THE three “illegal” decades of the ANC’s 100-year existence were no doubt the turning point for a movement that shaped South Africa’s future.
An increasingly frustrated apartheid government banned the ANC and the PAC after the brutal Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 prompted an uproar from the United Nations Security Council, making South Africa the pariah of the world.
But the government was not about to back down.
It came up with the Unlawful Organisations Act of 1960, which declared illegal any organisation that deemed to threaten public order.
This law, the government hoped, would be the missile to finally kill the drive by black people to fight oppression.
But it only fuelled it.
Shortly after the banning of the ANC and PAC, the organisations, operating from outside the country’s borders, shifted focus to the armed resistance with their military wings the PAC’s Azanian People’s Liberation Army (Poqo or Apla) and the ANC’s Umkhonto weSizwe.
While many leaders fled into exile in different parts of the world, some stayed in the country and formed different groupings that – together with those abroad – continued to mobilise communities to fight the apartheid government.
Groupings like Port Elizabeth’s Amabutho were a platform for aggrieved cadres who pushed the armed struggle.
Freedom fighters or terrorists?
THE peaceful Defiance Campaign increasingly became no match for a violent apartheid government.
After the killing of peaceful protesters in the 1960s, the ANC took up arms, upping the stakes to destabilise the state through acts of sabotage.
Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was the only way to “hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom”, the ANC believed.
MK launched its first guerrilla attacks on December 16 1961.
It soon shifted its focus to urban guerilla warfare, attacking the Koeberg nuclear power plant on January 8 1982.
MK was also responsible for Pretoria’s Church Street bombing on May 20 1983, in which 19 people died and the car bombing of Magoo’s Bar in Durban on June 14 1986, in which three people died and 73 were injured.
Classified as a terrorist organisation by the South African and US governments, MK was for some time based in Rivonia, where its leaders were arrested in 1963 to face a trial that would change the country.
Rivonia trial changed SA
FOR eight months between 1963 and 1964, the events unfolding at Pretoria’s Palace of Justice had gripped the world. And rightfully so as it was, after all, this marathon Rivonia trial that would forever change South Africa.
Notwithstanding the litany of sabotage charges against them, the accused – Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada, Billy Nair, Arthur Goldreich and Denis Goldberg – saw the courtroom as another site for the struggle.
“For most of the accused the only possible verdict was ‘guilty’,” defence attorney Joel Joffe later recounted in his book The State vs Nelson Mandela: The Trial That Changed South Africa.
“The case was therefore, as far as we were concerned, a battle to prevent the death penalty from being carried out,” Joffe wrote.
Proudly clad in traditional Xhosa gear – stamping his identity – Mandela took the stand and summed up his convictions and those of his fellow accused:
“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.”
Imprisoned on an island
“WE were awakened at 5.30 each morning by the night warder, who clanged a brass bell at the head of our corridor and yelled, “Word wakker! Staan op!” (Wake up! Get up!),” Nelson Mandela says of his hardship years on Robben Island in his book, Long Walk to Freedom.
“During those first few months, breakfast was delivered to us in our cells by prisoners from the general section.
“Breakfast consisted of mealie pap porridge, cereal made from maize or corn, which the general prisoners would slop in a bowl and then spin through the bars of our cells.
“It was a clever trick and required a deft hand so as not to spill any of the porridge.
“We were then permitted half an hour to clean up. The bathroom at the end of our corridor had two seawater showers, a saltwater tap, and three large galvanized metal buckets, which were used as bathtubs. There was no hot water.”
This was the life that Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Andrew Mlangeni, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba and other prisoners lived for more than two decades on the iconic island 10km from Cape Town after being sentenced to life behind bars on June 12 1964.
Their imprisonment epitomised the darkest days for the black population in South Africa.
The leaders symbolised hope and without them, the struggle for freedom would have been that much harder.
Youth joined battle lines
WHILE young people had always been part of the struggle for freedom, it was not until the 1970s that the youth and workers were pushed to the forefront of the bloody battle for a democratic South Africa.
With political parties banned, workers and students were frustrated as they had no platform to denounce apartheid and its atrocities. And so began the workers’ strike for better wages in Durban in 1973 and it soon spread to other parts of the country.
Meanwhile, students were outraged about the Bantu education system and the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools.
Then came June 16 1976. “To Hell with Afrikaans”, read some of the placards carried by thousands of students who marched against the use of what they believed to be an oppressive language.
Moments into the march in Soweto, Johannesburg, all hell broke lose.
Sam Nzima’s iconic picture of Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying a fatally wounded Hector Pietersen – one of the first victims shot by police – went around the world, shoving the brutal reality of black oppression in South Africa onto the world stage.
The uprisings led to the formation of civic, student and women’s organisations which intensified the fight against apartheid through consumer and rates boycotts throughout the country.
Dawning of final unrest
ANGRY that their peers had been gunned down during the student revolt of June 16 1976, the ranks of ANC armed wing Umkhonto weSizwe were packed with youths who wanted to get back at the apartheid regime as the struggle for power intensified in the 1980s.
This happened despite the government making some reforms in its apartheid policies in an effort to win the hearts and minds of the disempowered blacks.
But the reforms – including the tricameral parliament and black local authorities in African townships – were rejected by the masses.
The tricameral parliament, introduced in 1983, included a House of Assembly for whites, a House of Representatives for coloureds and a House of Delegates for Indians. Each discussed laws pertaining to their racial group.
But, despite being the majority race, Africans had no representation.
The ANC called on all those living in townships to make them ungovernable.
It called on black police officers and other public servants to resign from their posts in an effort to destroy apartheid-sanctioned black local authorities.
Many of those who did not heed the call had their homes torched. Municipal buildings were also attacked.
With the administrative system collapsing, residents established their own democratic structures – including street committees and people’s courts – to run their communities.