, died this year after 16 years continuous banning - unable to speak or write publicly, or meet with more than one other person at a time. Some indication of present ANC strength comes from a poll in 1979, which showed that 20 per cent of the black population consider Nelson Mandela to be their leader. The only person who gained a higher percentage was KwaZulu chief Gatsha Buthelezi.

In exile the ANC, under acting President Oliver Tambo and General Secretary Alfred Nzo, has the support of most independent African countries as well as the Communist Bloc. The USSR has trained and supplied Umkhonto guerillas for many years. The liberation of Zimbabwe, providing not only greater access to South Africa but also raising the expectations of black South Africans, should further improve the ANC's position.

Ideologically, however, the ANC is not communist. Its principles stem from the Freedom Charter, adopted in 1956, which calls for human rights with socialist demands for land redistribution and nationalization of mineral wealth and banks. But the ANC has a long history of co-operation with the Communist Party of South Africa. Many of its exiled leaders have studied in communist countries and Marxist ideas have become fairly widespread.

Since 1976, the ANC has stepped up its military activity, In August 1978 Umkhonto guerillas clashed with South African forces near the Botswana border. Since then there have been reports of skirmishes every few months. In September 1979, Umkhonto troops attacked and seriously damaged the main police station in Soweto, killing four policemen. The South African Defence Force has stepped up border patrols and in August 1979 South African planes bombed an ANC training camp in Angola. One plane was shot down.

But for the most part ANC guerillas have not yet sought confrontation. Instead they have shipped large quantites of weapons into South Africa and hidden them for future use. A former vice­president of the black South African Student Organisation, Ms Nkosayama Dlamini, said, 'During the 1976 uprisings people were saying everywhere: "If the ANC would come with arms we'd leave our jobs and go and fight.' It appears that the ANC plans to offer them that opportunity.

Pan African Congress


The Pan African Congress, led by Robert Sobukwe, split off from the ANC in the 1950's. Sobukwe objected to the Freedom Charter, calling for a nationalist movement rather than a socialist one. Sobukwe also believed that the ANC worked too closely with radical groups from other races: while whites and Indians could co-exist in a liberated South Africa, they could not participate in a black liberation movement. The PAC concentrated on organizing barely literate migrant labourers. While the ANC had its main support in the established black townships around the cities, PAC strongholds were in the Transkei and Eastern Cape, as well as the migrant townships around Cape Town and Sharpeville.

The PAC, like the ANC, turned to violence after the Sharpeville massacre. It was banned little more than a year after its creation and its leaders jailed. The military wing, Poqo, led armed uprisings in the Transkei and around Cape Town. But in 1963 British colonial police in Lesotho confiscated a full list of Poqo members from the offices of the PAC General Secretary. The list was given to the South African security forces, and Poqo was smashed.

The PAC's strength within South Africa today remains debatable. It has close ideological links with Black Consciousness - Sobukwe has been called the 'father of Black Consciousness'. But the PAC recently suffered a major defeat with the arrest and imprisonment of its top internal leadership. Sixteen people were found guilty and sent to prison; another four died in detention before the trial took place.

Externally the PAC has gained the support of black Americans and western­oriented African states, notably Zaire, because of its policy of African nationalism. Sobukwe's children live with the ex-UN ambassador Andrew Young. However, diplomatic support has not extended to military aid. China has trained several hundred PAC guerillas, but the PAC made a large error in backing the UNITA movement in Angola. Now neither Angola nor Mozambique will permit PAC activities on their soil. As a result PAC camps are no nearer than Tanzania and Libya and unlike the ANC, their guerillas have no direct access to South Africa.

None the less, the PAC has mounted some sabotage attacks within South Africa. The largest PAC incursion was in 1978, when the South African government claimed to have intercepted 26 guerillas en route to the Transkei.

With the death of Robert Sobukwe in 1978, long-standing ideological and personal differences within the organization surfaced. Sixty radical PAC members were detained in Swaziland. David Sebeko, the PAC's popular UN spokesman, was shot dead in Dar es Salaam. And finally P.K. Leballo was expelled by the remnants of the old leadership. What the position of the PAC will be when it emerges from these divisions remains to be seen. For the time being its energies are absorbed by its internal problems.


The term 'black consiousness movement' covers a number of organizations that have developed since the late 1960's, to fill the gap left by the banning of the ANC and PAC.

Before 1976, black consciousness was largely a student movement. Its leadership was culled by the police as soon as it emerged. Best known among them is Steve Biko, banned in 1973 together with Barney Pityana and six other leaders, then killed in detention by security police in 1977. Black consciousness leaders have been arrested and sentenced for treason. Abraham Tiro was blown up by a parcel bomb in Botswana after fleeing from security police in 1974.

The most important groups within the movement were the South African Students' Organization, a university student group, the South African Student Movement,its secondary school affiliate, and the Black Peoples' Convention founded amongst non-students in an attempt to reach the broader population. These groups hoped to work within the law for the broad emancipation of Africans. Whites were not welcome; black consciousness was a movement for and by Africans alone.

The black consciousness groups played a key role in the inspiration and organization of the 1976 Soweto uprisings. It was at this point that most outsiders started to define the black consciousness movement as a separate force. But black consciousness has never been antagonistic to the ANC and PAC. Most of the estimated 5,000 youths who fled South Africa after June 1976 came from the black consciousness movement. South African police claim 75 per cent of them have joined the ANC.

In October, 1977, all blackconsciousness organizations were banned.

There have been some attempts to maintain the exiled black consciousness movement separate from the ANC and PAC. Nigeria has provided military camps for ex-student leader Tsetsi Mashinini to form a 'third force', the South African Revolutionary Youth Movement, but this has had no discernable impact. In early 1979, several banned black consciousness leaders fled South Africa to set up an exile group reviving the name of the Black Consciousness Movement. Like the PAC, this group tends to get at least moral support from the West. But exiled leaders have been frustrated in their attempts to hold unity taks with the ANC, which has refused them any recognition.

Internally black consciousness has revived in the form of the Azanian Peoples' Organization (AZAPO). It was created on 1 May 1978 but by the end of the month all its national officers were detained. Its inaugural congress was delayed by detentions and bannings for seventeen months.

In late 1979 AZAPO was joined by the Congress of South African Students. These student leaders were also detained, and police reported that its President, E. Mogale,was injured 'while attempting to escape'.

AZAPO accepts the criticism that black consciousness has tended to be an intellectual force confined to educated blacks. It now has plans to organize amongst black workers. AZAPO was linked with a recent strike at the Ford motor car factory in Port Elizabeth, but such militancy will make it very vulnerable to future bannings. And with each new wave of internal repression more young blacks decide to leave South Africa for guerilla training,

*Judy Seidman* is the author of several books on contemporary South African politics.

New Internationalist issue 087 magazine cover This article is from the May 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop