Military Wiki
Umkhonto we Sizwe
African National Congress Flag.svg
The battle flag of the Umkhonto we Sizwe.
Active 1961–1990
Country South Africa, Angola
Allegiance African National Congress of South Africa
Type Guerrilla
Nickname(s) MK
Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Joe Slovo, Joe Modise, Chris Hani, Raymond Mhlaba;

Umkhonto we Sizwe (abbreviated as MK, translated as "Spear of the Nation") was the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), co-founded by Nelson Mandela, which fought against the South African government.[1] MK launched its first guerrilla 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,[citation needed] and banned.

For a time it was headquartered in Rivonia, a suburb of Johannesburg. On 11 July 1963, 19 ANC and MK leaders, including Arthur Goldreich and Walter Sisulu, were arrested at Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia (26°2′36″S 28°3′15″E / 26.04333°S 28.05417°E / -26.04333; 28.05417 (Liliesleaf Farm)). The farm was privately owned by Arthur Goldreich and bought with South African Communist Party and ANC funds, as individuals who were not deemed "White" were unable to own such a property under the Group Areas Act. This was followed by the Rivonia Trial, in which ten leaders of the ANC were tried for 221 acts of sabotage 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.

Motivation for formation of the MK

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:[2]

"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."

File:MK (umkhonto WeSizwe) Symbol.jpg

In 1961, MK published a manifesto entitled "Umkhonto we Sizwe (Military wing of the African National Congress): We are at War!"[3][not in citation given]

"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."

Military campaign

Units of ANC exiles had MK camps in the "frontline" states neighbouring South Africa, most prominently Angola where MK was allied to the MPLA government, and fought alongside Angolan and Cuban troops at the engagement in Cuito Cuanavale.[citation needed] MK fighters were also allied with ZAPU (rival to Robert Mugabe's ZANU) in then-Rhodesia, with FRELIMO in Mozambique, and with 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.[4] Beginning on 16 December 1961, the campaign by Umkhonto we Sizwe with Mandela as its leader, launched bomb attacks on government targets and planned for possible guerrilla warfare.[5] 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.[6] The sabotage included attacks on government posts, machines, power facilities and crop burning.[4]

In 1962 Mandela went to Algeria, Egypt and Ghana to get international backing for the group. After returning to South Africa, Mandela was described by Joe Slovo as "sent off to Africa a Communist and he came back an African nationalist."[7]

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).[citation needed] In 1965 MK formally allied itself with ZIPRA 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 they had on the farmers in the area.[citation needed]

The early 1970s were a low point for the ANC in many ways, and that included in the military fields. Attempts to rebuild MK inside South Africa resulted in many losses though some, including Chris Hani, were able to remain undetected for a long period.[citation needed] 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[citation needed] – the force also suffered from appalling breakdowns of discipline and there were many accusations that many new recruits were being tortured or killed by a physical training regime that was out of control, such as forcing recruits to run 25 kilometres without resting or lifting weights as heavy as 150 kilograms.

By the mid-1980s MK was concentrating on propaganda of the deed – namely high profile attacks on prestige targets to demonstrate to the world the depth of resistance to apartheid as well as display to the majority population that resistance was possible (see below for a discussion of the controversies that followed) – and on building liberated zones inside the townships.[citation needed]


Landmark events in MK's military activity inside South Africa consisted of actions designed to intimidate the ruling power. In 1983, the Church Street bomb was detonated in Pretoria near the South African Air Force Headquarters, resulting in 19 deaths and 217 persons injuries. During the next 10 years, a series of bombings occurred in South Africa, conducted mainly by the military wing of the African National Congress.

In the Amanzimtoti bomb on the Natal South Coast in 1985, 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 killing five people, including three children, shortly before Christmas. In a submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the ANC stated that Zondo acted on orders after a recent SADF raid in Lesotho.[8]

A bomb was detonated in a bar on the Durban beach-front in 1986, killing three civilians and injuring 69. Robert McBride received the death penalty for this bombing which became known as the "Magoo's Bar bombing". Although the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Committee called the bombing a "gross violation of human rights",[9] McBride received amnesty and became a senior police officer.

In 1987, an explosion outside a Johannesburg court killed three people and injured 10; 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.

The bombing campaign 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, in a bomb detonation 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[citation needed] of bombs in "Wimpy Bar" fast food outlets 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-era laws, including excluding people of colour 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 in 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.[10]

Torture and executions

The TRC found that torture was "routine" and was official policy – as were executions "without due process" at ANC detention camps particularly in the period of 1979–1989.[11]

In popular culture

  • In 1984, musician Prince Far I's album Spear of a Nation: Umkhonto we Sizwe was released (posthumously) in an act of solidarity with the MK.
  • In 1987, a benefit hardcore compilation album Viva Umkhonto! was released on the Dutch label Konkurrel. It featured Scream, Challenger Crew, Morzelpronk, Social Unrest, The Ex, Depraved, Victims Family, B.G.K., Rhythm Pigs, Everything Falls Apart, Kafka Prosess, S.C.A.*, and 76% Uncertain.
  • Zimbabwean-born African-American author and filmmaker M.K. Asante, Jr. embraced the initials MK after Umkhonto we Sizwe.
  • University of California Irvine (UCI) professor Frank B. Wilderson III wrote about his experience working with MK in the 1990s in his 2008 memoir Incognegro.[12]
  • Dave Matthews Band song "#36" is dedicated to Chris Hani, the assassinated chief of staff of the MK and the leader of the South African Communist Party, and includes the refrain, "Hani, Hani, won't you dance with me?"

Notable members

In addition to co-founder Nelson Mandela,[13] notable members include:

Number of deaths

South African police statistics indicate that, in the period 1976 to 1986, approximately 130 people were killed by what the source calls 'terrorists'. Of these, about thirty were members of various security forces and one hundred were civilians. Of the civilians, 40 were white and 60 black.[16]

See also


  1. "Manifesto of Umkhonto we Sizwe". African National Congress. 16 December 1961. Archived from the original on 17 December 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-30. 
  3. "Paul Brians". Retrieved 2013-04-29. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Douglas O. Linder (2010). The Nelson Mandela (Rivonia) Trial: An Account.
  5. "On This Day: Nelson Mandela Sentenced to Life in Prison". Retrieved 2013-04-29. 
  6. "Umkhonto we Sizwe – timeline". Retrieved 2013-04-29. 
  7. South African history: The good guys were often bad
  8. "The Liberation Movements from 1960 to 1990" (PDF). Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa). p. 330. 
  10. "The Liberation Movements from 1960 to 1990" (PDF). Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa). p. 333. 
  12. Wilderson, III, Frank B. (2008). Incognegro – A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid. South End Press. pp. 500. ISBN 978-0-89608-783-5. 
  13. [[dead link] Statement of Nelson Mandela at Rivonia trial]
  14. "Joe Nzingo Gqabi". South African History Online. Retrieved 2012-10-05. 
  15. Laganparsad, Monica. "Recollections". [dead link]
  16. "The Liberation Movements from 1960 to 1990" (PDF). Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa). p. 327. 

Further reading

  • Vladimir Shubin (Institute for African Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences), "Unsung Heroes: The Soviet Military and the Liberation of Southern Africa", Cold War History, Vol. 7, No. 2, May 2007
  • Vladimir Shubin, Moscow and ANC: Three Decades of Co-operation and Beyond
  • Rocky Williams, see articles in the Journal of Security Sector Management and others

External links

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