Civil War: South Africa (1976-1994)

Trevor Rubenzer. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


The struggle to end white minority rule in South Africa and the accompanying policy of apartheid lead to one of the most protracted civil conflicts in African history. Unlike most civil wars, however, the conflict evolved from one of peaceful protest into guerrilla warfare over a period of several years. The persistence of various rebel groups was largely due to the international isolation of South Africa during the apartheid era. Isolation provided a basis for support of the rebels, both from within the region and as part of the broader Cold War. Ultimately, the persistence of the rebels and important national and regional political changes led to the end of apartheid and the advent of majority rule.

Country Background

On May 31, 1910, the Union of South Africa became an independent state within the British Commonwealth. In 1961, South Africa left the Commonwealth and became the Republic of South Africa (RSA) (Saunders 2002b, 966). Afrikaner nationalists, who had fought both British rule and competition from blacks, formed the National Party (NP) in 1912. After more moderate members of the NP allied themselves with the South Africa Party (SAP), eventually forming the United Party (UP), a group of ultranationalists under the leadership of Daniel Malan formed a more reactionary NP. When the NP took power in 1948, it began to institute the policy of apartheid (which means separateness in Afrikaans). Apartheid ultimately led to civil war.

In the years immediately before the civil war began, the level of democracy in South Africa depended directly on the color of one’s skin. South Africa’s polity score was +4 on a scale of -10 to +10 (Marshall and Jaggers 2002). South Africa had a relatively high polity score, for an authoritarian state, before the civil war because of the broad range of civil and political rights granted to whites. Blacks, by contrast, were denied suffrage, whereas Indians and coloreds were progressively stripped of their limited freedoms. During the course of the civil war, South Africa’s polity score remained +4. After the advent of majority rule in 1994, the country’s polity score increased to +8. Today, the polity score stands at +9.

From an economic standpoint, South Africa has always been one of the most developed states in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1976, the year the guerrilla war began, the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was US $7,536 (Heston, Summers, and Aten, 2002). Early in the civil war, the South African economy continued to grow, in part because the government initiated import substitution industrialization (ISI) in anticipation of international sanctions. However, international pressure eventually began to take its toll. Although economic sanctions against the South African government were often ineffective, international lending institutions began to consider South Africa a poor credit risk in 1985 (Lieberfeld 1999, 34). As a result, GDP per capita five years after the civil war ended stood at US $7,460 (Heston, Summers, and Aten, 2002). One of the major factors that prevented real GDP from falling even further was the presence of valuable natural resources in South Africa, especially diamonds (Harsch, 1987, 54).

Although GDP per capita is comparatively high in South Africa, it is important to recognize that, during the apartheid era, the vast majority of material wealth was concentrated in the hands of the white population. In the era of black African majority rule, income disparity is a lingering problem. Whites in South Africa continue to earn more than 50 percent of available income (Van Buren 2002, 976). As a result, the level of income inequality in South Africa is among the highest in the world (Doyle and Sambanis 2000).

Conflict Background

There is some degree of debate over how to classify the South African civil war. Some scholars classify the war as an ethnic conflict (see Doyle and Sambanis 2000). Other authors point out that the African National Congress (ANC) was founded on principles of nonracialism (see Davis 1987, 4). Although black nationalism was a contending force in rebel politics, it was certainly not the only, or even the primary, political force in play. In addition, classification of the South African civil war as an ethnic war ignores the ethnic diversity among blacks and whites in South Africa.

Perhaps the most intuitive way to classify the South African civil war is to consider the primary goal of the rebels. The Freedom Charter, adopted in 1955, became the official political platform of the ANC. The preamble to the Freedom Charter reads as follows:

We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know:

that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people;

that our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality;

that our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities; that only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of colour, race, sex or belief;

And therefore, we, the people of South Africa, black and white together equals, countrymen and brothers adopt this Freedom Charter;

And we pledge ourselves to strive together, sparing neither strength nor courage, until the democratic changes here set out have been won (ANC Website, 2005).

As the Freedom Charter indicates, the principal goal of those who rebelled against apartheid was liberation from white rule and democracy. As a result, this article treats the South African civil war as a struggle between two contending ideologies: the supremacist ideology of apartheid and the liberation ideology of the rebels.

