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For other uses of Umkhonto, see Umkhonto (disambiguation)
Umkhonto we Sizwe
ANC UmkhontoweSizwe.gif
The battle flag of the Umkhonto we Sizwe.
Active 1961-1990
Country South Africa, Angola
Allegiance African National Congress of South Africa, Socialism, Left-wing nationalism
Type Guerilla
Nickname MK
Joe Slovo

Nelson Mandela

Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK), translated "Spear of the Nation," was the active military wing of the African National Congress (ANC) in cooperation with the South African Communist Party in their fight against the South African apartheid government.[1] MK launched its first guerrilla attacks against government installations on 16 December 1961. It was subsequently classified as a terrorist organization by the South African government and the United States, 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 SACP (South African Communist Party) funds. 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.

The MK carried out numerous bombings of military, industrial, civilian and infrastructural sites. The tactics were initially geared solely towards sabotage, but eventually expanded to include urban guerrilla warfare. Notable among these were the 8 January 1982 attack on the Koeberg nuclear power plant near Cape Town, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the formation of the ANC, the Church Street bombing on 20 May 1983, killing 19, and the 14 June 1986 car-bombing of Magoo's Bar in Durban, in which 3 people were killed and 73 injured. The total number of people killed or injured in the 30 years of MK's campaigns is not known exactly. MK alone was not a military threat to the apartheid state, but the ANC leadership saw MK as the armed component of a strategy of "people's war" that was primarily geared towards mobilizing mass political support.

MK suspended operations on 1 August 1990 in preparation for the dismantling of apartheid, and was finally 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]

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 canalize 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 to defy 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 violence with violence.

In the 1970s MK published a manifesto entitled Umkhonto we Sizwe (Military wing of the African National Congress): We are at War!

"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."

Umkhonto we Sizwe manifesto.[3]

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 critical engagement in Cuito Cuanavale. 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.

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). 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.

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. 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 build a new Army - one capable of attacking prestigious targets such as the refineries at Sasolburg - the force also suffered from appalling breakdowns of discipline and there were many accusations that some new recruits were being tortured or killed by a physical training regime that was out of control, such as forcing recruits to run 45 kilometres without resting or lifting weights as heavy as 150 kilograms.

By the mid 1980s MK was concentrating on both propaganda by 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.


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 SA Air Force Headquarters, resulting in 19 fatalities and 217 persons injured, some of whom were military, and many were civilians. 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. In a submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the ANC stated that Zondo acted in anger at a recent SADF raid in Lesotho.[4]

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 it a "gross violation of human rights", McBride received amnesty and became a 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 military or civilian personnel.

The bombing campaign continued with attacks on a series of soft targets, including a bank in Roodepoort in 1988, in which four 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. A multitude of bombs in “Wimpy Bar” fast food outlets and supermarkets occurred during the late 1980s, killing and wounding many people. In most of these events the victims were civilians, and of all races. Several other bombings occurred, with smaller numbers of casualties.

The TRC later found that in the case of the Durban beach front and Magoo's Bar bombings, these acts constituted "gross violations of human rights".[5]

Landmine campaign

From 1985 to 1987, there also was a campaign to mine rural roads used by security forces in what was then the Northern Transvaal. In submissions to the TRC, the ANC described the strategy and how they abandoned it 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.[6] The TRC found that it could not condone the use of landmines because of the indiscriminate nature of the weapon which inevitably resulted in gross violations of human rights, but gives the ANC credit for abandoning the strategy.[7]

Torture and executions

The TRC found that torture was "routine" — even though it was not official policy— and executions "without due process" at ANC detention camps particularly in the period of 1979—1989.[8]

MK's popular influence

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.

Zimbabwean-born African-American author and filmmaker M.K. Asante, Jr. embraced the initials MK after Umkhonto we Sizwe.

UC Irvine professor Frank Wilderson III writes about his experience working with MK in his 2008 memoirs Incognegro[1].

Dave Matthews Band song "#36" is dedicated to Chris Hani, the assassinated chief of staff of the MK, and includes the refrain, "Hani, Hani, won't you dance with me?"

Well known MK members

Apartheid in South Africa
Events and Projects

Sharpeville Massacre
Soweto uprising · Treason Trial
Rivonia Trial · Mahlabatini Declaration
Church Street bombing · CODESA
St James Church massacre
Cape Town peace march · Purple Rain


ANC · IFP · AWB · Black Sash · CCB
Conservative Party · ECC · PP · RP
Broederbond · National Party


P. W. Botha · Oupa Gqozo · D. F. Malan
Nelson Mandela · Desmond Tutu
F. W. de Klerk · Walter Sisulu
Helen Suzman · Harry Schwarz
Andries Treurnicht · H. F. Verwoerd
Oliver Tambo · B. J. Vorster
Kaiser Matanzima · Jimmy Kruger
Steve Biko · Mahatma Gandhi
Joe Slovo · Trevor Huddleston


Bantustan · District Six · Robben Island
Sophiatown · South-West Africa
Soweto · Sun City · Vlakplaas

Other aspects

Afrikaner nationalism
Apartheid laws · Freedom Charter
Sullivan Principles · Kairos Document
Disinvestment campaign
South African Police

See also


  1. ^ "Manifesto of Umkhonto we Sizwe". African National Congress. 16 December 1961. Retrieved 2006-12-30.  
  2. ^ a b Statement of Nelson Mandela at Rivonia trial
  3. ^
  4. ^ "The Liberation Movements from 1960 to 1990" (PDF). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report (Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa)) 2: 330.  
  5. ^ "The Liberation Movements from 1960 to 1990" (PDF). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report (Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa)) 2: 333. "THE CONSEQUENCE IN THESE CASES, SUCH AS THE MAGOO’S BAR AND THE DURBAN ESPLANADE BOMBINGS, WERE GROSS VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN THAT THEY RESULTED IN INJURIES TO AND THE DEATHS OF CIVILIANS.".  
  6. ^ "The Liberation Movements from 1960 to 1990" (PDF). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report (Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa)) 2: 333.  
  7. ^ "The Liberation Movements from 1960 to 1990" (PDF). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report (Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa)) 2: 334.  

External links

Simple English

Umkhonto we Sizwe (in English: "Spear of the Nation"), was a guerilla created in 1961 by Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other people from the African National Congress. It was created when the government started killing and hurting people that protested against the apartheid. Nelson Mandela first wanted to free South Africa without violence, but the government created laws to prevent that. Mandela then decided that if the black people did not use violence, they would never regain their rights.

Umkhonto we Sizwe stopped being active a bit before the end of the apartheid, in 1991.

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