After the suppression of a three-day strike in May 1961 to challenge the transition to a republic and to call for a constitutional convention, Nelson Mandela and other younger ANC leaders, in conjunction with the SA Communist Party, formed an insurgent wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK). In December 1961 MK exploded the first home-made bombs in a two-year sabotage campaign. Intended as a last resort ‘to bring the government to its senses’, the bombs were targeted against property not lives. Meanwhile the ANC’s external mission headed by Oliver Tambo began its efforts to secure military training for guerrilla recruits and to win international backing for a South African trade embargo.
For the ANC the turn to violence was decisive. Though it remained committed to maintaining its own clandestine organisation separate from MK and though it intended to continue organising mass protests, the key local activists, especially those with trade union experience, joined MK. Several senior ANC officials, including Mandela and Sisulu, had been thinking about the possibility of embracing armed tactics since 1953.
At the same time, though, they retained hopes that protest might induce political reform, hopes encouraged by the extent to which they had succeeded during the 1950s in eliciting international sympathy and support. Could they have achieved more if they had pursued civil disobedience more vigorously during the 1950s? Probably not, for the ANC’s organised following was fragmentary and the movement was desperately short of resources. For the most part, outside Port Elizabeth and the East Rand, ANC members lived and worked on the margins of the industrial economy so they possessed very little leverage.
The ANC’s achievements during the 1950s in mobilising popular support around an articulate and personable leadership group were significant enough: they helped to nurture an international audience for the struggle against apartheid and they supplied a dramatic narrative of heroic events that as myth would shape later movements and struggles.