In addition to the debate over classification of the South African civil war, there is some question as to when the war began. The main rebel group, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), formed in 1961 (Motlhabi 1988, 73). Umkhonto we Sizwe, sometimes called MK after a group of earlier volunteers known as Amadelakufe (those who do not fear death), carried out its first attacks against government installations in December 1961. The early portion of MK’s history, however, was characterized by infrequent attacks that tended to focus strictly on economic targets. It was not until June 16, 1976, in the wake of the Soweto massacre, that the MK began to target political infrastructure, including police stations and other government buildings. On April 26, 1994, the civil war ended with the first free elections in South Africa.

The South African civil war is also unique in the number of battles fought in neighboring countries. One of the best examples of direct South African military intervention is Angola. South Africa intervened on the side of the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) in order to counter the Soviet Union, who backed the Movimento Popular de Libertacão de Angola (MPLA). In addition, the ANC had offices in the capital city of Luanda (Garztecki 2002, 35). Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe were all subject to South African military incursions (Davis 1987, 42-46). Finally, South Africa attempted to dominate Namibia as an illegitimate trust territory (Saunders 2002a, 727).

The Insurgents

In reality, several groups in South Africa attempted in one way or another to undermine the apartheid system of government. By restricting the definition of rebel to “one who takes up arms against the government,” it is possible to narrow the discussion to three main groups. The best-known of these groups is the African National Congress. Once called the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), the ANC was founded in 1912 with the primary goal of advancing the interests of nonwhite elites. In its early history, the ANC preferred a constitutionalist approach, choosing negotiation with the South African government over confrontation (Davis 1987, 5). After the NP initiated apartheid, the ANC turned to nonviolent protest in an attempt to alter government policy. It was at this time that a founding member of the ANC Youth League, Nelson Mandela, rose to prominence within the organization.

Sources: Doyle and Sambanis (2000); Heston, Summers, and Aten (2002); Marshall and Jaggers (2002).
War: ANC-MK vs. government
Dates: June 1976-April 1994
Casualties: 100,000
Regime type prior to war: Polity score of 4 (ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: Polity score of 8 (ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita year war began: US $7,536 (constant 1996 dollars) significantly lower for nonwhite population
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $7,460 (constant 1996 dollars); significantly lower for nonwhite population
Insurgents: ANC (African National Congress), Umkhonto we Sizwe
Issue: Ending white minority rule, apartheid
Rebel Funding: Soviet aid (for military operations), international fund-raising (for overa llANC mission)
Role of geography: Rebels used rain forest cover in bases outside South Africa.
Role of resources: Gold, diamonds, and strategic resources helped government resist multilateral sanctions.
Immediate outcome: Transition to majority rule, elections
Outcome after 5 years: Democracy, lingering violence
Role of UN: None within South Africa; monitoring of Cuban and South African withdrawal from Angola
Role of regional organizations: OAU supported ANC; SADCC attempted to achieve economic independence from South Africa.
Refugees: Not applicable, although forced displacement of blacks was common
Prospects for peace: Favorable
Table 1: Civil War in South Africa

It was not until the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe in November 1961 that the ANC became a true rebel group in the sense that it sought to use controlled violence to bring down the existing government. Ironically, it was the results of a protest led by a rival group called the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) that played a major role in the ANC decision to take up arms against the government. The PAC organized a protest against the pass laws, which prohibited travel outside of racially segregated areas without a government-issued pass. In Sharpsville, the police responded to the protest by killing sixty-seven blacks (Thompson 1995, 210). In response to a large demonstration in Cape Town, the army and the police jailed more than 17,000 protesters. Soon afterward, the government banned both the ANC and the PAC.

On December 16, 1961, MK attacked several government installations in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, and Durban. At the same time, the organization distributed leaflets announcing the MK and explaining its decision to take up arms.

The second rebel group in South Africa was the aforementioned PAC. The PAC formed April 6, 1959, as the Africanist alternative to the ANC (Davis 1987, 10). The basic ideological divide between the ANC and the PAC centered on the issue of “racial purity” within the anti-apartheid movement. Africanists argued that freedom required the development of strong black nationalism. The ANC, by contrast, considered itself a “big tent” movement, willing to accommodate coloreds, Indians, and even whites.

The PAC launched its own guerrilla organization called Poqo (Pure). Initially, Poqo participated in several bombing campaigns in the early 1960s. However, the PAC suffered a series of setbacks that also harmed Poqo. The ANC’s major advantage was that it had been at least partially prepared to reorganize underground well before the PAC and the ANC were outlawed in 1960. The PAC, by contrast, had been in existence only since 1959. In addition, Poqo demonstrated more initial willingness to attack white civilians directly (Muthien 1990, 81). This decreased the legitimacy of Poqo among moderates.

