How the family of African states helped end apartheid


The victory over apartheid was a collective effort. Help from other African countries was decisive in the struggle. From bases in Angola to military help in Zambia, they all played a role.

There are two entrances to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg − one for whites and another for non-whites. This was the reality during apartheid. (Image: Brand South Africa)

Priya Pitamber

Just two weeks after he was released from prison, Nelson Mandela departed on an 18-day foreign tour to thank the countries that had helped the liberation movement to end apartheid.

The Frontline States, as they were known, where countries close to South Africa and included its neighbours, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho as well as those further north: Angola, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania. They played a vital role in supporting the African National Congress (ANC) when it was banned, as well as the many members and other political activists who were forced into exile.

“It became crucial to cultivate and maintain overseas sanctuary, support and funding,” wrote Professor Padraig O’Malley. “But it was equally crucial to have the co-operation of independent African states closer to home. These could provide sites for military training; they could also become launching pads from which to infiltrate South Africa and impose other pressures on the apartheid government.”

Irish born O’Malley is Professor of Peace and Reconciliation at the University of Massachusetts Boston, US, and Visiting Professor of Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape. He specialises in the problems of divided societies, such as South Africa and Northern Ireland.

After going into exile in 1961, ANC president Oliver Tambo established anti-apartheid missions across the continent, basing the movement in Tanzania, the Sunday Independent recorded. Northern Rhodesia, now called Zambia, was a critical transit point for South Africans on their way to Tanzania to be trained as Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) soldiers. They travelled on the “Freedom Ferry” from Botswana across the Zambezi River.


Following the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960, Frene Ginwala went to Tanzania to establish an office in Dar es Salaam. While there, she worked as a journalist and received ANC members as they came into the country. She helped party top brass, among them Tambo, Yusuf Dadoo and Nelson Mandela, who met the country’s president, Julius Nyerere.

Even then, Ginwala was in awe when she met Mandela. “To my amazement, there was Nelson Mandela,” she recalled in an interview with the Nelson Mandela Foundation. “My instructions from Oliver Tambo had been that when he did arrive I was to hide him, and he’s often joked that when I opened the door I looked at him and said: ‘Oh my God, I have to hide you!’ Because there was this enormous man with a Basotho hat, in a sort of safari suit, with mosquito boots… I mean, you couldn’t have stood out more in Dar es Salaam!”

Mandela himself was impressed by the country and recalled how he felt when he arrived in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: “I then truly realised that I was in a country ruled by Africans. For the first time in my life, I was a free man… I felt the burden of oppression lifting from my shoulders…

“I was being judged for the first time not by the colour of my skin but by the measure of my mind and character,” he wrote. “I met Julius Nyerere, the newly independent country’s first president. We talked at his house, which was not at all grand, and I recall that he drove himself in a simple car, a little Austin. This impressed me for it suggested that he was a man of the people.”

Other than setting up MK training camps and transit routes to Eastern Europe and Russia, a school was also opened for South African children, named Mazimbu. “Although Mazimbu was designed to be a refugee camp, informal educational classes became the main activity, and after some debate, the ANC eventually agreed to establish a school,” noted South Africa History Online. “Formal teaching commenced in 1978 and Wintshi Njobe was appointed as the principal.”

By the 1980s, it was renamed the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College; it eventually also housed a mini furniture factory, a welding workshop, a farm, and a clothes factory.

This video captures the essence of the college:


While it was banned at home, in 1969, Zambia became the ANC’s headquarters. “It was from Lusaka that the ANC operated and co-ordinated the activities of MK in various parts of Southern Africa. Recruits who left South Africa via Lesotho or Mozambique ended up in Lusaka before they were sent for military training,” South African History Online stated.

The ANC’s underground radio station, Radio Freedom, was also eventually broadcast from Zambia, following stints in Madagascar, Tanzania and Ethiopia. The American quarterly journal, The Appendix, noted that the radio station helped to recruit members to the ANC and MK training camps. It also broadcast the news at a time when the airwaves in South Africa shared very limited information.

Watch the protest song, Kea Rona (It Is Ours):

ANC Radio Freedom – Kea Rona (It Is Ours) from jonneke k on Vimeo.

Zambian soldiers also protected the ANC from South African attacks in 1985, during the party’s national conference. “There was a real danger of attack; South Africa was training Zambian dissidents to destabilise the Zambian government and mounted a series of bomb attacks on ANC members in Lusaka,” wrote Kevin Ritchie in the South African newspaper, the Sunday Independent. “But President Kenneth Kaunda stood firm.”


