Umkhonto we Sizwe: The Armed Struggle of ANC in South Africa

Umkhonto we Sizwe

Spear of the Nation

Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was created on the 16th of December 1961, as the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC).  In the light of the African nationalism and the anti-apartheid movement, Nelson Mandela founded the MK with a mission to fight South Africa’s (SA) Apartheid government. There were a series of events that shaped the ANC’s concept of creating an armed struggle. Although the meaning of the group is “Spear of the Nation,” the ANC approach in fighting against the government initially was non-violent and peaceful.

The ANC, along with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the members of the Congress Alliance, the South African Indian Congress, the Congress of the Democrats, and the Coloured People’s Congress aimed to the recognition of black people’s rights by the SA government. However, the fact that in the 1950s and early 1960s the government implemented laws and restrictive measures showcasing further isolation of the black people, made the ANC, SACP and the Congress Alliance to review its approach and tactics for freedom and equality. 

What Led to the Formation of ANC’s Armed Wing?

Creating an armed struggle was not an easy decision for ANC, especially when its president of the time, Chief Albert Luthuli, had embraced the non-violence stance. Additionally, when the ANC took the decision to create the Umkhonto we Sizwe as its armed wing, the party was banned under the “Unlawful Organisation Bill of 1960, meaning that by launching the group it would also jeopardize the Congress Alliance. Despite the two successful ANC campaigns, the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the Western Areas campaign, the party counted a series of direct campaigns which failed to achieve substantial political change in the context of moderation and non-violence.

That said, as soon as it was clear that the passive resistance had no results, the idea of MK as an armed struggle started to take full shape. The taking-up-of-arms decision was triggered by the Sharpeville Massacre and the Langa March. On the 21st of March 1960, the government used violence to stop the peaceful Pan African Congress (PAC) demonstration in Sharpeville, killing 69 people and injuring 186 others. On the 30th of March 1960, 3 people were killed and 27 injured during fights with the police under the anti-pass campaign in Langa, Cape Town.

In June of 1961, Mandela proposed “turning to violence” to the ANC National Executive, to the Congress Alliance Joint Executives, and its formal allies, indicating the formation of an armed struggle. Not all of his counterparts or senior members agree with the proposal, including Luthuli, however, they finally agreed that Mandela would form an independent group to conduct sabotage, and actions of violence against the government, while the ANC and the Alliance member organisations would continue to continue the non-violence stance.

Training & Military Training

Umkhonto we Sizwe was founded after consultations by SACP members with the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong. In October 1961, SACP members visited Beijing to meet with Chairman Mao before setting up a training camp. Mao suggested that MK do not “blindly follow the Red Army tactics,” but choose the approach of Front de liberation Nationale (FLN) in Algeria. The group received training assistance by China, the USSR, East Germany, Marxist African states, and Cuba. Within 6 months from its formation, the group had almost 250 members from both the ANC and the SACP. Given that MK was formed under harsh conditions, the only common knowledge that its members had was the strong will to fight against the Apartheid regime. The camps often lacked food, clothing, and health facilities. In this context, there were commissariats in each camp, responsible for the soldiers’ general education and well-being. General education and training included a wide range of areas from agriculture and literacy classes, to nursery and advanced motor mechanics.

Military training courses and lectures aimed to advance the skills of the troops and made them capable of conducting and operating the tasks of “the liberation struggle.” Military subjects included physical training, military tactics and engineering, firearms, anti-air weaponry, even lectures on political science and the art of warfare. The duration of the training depended on the mission for which the units was being prepared and could run from 3 weeks to 3,6, or 9 months.

The Role of USSR in the Liberation Struggle

Following the Sharpeville Massacre and the ANC and PAC banning, the USSR enhanced its formal ties with SA contributing to the liberation struggle against the apartheid regime. In July 1960, Vella Pillay, a founder member of the anti-apartheid movement, and Yusuf Mohamed Dadoo, a key player of the movement, went to Moscow to discuss with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) about the situation in SA. They agreed on a $30,000 USSR donation to the SACP for the people affected by the Sharpeville Massacre.