A third rebel organization is the South African Communist Party (SACP). Forced underground by the 1950 Suppression of Communism Act, the SACP formed well-developed covert networks (Davis 1987, 9). In addition, members of the SACP sought to coordinate protest activity with the ANC, which was still legal at the time. Although many ANC members were quite suspicious of the Communists, they also recognized that they could benefit from SACP know-how if the ANC were ever forced underground. As a result, members of the SACP took on many important leadership roles within the ANC and MK. For example, Joe Slovo, SACP chairman, was a respected member of the ANC Revolutionary Council (Ellis and Sechaba 1992, 56). For its part, the apartheid government used the SACP-ANC alliance for its own ends, claiming that South Africa was a target of the world Communist revolution. The validity of the government’s assertion, however, was probably overstated (see sidebar, “The SACP and the ANC”).

Of course, no rebel group can exist without an adequate source of funding. The ANC did not have access to South Africa’s mineral wealth. Money to support day-to-day (nonmilitary) operations came from a variety of sources. First, the ANC raised some money and supplies from its own projects, including fund-raising cultural tours and ANC-owned farms in Zambia (Davis 1987, 73). Several of the Nordic countries provided funding for education, including scholarships for study abroad. International organizations pledged additional support.

Most of the money for the US $50 million annual military budget came from the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe (Davis 1987, 74). In addition, the ANC was able to raise significant amounts of cash from wealthy South African expatriates. The ANC also conducted fund-raising activities among South African blacks and sympathetic whites. Finally, the ANC often funneled international donations of food and equipment to Umkhonto we Sizwe.


Both political and physical geography played an important role in the South African civil war. As the ANC was charged with the task of setting up an entire government in exile, it would be impossible to use physical geography to completely obscure the location of all critical ANC centers. As a result, political geography played a key role. Given the ability of South Africa to project its military might into other states, the rebels needed to choose their base locations carefully. Namibia was under direct South African control for portions of the war. Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique provided tempting targets for direct South African raids. Lesotho was completed surrounded by South African territory, and Swaziland was almost completely engulfed.

As a consequence of these geopolitical concerns, most of the key ANC military and nonmilitary bases were located in Angola, Tanzania, and Zambia. For example, MK operated twelve training and transit camps in Angola between 1976 and 1989 (ANC 1997). The main political headquarters of the ANC was located in Lusaka, Zambia. A major MK operations base was located near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (Davis 1987, 48-49). Even at this distance from South Africa, many ANC and MK bases were destroyed by ground or aerial attack.

The ANC had a political presence in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Lesotho. These political offices were often unofficial and carefully hidden, for they were within easy range of attack by the South African Defense Force (SADF). Collectively, these states were also the principal transit points for MK rebels making their way from Angola, Zambia, or Tanzania to South Africa. ANC leaders had learned the hard way that it was necessary to trade convenient access to South Africa for relative safety. In 1963, South African police raided an MK camp in the suburb of Rivonia near Johannesburg. Rivonia, at the time, was MK’s national headquarters (Davis 1987, 17). Several critical ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were captured in the raid.

Physical geography was also very important to the rebels. Several years after the civil war ended, the MK highlighted the importance of physical geography in the conflict by revealing that MK training camps taught courses in military topography (ANC 1997). Because government security forces had an advantage in technology, rebels attempting to return to South Africa had to take advantage of the rough, bushy terrain that lies on the frontier between South Africa and many of its neighbors. Working in small units allowed the MK to cross the border with less chance of detection (Feit 1971, 236).


Umkhonto we Sizwe’s basic strategy focused on four principal types of targets. One of these was key government installations and infrastructure, including South African Police installations and personnel (Muthien 1990, 83). MK also attacked and damaged government-owned railways and power stations. The goal of these “challenge attacks” was to demonstrate to the white populace that the government could not protect them from the rebel movement (Davis 1987, 121). The overall hope was that pressure from white citizens for protection would force the government to the negotiating table.

Economic targets were also frequently subject to guerrilla attacks. There is overlap here with the government infrastructure category, as the ANC considered the railways economic targets. However, the rebels also attacked white South African businesses. Most of these attacks were carried out at night to minimize the potential for white civilian casualties. The ANC was committed enough to avoiding civilian categories that it became the first national liberation movement to sign the Geneva Convention and its Optional Protocol of 1977 (ANC 1980). However, because many of the preferred economic targets were located in heavily populated areas, it was not uncommon for civilians to die in ANC attacks.

