The Spear of the Nation
It was an audacious plan. A young South African man employed at the construction site of the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant near Cape Town managed to steal the plans for the facility. Then that same young man managed to get the plans to the militant wing of the ANC, uMkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, called MK for short). Then MK supplied the bombing materials – in this case limpet mines provided by the Soviet Union- the young man fetched them from a drop site, smuggled them into the unfinished facility, set them in place, and armed them to explode 24 hours later on 18 December 1982.
By the time the explosions set off, the young man, whose name was Rodney Wilkinson, had left South Africa through Swaziland to Mozambique and then to Britain where he and his girlfriend lived in exile.
There were no casualties in the attack, but it cost the apartheid government of South Africa several hundred million rand to repair and set the opening schedule back by nearly two years. The attack was a success, and the ANC proudly announced their complicity on 19 December, “[This was a] salute to all our fallen heroes and imprisoned comrades, including those buried in Masuru.“
MK came into being following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre; the 69 deaths weighing heavily on the minds of those who had up to that point declared a non-violent agenda to end apartheid. Warnings began to be issued by the group in June 1961, demands for a national constitutional convention. When those demands were not met, the first MK attack took place on 16 December 1961. It was an attack on an electric substation.
By the time of the Rivonia Trial, which ended in June 1964, there were 193 acts of sabotage listed on the court reports – mostly attacks on government posts, power facilities, and crop burning.
The Rivonia Trial began with a nearly three hour statement given by Nelson Mandela, known today as his “I Am Prepared to Die” speech, in which he outlined the reasons for an armed group in the anti-apartheid struggle:
At the beginning on 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.
The 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 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 defense of our people, our future, and our freedom.
The Rivonia Trial resulted in the imprisonment of the main leaders of the ANC and MK, and as a result the organization was largely hamstrung throughout the sixties.
In its earliest days, MK suffered from a lack of training. Although Jack Hodgson, a founding member of MK and member of the Communist Party, used his skills with explosives and trained members in techniques learned while fighting behind enemy lines in Libya in World War II, it still wasn’t enough. The security the group did institute did not stop the determined infiltrators of the apartheid government. On 11 July 1963 a raid was held on the main MK safe house at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia.
Fourteen MK leaders were arrested. Nelson Mandela was already in custody. Four managed to escape by bribing a guard, and ten were brought to trial. Nine of the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to prison. One was released, re-arrested, put on house arrest, and then fled.
The results on the fledgling organization were disastrous. Training had just begun in countries such as Algeria, Nigeria, Tunisia, and Ethiopia and 300 recruits had been sent abroad. With the main leaders incommunicado in prison, everything began to dissolve, although a few MK operatives such as Chris Hani were able to stay undetected for years.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the organization began to benefit from the training of Soviets and Cubans in Angola, the Yugoslavs, the Provisional IRA, and other organizations. The Soweto Uprising sparked a stream of young men and women across the borders of South Africa into training camps, and as these recruits were trained and began to carry out sabotage against the apartheid government, the results of MK’s actions became more and more apparent to everyone.
The rules of engagement also began to change. While the earliest MK leadership planned for operations on infrastructure that would create minimal casualties (a highly successful plan in the case of the Koeberg Nuclear Plant bombing), other MK operations began to exhibit higher death tolls.
The 1983 Church Street bombing left 19 people dead was targeting a South African Air Force building and in retaliation for a raid in Lesotho that left 42 ANC members dead and the mail bomb death of Ruth First. In 1985 a shopping center in Amanzimtoti was targeted by 18-year-old Andrew Zondo. Four civilians were killed in that attack, but unlike the Church Street bombing where the perpetrators were also killed by their car bomb, Zondo lived and was captured six days later. He was executed in September 1986.
In 1986 the bombing of Magoo’s Bar resulted in another death sentence – this time of the MK operative Robert McBride. McBride was released from prison in 1992, however, and granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 2003 he was appointed Chief of Police of Ekurhuleni Municipality, and in 2020 was appointed the head of the State Security Agency – Foreign Branch.
“Why we went for violence initially was because they refused to accept that we are human beings,” McBride later said.
Although MK operatives, especially those trained by other countries in one of the scattered camps throughout Africa, were highly dedicated, the organization was not without its problems.
In 1984 a series of mutinies sprang up in the Angola camps. Several of the ANC cadre were killed in the internal uprising, and detainments and executions had to be used to bring the training brigades back into order.
As well, women who served with MK are now finally telling their stories of sexual exploitation. There were accounts given at the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings, but most reactions involved sweeping the allegations under the rug in order to concentrate on the fight for African equality.
“We were like a rare species. We were heroines for the fact that we chose to join MK, because patriarchy didn’t expect us to join the armed struggle,” said Thenjiwe Mtintso, former MK operative and South African ambassador to five different countries. “In MK there was also this belief that you don’t want to divide the movement. You don’t want to do anything to divert from the liberation struggle by talking about women’s liberation and feminism. So, if you were a woman MK soldier and you were violated, you wouldn’t get support from everybody. You’d get support, probably, from women. Probably. Because some of them would just not support you.“
On 1 August 1990, the operations of uMkhonto we Sizwe were suspended. Today, many of those who fought as a part of the organization receive state pensions. The status of MK veteran can be politically fraught, however, and has become a battleground of its own in recent political developments.
The beginning of MK, The Spear of the Nation, however, was based on the words that ended Nelson Mandela’s I Am Prepared to Die speech:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
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- May 19, 2021