In December 1962, Pillay and Arthur Goldreich from SACP visited Moscow to discuss the training of MK cadres on African soil (Operation Mayibuye). By 1963, a camp was built in Tanzania offering USSR training to MK soldiers. The USSR took on the group’s training needs especially in “specialised areas” even earlier than 1962. In 1986, a group of MK soldiers was sent to the former Soviet Union to get “extensive training in conventional warfare.” Being the only willing country to offer military training at the time, the USSR provided its services to Umkhonto we Sizwe offering training that could last from 2 to 4 years.

The Liberation Struggle and the Catalytic Contribution to Angola

The “first phase” of the sabotage campaign took place on the 16th of December 1961 and it was the first Umkhonto we Sizwe violent actions against the SA government. The group used home-made bombs to attack government installations, and other symbols of the apartheid regime such as police stations and post offices in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, and Durban. The attacks were not lethal, as the targets were empty at the time.

The Umkhonto we Sizwe High Command strictly advised its soldiers to avoid all loss of life, since its main goal was to cause a psychological effect in the white population and make the government change its policies “before matters reach the desperate state of civil war.” In May of 1962, Oliver Tambo and Robert Resha who were ANC representatives abroad co-authored a memorandum explaining to the government of Ghana that these attacks were just “the first phase of a comprehensive plan for the waging guerrilla operations.”

Indeed, between 1969-1979 MK moved from sabotage to guerrilla warfare fighting against the pro-apartheid state, always aiming to avoid the loss of civilian lives. The approach included guerrilla operations in both urban and rural areas of SA including economic infrastructure such as railways, and communications networks, military and paramilitary police forces, and again government installations. Guerrilla warfare ran for almost a decade, however, it ended after the -secretly negotiated – peace agreement between MK and AP government intelligence.

On the 16th of June 1976, started a series of demonstrations by Black South African school students in Soweto. The security forces responded with massacres and atrocities enhanced, even more, the MK’s will to fight the state enemy and defend the people. The Soweto uprising gave a strong boost to MK and the opportunity to both the ANC and the PAC to recruit and train these young men and women who were afraid to be captured by the security forces. The youths were trained in MK camps in Eastern Europe and then they were missioned to go back to SA and begin operations against the apartheid system.

There was a significant increase and escalation of armed actions in 1976-1979 with almost 37 of them taking place in June 1976 – December 1978. The MK sabotaged bombed the Bantu Administration offices upgrading the group’s approach from the phase of the sabotage campaign to the first phase of guerrilla war. The guerrilla warfare run from 1979 to 1990 aiming to weaken the socio-political, economic, and military power of the SA government through a series of political and military actions. One of the Central Operational MKheadquarters was established by Joe Modise and Joe Slovo. Apart from police stations, the MK units started to attack oil refineries, the Koeberg nuclear plant, and also, military personnel following the security forces attacks on SA civilians.

During the 1980s, the MK conducted a series of bombings such as the Church Street bombing in 1983, the Amanzimtoti bombing on the Natal South Coast in 1985, the bombing in a bar at Durban beach-front in 1986 and the Johannesburg court bombing in 1987. In 1988 the armed group conducted a bomb attack, killing three people outside a magistrate court, and a car bomb at the Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg killing 37 civilians.

In the mid and late 1980s, MK played a significant role in the success of the African revolution in Angola. The Angolan government at the time was attacked by the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the South African Defence Force (SADF), and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a conflict running between the 1970s and early 1980s. During this period the armed wing of the ANC contributed to the revolution offering personnel, material, and equipment while fighting in various battles in the region.

MK used guerrilla warfare and effectively cooperated with the Angolan population in the towns and cities that its cadres operated. The group achieved to defend the route from the now Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire) to Luanda despite the heavy presence of the UNITA-SADF-CIA forces in the capital, significantly contributing to the overall success of the African revolution in Angola.


Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC began as a small armed group with no significant military power, resources or personnel. The only strong asset the group had, was its strong will to fight against the system of the apartheid regime which was established and represented by the SA government. Right after one year from its formation, MK conducted its major sabotage campaign and then moved its approach to guerrilla warfare and bombings always aiming to limit the loss of all civilian lives. The group continued to fight the security forces and the SA government as the armed struggle of ANC until 1994 when it became a part of the African National Defence Force.  

Image: Tito Mboweni / Twitter (link)

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