A third popular set of MK targets were those designed to gain direct support among South African blacks. These “linkage attacks” were direct responses to popular protest against elements of white rule (Davis 1987, 151). For example, on October 15, 1980, MK targeted and destroyed a railway line in the Dube area. The ANC considered this attack part of its support of community resistance, as Soweto community leaders had called for a boycott of the rail line in response to rent increases in the area (ANC 1997). Because whites possessed a virtual monopoly on South African media, linkage attacks were one of the few ways that the ANC-MK could inform community leaders that the rebels were working on their behalf.

Linkage attacks became even more important as the South African government attempted to drive a wedge between blacks, coloreds, and Indians by establishing a tricameral parliament that included the latter two groups. The United Democratic Front (UDF), which originally formed in an effort to block the tricameral parliament, became a key coordinating actor in the township revolts that began in the mid-1980s (Seekings 2000, 121). The various groups organized under the UDF would work to foster a popular uprising. MK would ensure that protests were buttressed by guerrilla force. In addition, the UDF directly aided MK by increasing the size and number of safe havens within the townships (Davis 1987, 89).

The fourth common target set consisted of those individuals whom the ANC considered to be collaborating with the apartheid regime. Former members of the ANC, as well as prosecuting attorneys and other prosecution witnesses, became targets of MK attacks. One example of an attack on collaborators was the assassination of Abel Mthembu on April 14, 1978. Mthembu, a former ANC deputy president, had turned states evidence at a key trial of ANC members (ANC 1997).

If the overall strategy was to attack infrastructure, people, and institutions associated with apartheid, the dominant tactic was guerrilla warfare. Given the sophistication of South African border security, it was possible for MK rebels to return to the country from the various training camps only if they traveled in small groups (often five or fewer). Similarly, the rebels attacked their targets in small groups as well. By attacking in groups of between three and five members, the rebels had a better chance of avoiding detention and capture. When possible, MK planted timed explosives and land mines to allow the rebels to return to the underground before the government became aware of the attack.

As is the case with most guerrilla movements, the ability to obtain adequate supplies of small arms was critical in Umkhonto we Sizwe’s effort to end apartheid. MK relied on two basic sources of weapons. The most reliable source of small arms for the rebels was the Soviet Union. The Soviets provided Skorpion VZOR 61 machine pistols from Czechoslovakia, Tokarev T-33 pistols, Makarov SL pistols, and AK-47 rifles (Davis 1987, 71). The Soviets also supplied hand grenades, antitank land mines, and antipersonnel land mines.

Armed with Soviet weapons, the rebels were no match for the conventional superiority of the government forces. In addition, MK experienced severe weapons shortages because of the difficulty in smuggling small arms across the border. After 1985, MK officers were instructed to recruit their own resistance cells from among the general population rather than attempting to reconnect with other foreign-trained rebels (Davis 1987, 124). This created further weapons shortages, since a single foreign-trained rebel possessed only the weapons that he was able to smuggle into the country.

With restricted access to Soviet weapons within South Africa, the rebels turned to theft as a second source of small arms. South African history has produced a society where gun ownership is very common. Often, black domestic workers were able to gain access to caches of small arms that subsequently found their way into MK hands. Local police departments, especially in those areas where blacks had access to weapons, were also very popular targets.

For its part, the government used a variety of demographic, legal, and military tactics in an attempt to maintain the political status quo in South Africa. First, it is necessary to recognize that the apartheid system itself was part of the South African government’s attempts to quell any potential rebellion. A series of pass laws made it very difficult for most blacks to gain access to white urban areas. Only blacks who carried a specially endorsed urban pass were allowed to remain in the cities, under the terms of the Urban Areas Act (Beck 2000, 128). The Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act of 1959 essentially eliminated political rights for blacks outside of the land reserved for blacks under the 1936 Land Act. The ultimate goal of the South African government was to confer independence on the ten Bantustans (homelands) that occupied approximately 13.7 percent of South African land (Beck 2000, 134). From a military perspective, the Bantustans served as a form of buffer between the black and white populations.

