When the ANC was banned in 1960, the organisation immediately decided that it would continue to operate illegally. This was easier said than done. The ANC was a mass organisation and not everyone could work underground, because such clandestine activity can only be successfully undertaken by small groups. Many of the ANC members did not in fact accept the new conditions and some continued to wear Congress uniforms and act as if the organisation was still legal.
Shortly after illegality, the ANC announced the launch of MK, as a response to the violence meted out by the regime against its opponents. Because the leaders of the underground and also of MK were primarily known leaders of the ANC it was relatively easy to identify them and there had been little time to prepare adequately and this phase did not last long.
Some critics argue from the failure of these early attempts that it was not necessary to take the illegal and armed route. This ignores the way in which legal struggle had been narrowed down to practically nothing for the ANC and PAC in particular but even for liberals, many of whom were restricted. Non-violence had proved insufficient on its own against an increasingly violent government. In subsequent strategic documents the ANC reiterated that it did not thereby abandon the legal public struggle or nonviolent resistance. It saw underground and armed struggle as augmenting this, and legal struggle would re-emerge later.
The smashing of the early underground and MK saw the arrest of leaders or their escape into exile. This period posed many problems of morale and rebuilding in the period ahead. Inside the country some veterans who had not been arrested started to rebuild the ANC underground slowly and patiently. Outside the country the ANC began to establish diplomatic missions and to secure training for MK.
The ANC in exile confronted a range of problems. Many had left the country expecting to return shortly after training and fight. Instead most remained outside the country for 20 or 30 years. In some cases, MK soldiers did see action, together with Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU against Rhodesian and South African soldiers in the Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns. Although some successes were achieved, the overall result left the soldiers dispirited and this fed into a growing sense of demoralisation, expressed in dissatisfaction with the leadership.
Many believed that too much weight was placed on diplomacy and too little on readiness to enter the country and engage the regime militarily. This atmosphere led to the calling of the Morogoro conference of 1969, where then Acting President Oliver Tambo offered to resign, though this was refused. The conference developed a new strategy and tactics document that offered hope, pointing to the strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the apartheid regime, for example its being over-extended by the extent of the areas it had to control and the potential opposition that could be waged against it. The document inspired many who later joined the organisation
But it was the 1976 risings in Soweto, that provided new opportunities to advance the liberation forces. Although the ANC did not instigate these, many veterans had contact with students and were consulted about how to build on the spontaneous rising. Many of the youth left the country, some to join ANC and others PAC. ANC was better equipped to draw in recruits and sought to temper the anger that these young people felt and their often expressed desire to go back and ‘kill the whites’. Many were persuaded to first complete their education. They were inducted into ANC policies that stressed that more important than the gun was the person behind the weapon who needed to understand that the fight was not against whites but against a system of oppression that ought to be replaced not by oppression of any other people but by a system of non-racialism.
Many of these young soldiers returned to the country and the level of MK activities was apparent, especially in dramatic attacks on police stations, military installations and SASOL. This inspired other acts of defiance and the re-emergence of popular struggle from the late 1970s and finding more organised national expression with the establishment of the United Democratic Front in 1983.
In the 1980s, ANC diplomacy, as part of a broader international anti-apartheid movement, increased isolation of the apartheid regime. It was then that the ANC was represented in more countries than the government. The combination of attacks by MK, popular struggle, underground and international struggle combined to make continued apartheid rule unsustainable. But this did not mean that the forces of resistance could defeat the apartheid regime militarily. This was a situation of stalemate, where a negotiated settlement was possible and did in fact lead to the agreement on democratic elections and creating the democracy we now have
Raymond Suttner is attached to Rhodes University and is spending three months as a Fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies
In the Centenary year of the African National Congress, Creamer Media's Dimakatso Motau speaks to Prof Raymond Suttner about the banning of the ANC.