P031- The Role of Underground Structures and Operatives in Political Resistance
10 July, 14:00-15:30

Tshepo Moloi / University of the Witwatersrand
Gona George / University of Nairobi


South Africa’s apartheid government – and other repressive regimes on the continent – used draconian laws, the banning of political movements, the banishment and imprisonment of individual activists, as well as brutal force to cripple the opposition and stifle mass mobilisation. In response to this, political organisations and activists continued the resistance through underground forms of organisation. Given the covert nature of underground work, little is known about this particular pillar of resistance.  Yet, underground organisation often played a significant role in political mobilisation and the ultimate defeat of oppressive regimes such as apartheid. The very secretiveness of underground work meant that there were severe constraints on recording these activities at the time and thus underground structures and individual operatives have remained largely unidentified and scantily documented. The focus of this panel is on the challenges, risks, and opportunities of operating underground in different phases of the liberation struggles in Southern Africa and beyond. The panel will explore the role of underground operatives connected to political organisations and of ‘freelance’ operatives, particularly women. The panel also seeks to explore the ‘underground’ as a concept and the blurred boundaries with ‘above ground’, and other forms of resistance.

Le rôle des ouvrages souterrains et des Coopératives dans la résistance politique

Le gouvernement d’apartheid en Afrique du Sud – à l’égal d’autres régimes répressifs – a utilisé des lois draconiennes : l’interdiction des mouvements politiques, le bannissement et l’emprisonnement d’activistes ainsi que la brutalité pour paralyser l’opposition et réprimer les mobilisations de masse. Les organisations politiques ont réagi en faisant survivre la résistance grâce à des formes d’organisation clandestines. Étant donnée la nature dissimulée du travail clandestin, ce pilier de la résistance reste peu connu. Pourtant, l’organisation clandestine a joué un rôle majeur dans la mobilisation politique et la défaite de régimes fondés sur l’oppression. Du fait du caractère secret du travail clandestin, la volonté d’en garder une trace écrite a été soumise à une série de contraintes, ce qui explique que les structures et les agents clandestins ont été peu identifiés ou documentés. Ce panel a pour thèmes les défis, les risques et les opportunités du travail clandestin pendant les différentes étapes des luttes de libération, en Afrique australe et ailleurs. Il explorera le rôle des agents clandestins rattachés à des organisations politiques et celui d’agents « freelance », en particulier les femmes. Ce panel vise aussi à explorer la « clandestinité » en tant que concept et les frontières floues qu’elle entretient avec la résistance publique et d’autres formes de résistance.

Paper 1

Tshepo Moloi Tshepo / University of the Witwatersrand

The role of “Freelance” underground Operatives: A case of Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, 1985-1990

The advent of democracy in South Africa stimulated a great deal of interest among scholars to record the history of the liberation struggle in South Africa. Much has been written on the role of the ANC and its military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), including underground activities and operatives. However, very little has been presented about the role played by the ANC’s ‘freelance’ operatives in the underground work in the struggle for liberation. The latter were operatives who had no connection with formal (or legal) structures operating internally. My recent research on political activism in the Eastern Transvaal (today’s Mpumalanga province), especially the lowveld region, offers a rich but yet undocumented history of the ‘freelance’ operatives. Drawing from oral interviews with former ‘freelance’ operatives, I will demonstrate that, because ‘freelance’ operatives were not prominent political activists they did not raise any suspicions. This enabled them to become effective underground operatives, and in the process their work helped to revive political activism in the lowveld region which had been temporarily paralysed after the signing of the Nkomati Accord.

Paper 2

Philip Bonner Phil / University of the Witwatersrand

The Role of Underground Structures and Operatives in Political Resistance

Much has been written over the past decade about the role of uMkonto we Sizwe (MK) in the liberation of South Africa. Remarkably, though, next to nothing has been presented on MK and other forms of resistance in the then Eastern Transvaal, today’s Mpumalanga, despite its centrality as a staging post and route from Mozambique. This paper attempts to fill some of those gaps, primarily through a large body of interviews which have been conducted with participants.
It identifies 1982-84 as a key phase in this process whose interconnections have never been fully explored. It plots the rise of the Loyovno Youth Movement in the Eastern Transvaal’s lowveld, the impact of the efforts to incorporate KaNgwane into Swaziland, which witnessed the birth of mass resistance in the Eastern Transvaal, and the individuals and impulses underlying the growth of the UDF in this region. It identifies the role of key individuals in this process, notably Matthews Phosa, Mr Malaza (an ANC sympathiser in the Nelspruit security process) and Given Caves, who played a central role in the formation of the UDF. It will attempt, among other things, to identify the disjunctures between three fields of resistance – MK, the ANC underground and the above ground organisations. It concludes with an analysis of the effects of the Nkomati Accord of 1984 on all of the issues discussed above.

Paper 3

Sekibakiba Lekgoathi Sekibakiba / University of the Witwatersrand

The ANC’s Underground Radio and the Liberation Struggle in South Africa, 1960s-1980s

The ANC’s Radio Freedom was established as an underground radio inside South Africa shortly after the turn to the armed struggle. The history of clandestine broadcasting inside the country and how this radio was listened to at home while operating from exile remains woefully under-researched and is crying out for scholarly attention. Using a combination of documentary sources and audio footage, plus oral accounts or memories of the struggle veterans, this paper examines the establishment of Radio Freedom inside the country during the early 1960. It probes the rebirth of this radio in exile and its broadcasting into South Africa; its unlawful but popular reception among political activists; the culture(s) developed around listening to the station involving a great deal of secrecy; and the role of the station in mobilizing resistance and shaping political activities inside the country in the 1970s and 1980s. The paper advances arguments about how radio broadcasting became a strategic priority for the ANC and its allies in the aftermath of state repression and the appeal of the station among political activists despite its illegality inside the country. This station was arguably one of the major sources of information on the ANC, shaping political education and understanding of the developments and influencing political activities inside the country.

Paper 4

Barry Gilder Barry / Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA)

From the Outside Looking In: Building an Underground from Exile

The paper will examine the challenges of creating, maintaining, managing and coordinating anti-apartheid underground structures in South Africa from exile, based on the author’s experience as a member of the ANC’s regional political military committee in Botswana in the latter half of the 1980s.

It will assess the successes and failures in building an underground as well as the role these underground structures may have played in the final defeat of apartheid.

The paper will also address the seemingly recent trend among some historians of the South African liberation struggle to downplay the role of the African National Congress in the final overthrow of apartheid.

Paper 5

George Gona George / University of Nairobi

Kenya’s Underground Movement: Cell Activity and Recruitment in the 1970s and 1980s

Kenya’s Underground Movement of the 1970s and 1980s has traditionally been associated with student politics and radical left-leaning lecturers at public universities. Additionally, there has been the presumption that universities were largely the bastions of anti-establishment operatives and that lecture halls were the recruiting grounds for such “covert” activities. However, recent research I have undertaken on the Underground Movement points to a more complex organization with structured mechanisms than is portrayed in earlier works on the subject. This emerging evidence necessitates a more in-depth study of this under-researched area. My discourse will explore the structured mechanisms of the movement, specifically the concept of multiple cell activities, as well as the movement’s recruitment and community engagement strategies. A significant new area of interest will be to unravel the Kenyan Asian’s involvement in this arena, an issue hitherto little researched and discussed.

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