Second, the South African government used destabilization techniques on neighboring countries to make it more difficult for MK and the ANC to find sanctuary. South Africa supported the UNITA in the Angolan civil war in an attempt to thwart the MPLA. As the MPLA supported both South African and Namibian rebels, its defeat would have been a significant victory for South Africa. South Africa also supported rebel movements in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho. The strategy of destabilization was at least partially successful. Mozambique agreed in 1984 to expel the ANC from its territory in exchange for a cessation of South African support of the Resistência Nacional de Mocambique (RENAMO). South Africa successfully included ANC expulsion from Angola in the terms of its final withdrawal in 1989 (Garztecki 2002, 36).

The destabilization policy, although partially successful, was also self-defeating. By fostering instability in neighboring states, the government effectively made it more difficult for those states to comply with South African desires to deny asylum to the ANC. Weak political and military institutions in South Africa’s neighboring countries made them attractive transit routes for MK. In addition, South Africa did not always keep its side of the bargain. For example, the RSA continued to support Renamo in Mozambique even after the 1984 agreement. As a result, there was little incentive for the Mozambican government, which sympathized with the Marxist and liberation components of ANC thought, to actively root out rebels from its territory.

The RSA augmented its destabilization strategy by fostering economic dependence on the part of South Africa’s neighbors. Lesotho, which is entirely surrounded by South Africa, required access to transportation infrastructure, electricity, and food from the RSA. Almost all of Swaziland’s trade traveled through South Africa, and remittances from Swazi laborers in the RSA were a critical source of income. Mozambique required the use of South African ports. Each of these states was also dependent on food imports and technical expertise from South Africa. South Africa used threats of withdrawal of this assistance to encourage more favorable policies in the neighboring states (Davis 1987, 41).

When destabilization efforts failed to eliminate the ANC as a threat, the SADF was willing to use force directly against the ANC in the sanctuary states. Several ANC bases in Angola were destroyed by SADF air raids (ANC 1997). The SADF also raided ANC offices and MK bases in Mozambique, Lesotho, Zambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. South African military superiority, coupled with weak foreign governments, made it difficult for the RSA’s neighbors to resist incursions.

In addition to the RSA’s ability to project its military power abroad, South Africa made the protection of its own border a key element of its antirebel strategy. Combining numerical and technological superiority, the SADF and the SAP (South African Police) were often successful in capturing MK recruits as they attempted to flee South Africa. Many fully trained rebels were also captured as they attempted to reenter the country. The RSA’s border strategy also made it difficult for the rebels to smuggle arms into South Africa.

The South African military also used human intelligence to supplement its military might. Especially in the early days of MK, the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) found it relatively easy to infiltrate the ranks of rebel organizations. Thousands of arrests occurred inside South Africa as a result of these efforts. Infiltration of MK units outside of South Africa also provided the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) with the location of several rebel bases. Eventually, the ANC adapted to government tactics by giving more autonomy to smaller localized units and limiting the amount of critical information held by any single resistance cell.

The NP government realized over time that military action alone would not be sufficient to quell the rapidly spreading rebellion in South Africa. As a result, the government instituted a series of reforms of the apartheid system that were designed to pacify the disenfranchised while maintaining white authority. For example, the government allowed the formation of African trade unions in the early 1980s. The government also relaxed some of the provisions of the Group Areas Act by allowing blacks and their families to reside permanently in African townships within white urban areas. The RSA also relaxed restrictions on interracial marriage.

The success of apartheid reforms in muting rebel opposition, however, was limited for two reasons. First, most of the government’s reforms did little to alter “grand” apartheid. For example, the government attempted to grant artificial independence to the Bantustans at the same time that it allowed some Africans more freedom of movement. Most Africans recognized that independence for the Bantustans would result in permanent subjugation of blacks in South Africa. Second, incremental reforms raised expectations for further changes to the apartheid system.

The government also altered apartheid in an attempt to thwart the rebels by pitting various disenfranchised groups in South Africa against each other. One example of this tactic is the tricameral parliament mentioned earlier. By giving Indians and coloreds a limited voice in RSA policy, the government hoped that these groups would turn against black South Africans. This strategy had limited success, in part because of the limited nature of colored and Indian representation and in part because of the efforts of the UDF to discredit government policy.

Somewhat more successfully, the central government also attempted to pit various black groups against each other. The roots of this strategy date to the very beginning of apartheid, when Indians and coloreds were treated as homogeneous groups, but blacks were subdivided into smaller groups for classification purposes. One primary example of this strategy was the formation of Inkatha “hit squads” under the partial direction of the SAP. Fortunately for the MK, the government strategy was limited in part by the unity fostered by the UDF. Although it would be erroneous to suggest that all disenfranchised groups were united by a common strategy, organizations like the UDF and the ANC were able to draw on the existence of a common enemy to partially unify opposition to apartheid.