Soon after Angola gained independence from Portugal, its colonial ruler, the ANC started negotiations in 1976 to set up bases in that country for military training; by the end of that same year, the first base was established. “Mzwandile Piliso was appointed the person in charge of all the camps in Angola,” noted South African History Online.

Along with the camps, the party also set up housing facilities for its leadership, cadres and a warehouse to store supplies such as food and clothes.

Despite the initial hope that came with setting up these camps, there was a downside too. “The most traumatic thing in the camps was waiting,” wrote James Ngculu in his book The Honour to serve: Recollections of an Umkhonto Soldier. “This waiting became the source of all our frustrations and feelings of despondency.”


Because of its geographical location, Botswana became the preferred conduit for the ANC to get its members into and out of the country clandestinely. “The Botswana route for the ANC was established with the efforts of Fish Keitsing, a citizen of Botswana who left his country to work in South Africa,” South African History Online noted. “He later joined the African Mineworkers Union (AMU) and the ANC in 1949, becoming a branch leader for the Newclare Branch.”

After he was charged with treason, he moved back to his home country and the ANC leader, Walter Sisulu, asked him to set up a few safe houses around Lobatse.

Using the alias David Motsamayi, Mandela also “used the pipeline ‘down’ as well as ‘up’ to re‐enter South Africa”, noted Neil Parsons in his article The pipeline: Botswana’s reception of refugees, 1956–68 published in Social Dynamics: A Journal of African Studies.

In retaliation, the South African Defence Force (SADF) raided safe houses in Botswana. “Their aim was to destroy eight houses and two offices 12 kilometres from the border, which they claimed were being used as by the ANC for planning ‘terrorist’ attacks on South Africa,” noted South African History Online.

The Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) reported on the Botswana Raids:


There were a number of ANC safe houses and operational MK bases in the suburb of Matola in Maputo. As a result, it became a target for the SADF, which launched several raids in the country. A raid in January 1981 turned out to be one of the more devastating attacks and 16 South Africans were killed. On 14 February of the same year, “Tambo, in the company of Mozambican president Samora Machel, addressed mourners at the funeral of those who were killed and the day was declared the Day of Friendship between South African and Mozambique”.

The SADF also targeted senior ANC members like Ruth First, who was killed by a parcel bomb at Eduardo Mondlane University, and Albert “Albie” Sachs, who lost an arm and sight in one eye when a bomb was place in his car.

In 2011, the South African and Mozambican governments unveiled a monument in Matola to honour those who lost their lives on that fateful day in 1981.

The South African arts and culture minister at the time, Paul Mashatile, said he hoped it would be a chance to turn tragedy into bridges of friendship. “He also rightly links the commemoration to the need to stem the tide of xenophobia in South Africa, much of it aimed at Mozambicans,” wrote the national weekly newspaper, the City Press.

Lesotho and Swaziland

Lesotho and Swaziland are both almost wholly surrounded by South Africa; this geography ensured the small nations played a pivotal role in assisting the ANC. In the 1960s, the liberation movement had a small presence in Lesotho. According to South African History Online, relations between South Africa and Lesotho soured during the mid-1970s, allowing large numbers of ANC members to take refuge in the country.

The new arrivals were trained in politics and guerrilla tactics. ANC members also crossed the border into Lesotho under the cover of night for meetings, returning to South Africa the next morning.

After the student uprising in South Africa in June 1976, many of young activists fled into Lesotho. Its government made provision for all young South African exiles to receive an education and 25% of its state scholarships were offered to exiled South Africans.

Swaziland also served as a base for MK soldiers from the 1960s. In 1975, the ANC’s Thabo Mbeki and Tambo met King Sobhuza II to strengthen ties further, but the relationship declined when the monarch found out that Swaziland was being used as a transit point to get weapons into South Africa. It prompted the king to sign an agreement with South Africa regarding “acts that involved a threat or use of force against each other’s territory” and calling for “action individually or collectively as may be deemed necessary or expedient to eliminate this evil”.


Zimbabwe shared more than a border with South Africa: it too struggled against white minority rule.

In a case of parallels, the apartheid South African government supported the Rhodesian Front led by Ian Smith. “Given that racial discrimination and the denial of political rights to the black majority were common elements in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia [as the country was initially known], the ANC and Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (Zapu) had a strong sense that they were fighting a common enemy,” stated South African History Online.

Zapu helped MK recruits to cross the border to reach their camps further north, in Tanzania and Zambia. Military co-operation between Zapu and the ANC became so enmeshed, a joint High Command was formed.

Human rights advocate Archbishop Desmond Tutu recognised the collective effort it took to end apartheid. “In South Africa, we could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world,” he wrote on Huffington Post, the American news site, “who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime.”

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