Causes of the War

In general terms, the principle cause of the South African civil war was the National Party’s apartheid policy. The word apartheid, which means separateness in Afrikaans, took on two principal forms. Petty apartheid consisted of those policies that affected the day-to-day lives of nonwhite South Africans. Grand apartheid, by contrast, concerned the distribution of political rights and territorial relations in South Africa (Beck 2000, 126). The apartheid system relied on a basic racial classification system. The NP divided the population into four groups: African, colored, white, and Indian. Only those classified as white were entitled to the full set of civil and political rights in the RSA.

It is important to recognize that apartheid represented a comprehensive set of interwoven policies. From 1948, when the NP successfully took control of the South African government, through parts of the 1970s, apartheid was gradually imposed through a series of government acts. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act represented early attempts to maintain racial purity by prohibiting intermarriage and sexual relations between the races. The 1950 Population Registration Act formed the basis of the South African racial classification system, and the Group Area Act segregated residential and commercial areas by race. The 1956 Native Resettlement Act resulted in the forced relocation of millions of Africans (Beck 2000, 127). Each of these pieces of legislation augmented the existing pass laws that restricted the movement of nonwhites. In 1952, the government expanded the pass laws to include women. Primary, secondary, and—eventually— postsecondary education were also subject to racial segregation. Finally, the Promotion of Bantu Self Government Act, as mentioned above, completed the process of confining most nonwhites to a series of ten Bantustans.

Despite the repressive and degrading nature of apartheid, the ANC’s initial policy focused on working within the white system. It took a series of events to convince the ANC and other opposition groups that nonviolent constitutionalist opposition should be abandoned in favor of guerrilla war. First, the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 demonstrated that the NP government was willing to respond to protests with violence. As a result of Sharpeville, 71 blacks were killed, and more than 200 blacks were injured (Davis 1987, 12). The riots that followed Sharpeville resulted in further government crackdowns on opposition groups.

Second, the decision by the government to ban the ANC and the PAC in the wake of the Sharpeville and the violence that followed destroyed any remaining opposition links to the government. The Unlawful Organizations Act of 1960 was a crushing setback for those members of the ANC who would have preferred to continue the current strategy of attempting to negotiate with the government while pursuing civil disobedience. Once the ANC was forced underground, it became clear that nonviolence would not produce the desired result of securing political rights for nonwhites within the existing government structure.

Although Sharpeville opened the door to violent resistance against apartheid, the Soweto massacre made civil war inevitable. Before Soweto, MK conducted extremely limited operations against a relatively small number of government installations. In 1975, the white minister of Bantu education declared that social studies and math would be conducted in Afrikaans in all Bantu secondary schools (Beck 2000, 160). Is response, nearly 20,000 secondary students marched in protest against the government order on June 16, 1976. SAP personnel fired into the crowd of students, setting in motion a series of riots and crackdowns that resulted in nearly 200 deaths within a few days. Nearly 150 buildings and 150 vehicles were also destroyed (Davis 1987, 36). Hundreds more were killed during the remainder of 1976. The Soweto massacre also resulted in a flood of new MK recruits. Many of these recruits were well-educated blacks who had become increasingly responsive to the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) of the early 1970s.


Conflict Status

The township revolts that began in Sharpeville in 1984 marked the beginning of the end for the apartheid regime. President Pieter Willem Botha imposed a state of emergency in parts of the RSA in July 1985 and a nationwide state of emergency in June 1986 (Beck 2000, 176). More than 30,000 people were detained as a result of Botha’s orders. Many of those detained died in SAP custody from torture or general neglect. The suspension of political rights associated with the state of emergency was partially successful in bringing the townships under government control.

Although the township revolts did not topple apartheid directly, they did serve to increase international attention to the plight of a majority of the South African people. Before the revolts, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was the first organization to impose significant sanctions against South Africa in the form of an oil embargo (Beck 2000, 156). South Africa used the high price of gold to circumvent the boycott, purchasing oil from Iran before the 1979 revolution. The commonwealth imposed sanctions on South Africa in 1985. In 1986, the United States passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act over President Reagan’s veto. Although Reagan refused to completely implement the act, he did place restrictions on technology transfer between the United States and South Africa. The European community also imposed sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa. The United Nations Security Council, however, refused to respond to calls from the General Assembly for the imposition of comprehensive economic sanctions against South Africa. Veto threats from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France prevented the UN from moving beyond the arms embargo mandated by Security Council Resolution 418 in 1977.

Economic sanctions, although important in furthering the economic isolation of South Africa, were not enough to end apartheid. As mentioned earlier, the role of international lending institutions, coupled with divestment on the part of some multinational corporations, began to cripple the South African economy (Beck 2000, 178). South African debt skyrocketed as international banks refused to refinance poorly performing loans. The overall economic decline, in turn, convinced many white-owned businesses in South Africa that it would be better to survive under majority rule than to go bankrupt under apartheid.

In 1989, F. W. de Klerk replaced Botha as the head of the NP. On February 2, 1990, de Klerk announced the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. The government also legalized the UDF, the ANC, the PAC, and the SACP. Throughout 1991, de Klerk eliminated most of the policies that collectively made up apartheid. One might have expected the ANC to take advantage of government weakness by attempting to forcibly remove the last vestiges of apartheid. The imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, coupled with ongoing battles with the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and internal political wrangling over ANC policy, forced the rebels to the negotiating table. In December 1991, 228 delegates met in Johannesburg under the auspices of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) (Thompson 1995, 247). The PAC and the Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO) refused to join the negotiations.

The failure of a second round of CODESA talks threw the entire transition process into doubt. In addition, a massacre led by members of the IFP, supported by the SAP, reinforced ANC suspicions of NP sincerity at the negotiating table. A series of secret meetings, however, maintained critical communications during the crisis and set the stage for a return to the negotiating table (Beck 2000, 187). Despite attempts by white extremist groups to disrupt the negotiations, the participating parties were able to agree on an interim constitution in November 1993. South Africa’s inaugural democratic elections were scheduled for April 26, 1994.

From April 26 to April 29, South Africans witnessed the first truly democratic elections in SAP history. The ANC garnered 67.2 percent of the vote, the NP secured 20.4 percent, and the IFP received 10.5 percent. Despite some irregularities, observers declared that the overall election was free and fair. On May 9, 1994, the South African National Assembly elected Nelson Mandela president.

Duration Tactics

The South African civil war lasted almost twenty years. There are several interrelated explanations for the conflict’s long duration. First, although the South African government had success in limiting rebel activity, it was never able to completely decapitate the ANC or MK. Several key leaders, Oliver Tambo most noteworthy among them, were able to escape South Africa and secure sanctuary in other states. In the wake of the Soweto massacre, Tambo made the fateful decision to move the resistance movement back into Africa (from London). The new wave of government violence during and after Soweto provided MK with a source of new recruits.

Second, in a related fashion, the willingness of several states to allow MK bases in their territory prevented the SADF from achieving an early victory. Had the MK been forced to train inside South Africa, it almost certainly would have been quickly defeated. Early government efforts to infiltrate the ANC and MK inside South Africa clearly demonstrate that rebels benefited from their ability to train at a distance. At the same time, however, MK reliance on bases outside South Africa made it much more difficult to gather a significant number of rebels inside the country, which served to lengthen the war.

Third, it took a significant amount of time for the international community to pressure the NP to abandon apartheid. For example, the United States, which was worried about the existing Communist foothold in Southern Africa, did not want to allow Africa’s most developed state to fall under Communist control. Although it is doubtful that South Africa would have become a Marxist state under ANC rule, the NP was quite effective at convincing the West that the ANC was part of the Communist threat. As a result, it took almost ten years for the first meaningful sanctions to be levied against South Africa. International lending institutions, as well as multinational corporations, also were slow to react. An abundance of natural resources and (at times) inexpensive labor acted as a magnet for multinational corporations.

Fourth, it took a great deal of time for Africans in South Africa to mobilize against apartheid. The government’s monopoly on the media prevented many Africans, Indians, and coloreds from recognizing that a rebellion even existed. Poor access to education, low wages, and restrictions on freedom of movement created conditions under which most nonwhites were more concerned about day-to-day survival than about the broader liberation movement. As education opportunities for blacks increase, however, more individuals became receptive to efforts by the BCM and the UDF to raise awareness about political issues. The township revolts of the mid-1980s resulted in large part from the increase in African political awareness.

Finally, conflict both among the rebels and within the NP resulted in a significantly longer conflict. A series of mutinies within MK camps in 1984 demonstrated that the rebels were not always united. In total, the ANC executed at least thirty-four of its members for various offenses in the camps (SAPA 1996). The willingness of the IFP to collaborate with the South African Defense Force also lengthened the conflict by perpetuating black-on-black violence. (During the apartheid era, the military was called the South African Defense Force. After the transition to majority rule, the SADF was renamed the South African National Defense Force). Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the IFP, believed that apartheid could be attacked from within the existing system by using the homeland governments to gain leverage with the NP. Whites were also intensely divided on issues related to apartheid. Extreme right-wing groups both inside and outside the NP attempted to disrupt the transition to multiracial democracy throughout the negotiation process.

External Military Intervention

The portion of the South African civil war that took place within the RSA was free from direct, armed external intervention. In fact, it was far more common during the South African civil war for the RSA to intervene directly in other countries (see earlier section, “Duration Tactics”). However, indirect intervention on the part of the Soviet Union was one of the keys to MK survival. The Soviet Union provided MK rebels with most of their weapons and funding. In addition, Soviet intelligence was critical to Umkhonto we Sizwe’s ability to avoid detection, to strike government targets, and to gain information about SAP and SADF movements. Finally, the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe provided advanced military training to hundreds of rebels. The anti-apartheid movement fit well with the Soviet strategy of assisting national liberation movements.

In contrast to the conflict within South Africa, there was direct military intervention by foreign powers outside the RSA. The most notorious example of foreign intervention occurred in the Angolan civil war. South Africa itself intervened directly in Angola beginning in August 1975. MPLA control of the majority of Angolan territory provided safe haven for the ANC-MK and the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), which was fighting against South Africa for Namibian independence (Garztecki 2002, 35). By October 1975, the SANDF had advanced to within 100 miles of the Angolan capital.

In response to the South African offensive, the Soviet Union, which had earlier provided direct military support via Cuban troops, arranged for massive reinforcements from Cuba. Cuban troops allied with the MPLA were able to push the SADF into Namibia. In effect, Cuban intervention in Angola benefited the ANC and the SWAPO as much as it did the MPLA. In 1985, South Africa became party to the Lusaka Accord, which provided for an end to Angolan support of the ANC and SWAPO and a withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, in exchange for South African withdrawal from Angola and independence for Namibia. Despite this agreement, South Africa continued incursions into Angola as part of its “hot pursuit” policy against insurgents.

Conflict Management Efforts

In spite of the amount of international attention on the conflict in South Africa, there were few actual attempts to mediate the conflict. The bulk of international efforts were aimed at ending apartheid, which implied support for the rebels. The United Nations Security Council imposed an arms embargo on South Africa, and the General Assembly (GA) was quite active in establishing plans of action to end apartheid. The GA, beginning with Resolution 721 (VIII) of 1953, adopted annual resolutions condemning apartheid. The GA also established the Special Committee Against Apartheid and used parliamentary procedure to expel South Africa from the GA, over the objections of several Western states.

India did propose tripartite negotiations between itself, Pakistan, and the RSA over the issue of the treatment of Indians in South Africa in 1949. The proposed talks failed, however, after the passage of the Group Areas Act. The British Commonwealth sent the Eminent Persons Group to South Africa in 1986 in an attempt to bridge the gap between the ANC and the NP (Beck 2000, 176). However, the talks broke down once it became clear that the Eminent Persons Group would not suggest an end to commonwealth sanctions against South Africa without an end to the policy of apartheid.


The crumbling and ultimate collapse of apartheid have been compared to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. Along with the wave of independence from colonial rule that swept through much of sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s, the end of apartheid clearly stands as one of the most critical events in the history of modern Africa. The transition from white minority rule to relatively stable democracy is also a tremendous achievement on a continent where various forms of dictatorship and instability remain common. For the first time in multiple generations, the majority of South Africans have the opportunity to take advantage of the country’s bountiful natural resources.

Despite South Africa’s immense promise, however, democratic consolidation and political stability are by no means assured. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the apartheid era is the degree of income equality that continues to plague the country. GDP per capita remains significantly higher among whites. In addition, the slow pace of land reform means that many Africans remain trapped in the homelands while whites continue to control the most productive land. One of the greatest potential sources of political instability in the RSA is that blacks will forcibly evict whites from the land. Future stability will depend on the ability of the government to foster income and territorial equality.

From a military perspective, the greatest challenge to South African stability is the integration of former MK rebels into the new South African Defense Force. Existing integration efforts have been fraught with difficulty, including difficulties associated with developing a list of MK personnel eligible for integration. In addition, many rebels who trained in the former Soviet bloc have had difficulty obtaining rank commensurate with their training and experience.